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Pacers' Challenge is a Big One

by Mark Montieth |

May 31, 2013, 7:15 PM

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MIAMI – Miami markets its Big Three, and the Pacers try to rely on a Big Five, as Paul George puts it. Still, the Eastern Conference finals has been dominated by the Big One.

LeBron James doesn't just have his fingerprints all over the series between the Pacers and Heat, he has his hands wrapped around its neck. Several factors have gone into determining the outcome of the five games played so far, primarily guard play, but the bottom line remains James. When he decides to squeeze, the Pacers, like all other teams, gasp for air.

The Pacers can't stop James, and they can barely hope to contain him, as was proven Thursday night, when he scored 16 points and assisted on nine other points in the game-breaking third quarter. Miami's 32-year-old forward Udonis Haslem should have left a tip in James' locker for setting him up for 10 easy points in the period, directly and indirectly. James finished the game with 30 points, and left the impression that happened to be the total he felt like getting.

Early Friday afternoon, Pacers coach Frank Vogel stood with his back to the wall in the lobby of the JW Marriott in Miami and talked with a small group of reporters before he boarded the team bus for the airport. James, naturally, was a favorite topic of questioning, as he has been throughout the series that resumes in Indianapolis on Saturday.

“You have to tip your hat,” Vogel said. “LeBron posed his will offensively but really rallied the troops on the defensive end as well. We definitely have some cleanups and some things we know we can do better, and our intent is to do that in Game 6.”

And what can a team do better to deal with LeBron James?

“We've got to keep him in front of us,” Vogel said. “Got to take his air space away. It's a tough task, but we're capable of it.”

The problem for the Pacers at the moment is that James plays in rarefied air that no other player in the world can occupy at the moment. The even greater problem is that James seems willing to forget all that nonsense of trying to fit in with the other Big Three members and the role players and start dominating games. It was puzzling in the earlier games of the series to watch him be so dedicated to team play when Miami's best hope of getting where it wants to go clearly is for his teammates to sit in the back seat and say “Home, James.” They can get out and push a little, but he has to be in the driver's seat at all times.

The Pacers led Thursday's game by four points at halftime, despite missing six shots around the basket and not bringing the intensity they had shown in their Game 4 victory. They could draw optimism from the fact they knew they could play much better, but the Heat could, too. James, for one, had seen enough.

With his teammates standing around him in front of Miami's bench before the third quarter began, James pounded his right fist into his left palm five times while shouting some form of exhortation. Juwan Howard, the 40-year-old team member who doesn't dress for the playoffs, had delivered an emotional lecture in the halftime locker room, punctuated by the throwing of items, but James was the one in position to take action in the game.

He has to, because the other members of the Big Three, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, aren't holding up their sides of the triangle. They are still good players, but they are not special players. Wade is averaging 15.4 points, scoring mostly off easy shots that come his way within the offense. His body seems to be breaking down, and he plays mostly off instinct now. He doesn't need to be guarded on the perimeter, because he's missed the only three-point shot he's taken. Bosh, Miami's starting center, averages 12.6 points, which is all it needs from him, but just 3.6 rebounds, which is much less than it needs from him. Bosh has just two more rebounds in the series than backup guard Ray Allen, who has played 45 less minutes less. Bosh also has proven he can't defend Pacers center Roy Hibbert without the assistance of a double-team.

The Pacers' frontline is superior to Miami's, even with James, and their guards have outplayed Miami's in their two victories in the series. So it is left to James to become more selfish and take matters into his own fist-pounded hands.

It's not a new job descripton. He did it for seven seasons in Cleveland.

“I kind of just went back to my Cleveland days (in the third quarter) and just said, Hey, let's try to make more plays and be more of a scoring threat as well, and just try to figure out a way that I can – I don't know, just see if the guys would follow me, and just lead them the best way I could,” he said after Thursday's game.

“I was just in attack mode in the third quarter.”

His teammates fed off his mode, feeding off his scraps on the offensive end and banding together to limit the Pacers to 3-of-14 shooting on the defensive end. Like chastened schoolkids, they felt as if James was giving them no choice but to play along.

“With LeBron, it's not what he says all the time, it's just the look he gives,” Haslem said after the game. “That look I saw tonight is the same look I saw last year in Boston when our backs were against the wall (in the conference finals). Once he has that look, we have to keep up with him.”

The Pacers left Miami on Saturday still convinced they can win Game 6, and the series. They have outplayed the Heat often enough in the series, even in the three games they lost, to deserve that belief. But they can't lose again. Miami hasn't lost two games in a row since Jan. 8 and 10, when it lost at Indiana and Portland. Now the Pacers must beat Miami twice in a row all by themselves, with one of those games coming in Miami.

It's one big challenge.