MIAMI -- Poor Lance Stephenson. He knew this was coming. Everybody did. The moment Stephenson muttered LeBron James's name, the minute he claimed after Game 3 that James's sniping at him was "a sign of weakness," the consequence was inevitable. James's teammates knew it.
"Don't wake up a sleeping dog," Chris Bosh warned. Only it was too late. James was awake. And on Monday he delivered an emphatic response, a 32-point, 10-rebound, five-assist barrage in a 102-90 Miami win.
The MVP is in Oklahoma City this year, but make no mistake: The best player on the planet is in Miami. James was relentless on Monday, attacking the paint, playing through contact, beating the life out of Indiana with vicious, crowd pleasing dunks.
"I don't know if I made a play call for him," said Erik Spoelstra. After allowing Stephenson to creep into his head in Game 3, James simply dominated him, equaling the scoring totals of Stephenson (nine points) and Paul George (23) combined.
"I was trying to get into his head," Stephenson said. "I guess he stepped up and got the win."
Said George, "Lance is young. Sometimes you have got to watch what you say."
No doubt, Stephenson's comments resonated with James. But sitting at the podium on Monday, James made one thing clear: The chase for another championship is what fuels him. At 29, James is knocking on the door of ring No. 3, a title that would put him within reach of Kobe Bryant's five and within shouting distance of Michael Jordan's six. James's performance Monday surpassed the great MJ on the all-time list, becoming the first player in NBA history to have 25 points, five rebounds and five assists in 74 career playoff games. Jordan now sits second with 73.
James has All-Star teammates that are playing up to that title and a supporting cast that continues to step up. Rashard Lewis took a turn in the starting lineup in Game 4 and missed all five of his shots. After the game Spoelstra made a beeline for him in the Heat locker room with a stat sheet and showed him the only number that mattered: +14, the second best plus-minus of anyone on the floor.
"There's so many different ways to impact the game," Spoelstra said. "And he understands that."
Indiana will head home, down 3-1 and searching for answers. The Pacers already had their hands full with James and Dwyane Wade, and in Game 4 added Bosh to the list. Bosh had been listless the first three games of the series, never cracking double figures in scoring, never shooting better than 45 percent from the field. Miami's offensive sets have pushed him deeper and deeper onto the perimeter, and to this point Bosh had failed to deliver. In Game 4 Bosh got into a rhythm early, knocking down two three's and four jump shots overall to open the game, on his way to a 25-point night.
The Pacers are reeling, and they will have to look inward to fight their way back. The complaints about the officiating are constant, both on the floor and off it. George smirked at a question about the free throw disparity in Game 4 (34 attempts for Miami, 17 for Indiana) before offering a blunt response.
"You can't tell me we don't attack the basket as much as they [do]," George said. "Maybe this was just some home cooking."
But the Pacers problems are more than just the officials. Roy Hibbert pulled a disappearing act in Game 4, going scoreless in 22 foul-filled minutes and providing little resistance defensively in the paint. Stephenson had his worst game of the series and the bench continues to be a liability. Evan Turner didn't play for the third game this series and only Luis Scola (12 points) has provided any punch. Turnovers (14 in Game 4) continue to haunt Indiana and Miami, with 20 points off of them, continues to capitalize on it.
Said Frank Vogel, "We let it get away."
Off goes Miami, off to Indiana, off to, perhaps, a fourth straight trip to the Finals. The Heat are 13-3 in closeout games during the Big Three era and they walked off the floor on Monday with the swagger of a team ready to add another win to it. The Pacers are in danger of becoming the 80's Suns to the Heat's Lakers, the 90's Knicks to Miami's Bulls, 2000's Kings to Miami's Lakers, the good team that just can't get past one that's better. The best player in the world, the best team stands in front of them, and there is no holding them back.