INDIANAPOLIS -- You come at The King, you best not miss. The Pacers had the Heat dead in their sights for the first 43 minutes of Game 2, only to blow their shot in the final five.
Make no mistake: Tuesday was Indiana's chance to put Miami in an 0-2 hole and its three-peat hopes in a six-foot grave. Lance Stephenson played with enough gold swagger to buy a kingdom. Rasual Butler had as many first-half points as LeBron James. And the Heat, for all intents and purposes, played like the Cold for the first three quarters.
But the fourth quarter is where playoff games are won and where two-time defending champions hold court. And if you're looking for a master class in poise, re-watch the final five minutes of Miami's 87-83 victory.
After struggling for much of Game 2, James and Dwyane Wade combined to score the Heat's final 20 points. They hit 9 of 12 shots in the final period and stole a series split they had little business bringing back to South Beach.
The champions shined in the face of adversity. The challengers crumbled.
That's because one of those teams has reached the mountaintop before and the other is still trying to figure out how to get there. Miami has succeeded and failed in the postseason before and knows what it takes to do the former. The Pacers, meanwhile, are only familiar with the latter, falling to the Heat in Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference finals and still trying to figure out the Miami riddle this year.
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"We always give credit to our first year together when we did panic in situations like this," Wade said after Game 2. "Even though we did get to the Finals, throughout that year, we were able to grow up a lot.
"Even in the Finals, we had moments where five minutes left in the ballgame, we had a lead in every game, but we panicked," he said. "That year brought a lot of growth in our team, in our leadership as a group, especially this guy to my left. His leadership really went to another level."
That guy Wade is referring to, you know, LeBron, was at his best as a leader Tuesday. After struggling to find his rhythm in the first 30 minutes, the four-time MVP began to take over late in the third. He started driving to the lane, facilitating and finding open teammates. In the fourth, he started to get a little selfish -- as we all wish he would -- scoring 12 of his 22 points and stomping out any hopes the Pacers had at a rally.
But LeBron's greatest work as a leader in Game 2 had nothing to do with his on-the-court performance. Instead, it was a pep talk during a timeout to reserve guard Norris Cole. Stephenson, who tied a career playoff-high with 25 points, was having his way with Wade, LeBron, Mario Chalmers and everyone else the Heat threw at him. That is, until LeBron tapped the third-year guard on his shoulder and asked the 6-foot-2 point guard to lock Lance down.
"For me as a leader, I just try to give confidence to guys, and I was confident enough for Norris to take on that challenge," LeBron said.
Challenge accepted. Cole helped hold Stephenson to just two points in the fourth quarter, taking Indiana's catalyst out of his game and limiting the Pacers' guard's contributions in the final period to poor body language and frustrated glares.
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"They came out aggressive in the last five minutes of the game and we ain't make no plays," Stephenson said.
If you were surprised to see LeBron and Wade take over for the final period of Game 2, you probably haven't watched much basketball in the last three years. There was no conscious decision to get LeBron and Wade involved. No specific plays called. No secret handshake to signal it was time to take over. Instead, it was two of the best players on the planet answering the call naturally as they've done so many times before. They took over the game because, well, that's just what they do.
"We have no idea we're doing that until we hear it after the game," LeBron said of him and Wade scoring 22 of Miami's 25 fourth-quarter points. "We believe it doesn't matter whoever has the ball. We're going to make the right play not only for ourselves, but for our team.
Said Wade of the mastery: "That's the way we want it. When we came here, that's what we envisioned, having two guys that are able to be dynamic at the same time. It doesn't happen all the time, but fourth quarters and those moments, that's where we envisioned it happening."
Indiana didn't envision Game 2 going like this. Paul George shot just 4 of 16 from the field and finished with 14 points, but most troubling of all was his admission after the game that he "blacked out" midway through the fourth quarter after a scary collision with Wade. Indiana's star stayed in the game, but admitted that everything from there on out was "blurry."
Adding to the Pacers' woes was its fluttering offense, which shot just 40 percent after a scintillating 51.4 on Sunday. David West went just 5 of 16 from the field and everyone not named Lance Stephenson struggled to find their shot. A regression from Indiana's offense was expected after overachieving in Game 1. A deterioration was not.
Indiana was five minutes away from triumphantly walking into Miami with a 2-0 lead and the confidence it could exorcise its Heat demons. Instead, the Pacers will be shaking their heads the next three days wondering what could have been.
Miami has now won 11 straight playoff games following a loss, displaying the type of resilience necessary to survive the rigors of the NBA postseason.
We've yet to see that type of resilience out of the Pacers. Indiana puffed its chest out and talked all season about how it wanted another shot at Miami and another chance to take down its bitter rival for a long-awaited trip to the Finals.
The Pacers had their shot on Tuesday -- and they missed.
Game 3's coming.