The chastising chatter that often surrounds LeBron James grew loud again Tuesday night, the questions about heart and poise and that game of hot potato that he sometimes likes to play late in games.
It was mostly fair play, of course, not only because the Heat fell 78-75 at home to Indiana in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals but also because they did so without the three-time MVP playing a role in their final two possessions. James, fresh off his 16-point fourth quarter in Game 1 and the continuation of this reputation rehabilitation that had been going so well, had played a bit role as the game was to be decided by players who aren't the best on the planet.
He stood motionless on the right wing with some 20 seconds left, passing back and forth with Shane Battier in the right corner before finding Dwyane Wade for a blown layup that -- as James would later say -- he usually makes every time (Wade missed his last four shots on an 8-of-22 night). Then he followed the marching orders of coach Erik Spoelstra in the final seconds, acting as a decoy while Mario Chalmers missed a potential game-tying three-pointer from the left wing. The capper came at the free-throw line, where James missed four of his last six -- and two straight with 54 seconds remaining.
But the microscope that will always haunt James misses the macro point: This was about more than LeBron and whether he can get it done in crunch time. Without Chris Bosh, the Heat and their championship aspirations are in trouble -- no matter how good or bad James plays.
With their third-wheel forward out indefinitely because of the abdominal strain, James and Wade carried the sort of load that would have given Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen back pains. They scored 52 of the Heat's 75 points (69.3 percent), getting worse as the game went on when fatigue set in and the pressure defense that sparks their offense waned.
James played the entire second half for the second straight game, finishing with a line that rarely inspires criticism -- 43 minutes, 28 points (on 10-of-22 shooting), nine rebounds, five assists, a playoff career-high six steals and just two turnovers. He kept forward David West in check most of the night (16 points on 5-of-13 shooting), manning Bosh's defensive slot against one of the league's most brutish big men.
Meanwhile, the eight role players who were each picked by Pat Riley for a specific purpose mustered just 23 points on 9-of-34 shooting. Chalmers, whose three-point accuracy was only marginally better than James' during the regular season (38.8 percent compared to 36.2), was 2-of-10 overall and 0-for-4 from beyond the arc.
The lack of Bosh's inside presence allowed the pesky Pacers to man the perimeter throughout, and they showed once again why their style is tailor-made for the playoff atmosphere that they're reveling in now. They put down the Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic quickly in the first round, and they're fully capable of seizing this medical chart moment as well.
"Defense and rebounding," Pacers coach Frank Vogel told reporters. "We talk about smash-mouth basketball, about winning the war in the trenches. And that's with defense and rebounding. That's what I grew up watching. ... We understand the offense is going to come and go, especially against a great defensive team like these guys are. These guys are spectacular defensively, just spectacular. But we're pretty good too."
West is the sort of leader who might be able to pull this off, to get his group so focused and fiery that it sends the Heat into an offseason of unparalleled scrutiny. He did the little things late in this one, teaming with Danny Granger and George Hill during the 20-4 third-quarter run that put the Pacers up 11 and reminding them after that their work had just begun.
"We shouldn't get too excited because we won one game," he said. "That's not our goal in this series."
Nor should the Heat get too down with this one game. Lack of depth and all, they have enough to survive this series. As for winning it all? It's not happening unless Bosh returns.