To have a championship team in the sport of basketball, every member of the squad must find some way to come together as one. Whether it come from one of many Phil Jackson’s meditation sessions, Doc Rivers’ lessons of “Ubuntu”, or even just collective attitude of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons that believed they were last of the gladiator teams, for a team to have an image, every single player must buy into it.
On Thursday night in Miami, with the Pacers leading the Miami Heat 44-40 at the half, one member of the defending champions’ locker room stood tall and made his voice heard when he saw a team reeling at the seams. He screamed that the team wasn’t coming together as a unit, he used animated language, tossed a garbage can or two, and made the point to the team that if they didn’t shape up soon, the Heat would be on the cusp of elimination against the Pacers.
Ultimately, he believed that the team had lost their identity that ultimately made them great, the one that gives them reason to call themselves “The Heatles” before they run onto the court each game.
So who was it that gave the speech that saved the Heat’s season? Was it the Association’s Most Valuable Player in LeBron James? Would it possibly be team co-captain Udonis Haslem? How about Dwyane Wade, perhaps sensing that with his production down, this could be his last guaranteed chance at a third ring?
No, no, and no, and you can bet it was not Chris Anderson raising his voice to the veterans of this team. In fact, it was the most veteran of them all making the stance, as eighteen-year professional Juwan Howard gave the talk of a lifetime, one that reinvigorated Miami to a 90-79 victory that has given the Heat the 3-2 edge in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Juwan’s voice in our locker room, on the floor, is as big as anyone,” said James after the victory.
“As big as (Spoelstra), as big as mine, (Udonis Haslem), D-Wade. That’s why we brought him back because he’s an instrumental part of our team. He got on us at halftime, letting us know how we weren’t connected as a team, we weren’t playing as a team. We were wasting an opportunity. At the beginning of the third, I just tride to reiterate that in my own words, and get on the gus and just let them know we can’t just win with talent.”
Howard gave the speech, and then James and the rest of Miami dropped the hammer. The four-time Most Valuable Player was at his best in the third period, either scoring or assisting on eleven of the thirteen field goals that the Heat had in the quarter as they went on a 30-13 run that absolutely eviscerated Indiana’s hopes of stealing game five on the road.
“That’s LeBron showing his greatness and making it look easy,” said Spoelstra.
“What we talked about was just doing whatever it takes and competing for each other without leaving anything out there. His engine in that third quarter was incredible. He was tireless. He was making plays on both ends of the court, rebounding, covering so much ground defensively, and then making virtually every play for us offensively. It’s really remarkable and a testament to his conditioning and obviously his greatness, his ability to make big plays when you need it.”
James finished with 16 of his 30 points in the third quarter, with those points coming in the shapes of daggers to the Pacers hearts as dunks on a fast break, lay-ups past George Hill, and three-pointers over Paul George. The one that brought the American Airlines Arena on it’s feet though, and perhaps showed that James was about to snap into an elite mode, was when LeBron found perhaps his least favorite Pacer in Lance Stephenson switched up on him with 3:51 left in the third. Stevenson was given the old step-fake once, step-fake twice, and then James elevated a perfect stepback jumper that found nothing but twine, as Stephenson found noting but a James’ staredown as the superstar ran back to the other side of the court. The Pacers took a timeout to perhaps stop the bleeding, but the wounds that James’ and the Heat had started to embark were just too deep.
And just like the greats like Jordan, Bird, and even more recently in Kobe Bryant, James was doing it with an untapped competitive nature that was brought up only because he felt like an opponent was attempting to give him the business. Not to mention, but because perhaps the media slightly built up Stephenson’s 20-point effort in game four, which James didn’t quite take as something he really should have to talk about much during his post-game presser from that contest. Tonight though, he had no problem pointing out that Stephenson perhaps helped light a spark, one that he didn’t mind taking out on him and the Pacers when given the opportunity.
“As a competitor, you love challenges,” said James, who finished with eight rebounds and six assists as well on the night.
“Lance is one of those guys who likes to talk some. And I’m for it, too. I really don’t start it, but if it gets started, then I love to do it. It’s cool. I think it’s great, it shows a competitive spirit between two individiausl, between two teams to go out there and just try to figure out ways to help their team win.”
So if Stephenson was the one who decided it was a great idea to wake the king of the jungle with a stick, then he would have to be able to answer back, correct? That wasn’t the case in the game-five loss, as Stephenson practically hurt the squad just as much as he helped it. “Born Ready” finished the night with just four points, but also added three turnovers and six fouls to be ejected from a game that he never quite found his niche in.
” I don’t think it is something they did,” said Stephenson about his play on Thursday. “I just made bad fouls, and got myself out of the game. I never really got my rhythm back, once I got out of the first quarter. We can’t bow our heads down, and we need to figure out what to do for the next game, figure out what we did wrong.
Despite a down-performance, one could argue that Stephenson didn’t even have the worst game of a player wearing blue and gold. That honor goes to starting point guard George Hill, who in 36:50 of play, managed to score just one point, turn the ball over three times, and collect only four assists on the night. It was overall a disappointing game for a player that couldn’t help but looking dejected following the loss, as even he knew that if he had just played an average game for himself, perhaps Indiana would be the team with the advantage heading into Saturday.
“In a matter a fact, it’s just about being aggressive,” said Hill. “A lot of us passed up today, including myself and probably Lance, we just have to play through it and be aggressive.”
Indiana didn’t completely drop an egg in the game-five performance, as some players did bring the type of effort that would have been needed to steal the win. Paul George went 5-8 from three-point land to finish with 27 points and 11 rebounds, Roy Hibbert once again had a great night down low with 22 points, and David West contributed with 18 points and seven rebounds overall.
Yet those players can’t do it all for Indiana, as they did when George and Hibbert scored the first 29 points combined for Indiana, as Miami has proven to be just too good of a team for Indiana to just ride a trio of players.
“I think we all came out a little flat,” said Hibbert. “We didn’t execute offensively and defensively. Sometimes that sticks around with some people, and they get down on themselves. At this point in the game we have to let it go and just keep playing.”
One thing the Pacers couldn’t quite execute, and perhaps this was due to the greatness of James and the pressure Indiana must attempt to apply on him, is once again allowing Udonis Haslem to hit the jump shot that he claims is the reason he has been in the league for over a decade. Haslem finished as Miami’s second-leading scorer with 16 points overall, with four of those shots coming from 17-20 feet out in practically identical spots on the left baseline, and the remaining three field goals coming right at the hoop.
“That’s where I’m most comfortable,” said Haslem about his baseline shot. “I’m just back to that spot because of the way the are guarding us this series and the way Hibbert is playing defense this series. I’m getting back to the spot I made my living at.”
Haslem, who got into a small scuffle with David West when Haslem believed West was messing with Miami point guard Mario Chalmers, was able to get under Wests’ skin with both his action and his ability to make Indiana pay for leaving him open.
“We have to get to him and we have to make him do something else,” said West about defending Haslem as a team. “He is a one-trick pony, as he can shoot those sixteen, seventeen-foot jump shots almost automatic. We have to have the resolve to take that away form him.”
Still though, Indiana still has one last bullet at redemption, as they still have a chance to force a game seven on Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where they have only lost once this entire postseason. Paul George believes that this Pacers squad, with one more year of experience and maturity, will get the chance to prove that they are rightful contenders with their backs against the wall.
“Well, this game six will really determine how much we’ve grown, because we’ve been in the same ditch I guess, being in the same predicament,” said George.
“Going 2-2, losing in Miami, coming home and losing at home. We’ll see where we’re at. We’ve done well all year, especially in the postseason, dealing with adversity, and overcoming games where we didn’t play as well as we wanted to and coming out with energy and the effort to get the job done. Again, we’ll see when it comes to Game 6.”