INDIANAPOLIS — Miami put LeBron James right in the middle of the action Sunday night, and this time, the Indiana Pacers didn’t have an answer for him or his Miami Heat teammates.
By moving James to the post, the Heat won the scoring battle in the paint, kept Indiana at arm’s length and pulled away for a 114-96 victory and a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
“I made a conscious effort to get down in the post tonight, to put pressure on their defense,” James said. “The coaching staff wanted me to be down there tonight, and my teammates allowed me to do that.”
It was a move reminiscent of when the Los Angeles Lakers played Magic Johnson in the post in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the NBA Finals more than two decades ago.
And it worked just as well.
James rebounded from the two late turnovers that cost Miami in Game 2 by scoring 22 points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out three assists. Hours after Dwyane Wade learned he would only be tagged with a flagrant foul from Game 2 and not a suspension, he finished with 18 points, eight assists and four rebounds. Chris Bosh added 15 points and three rebounds and all five Miami starters reached double figures.
The move allowed Miami to outscore Indiana 56-32 in the paint.
Perhaps that much should be expected from a team with this much scoring punch and that has won 23 of its last 24 on the road.
The other stuff, not so much.
Miami committed a playoff franchise-low one turnover in the first half and finished with only five. James finished with none.
The Heat shot 54.5 percent against a team that finished the regular season with the NBA’s best defensive field goal percentage and also made 24 of 28 free throws. They matched the highest scoring output in a quarter during this season’s playoffs with 34, broke the franchise playoff record for points in a half (70) and fell one point short of tying the third-highest point total in a playoff game in franchise history.
But the biggest difference between the first two games and Sunday night’s rout was what James’ work on the inside.
“It was something we wanted to get to just to help settle us and get into a more aggressive attack,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of the decision to post up the 6-foot-8 James. “We wanted to be a little more aggressive, a little more committed to getting into the paint and seeing what would happen. LeBron was very committed and focused not to settle.”
Now, with Game 4 scheduled for Tuesday, it’s the Pacers turn to adjust.
David West led Indiana with 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Roy Hibbert had 20 points and 17 rebounds. Paul George finished with 13 points and eight assists, not nearly enough to keep the Pacers perfect at home in the postseason.
Indiana, which fell to 6-1 at home in the playoffs, must win its next home game to even the series again.
The hit couldn’t have been harder. The sell-out crowd, dressed in checkered flag colors as a tribute to the Indianapolis 500 that took place earlier in the day, expected more.
James refused to let the hometown fans make a difference.
“He (James) was in the post doing a lot of work, and I think we have to do a better job of helping Paul out,” Hibbert said. “LeBron can’t get five or six dribbles to get a post move. … We have to make adjustments. He’s obviously a low-post threat but we have to make adjustments.”
Miami took advantage of a wild first quarter to build a 34-30 lead, then turned the game with James taking control in a 12-point second quarter.
He scored half of the points in an 8-2 run that gave the Heat what was then their biggest lead of the series, 42-32. A few minutes later, James did it again, making a 15-footer with 1.3 seconds left in the half to give Miami a 70-56 halftime lead and the franchise record.
“We had to not play the score, play the lead, play the game,” James said.
Indiana opened the second half looking more like the team that had given Miami fits in Games 1 and 2. The Pacers hit back-to-back 3-pointers and got a three-point play from George Hill. When Lance Stephenson followed that with 1 of 2 free throws, the lead had been cut to 74-67.
It didn’t last.
Miami countered with a 9-4 run, extended the lead to 91-76 after three and made it 99-78 early in the fourth and Indiana never challenged again — with the 18-point margin matching Indiana’s worst home loss of the season — even though James scored only four second-half points.
“If you’re not perfect guarding them, they’ll do what they did to us tonight,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Sometimes when you are perfect with your coverages, they still find a way to make baskets. But we didn’t have a great defensive night.”
Notes: Miami’s best scoring half before Sunday was a 68-point effort against Chicago on April 24, 2006. Miami’s Chris Andersen has made 16 consecutive shots in the playoffs. … Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh attended the game. Harbaugh drove the pace car at the Indy 500… The victory was Miami’s first at Indiana this season. The Heat lost both regular-season games in Indy.