LeBron James raised the heavy bronze MVP trophy high above his head Sunday afternoon, a validation of a season well done. No one takes more flak than LeBron these days, but no one played better in these last wild, unpredictable four months than him. He was the best, joining the rarified air occupied by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Moses Malone as three-time MVP winners. He was the best, which he left no room for doubt of in a brilliant 32-point, 15-rebound, five-assist effort in Miami's 95-86 win over Indiana.
"I think that everyone knows," said Indiana coach Frank Vogel, "LeBron James is the best player in the league."
Miami needed James to be the best, too, because these young, pesky Pacers are not just happy to be there. They had a game plan. They wanted to pound the ball into Roy Hibbert often, and they did, getting 17 points and 11 rebounds from the towering 7-foot-2 center. They wanted to grind it out, keep Miami out of transition and give themselves a chance to win in the fourth quarter. Indiana was within four with two minutes to play, only to watch James can a pair of free throws and knock down a backbreaking, 15-footer with 31 seconds left to put the game away.
For all the advantages Indiana has -- the size, the depth -- it simply has no answer for James. When Miami needed a rebound, there was James battling with 6-foot-9, 240-pound David West under the rim. When it needed an assist, he found the open man. When it needed a bucket, there was James, probing the floor with the dribble, slipping into open spaces for the shot.
He played every minute in the second half -- "I just looked at him straight in the eyes and said, 'You can flat-out not get tired, period,'" said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra -- none better than the final 12 in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 points from inside and out.
"Guys like LeBron and Kobe Bryant -- they can find a balance between getting teammates involved and taking over games," Vogel said. "I thought LeBron was being more assertive in the second half."
He was, and Danny Granger paid the price. After Hibbert, Granger is the Pacers' most important player this series. But defending James takes a lot of work, and Granger got an up-close look at James' monster night over 39 grueling minutes. The result: Indiana's leading scorer and one of the team's top three-point threats in the regular season had a nightmarish start to the series, an ugly seven-point (on 1-for-10 shooting), four-rebound debacle.
If there is a positive Indiana can take away from Sunday's loss, it's that while LeBron was spectacular, Dwyane Wade (29 points) was strong and Joel Anthony (nine points) chipped in with a solid fourth quarter, no one else in the Heat lineup looked like much of a threat. Chris Bosh (13 points) played well early but left the game in the second quarter with an abdominal injury and did not return. Mario Chalmers (four points) didn't make a field goal, while Mike Miller and Shane Battier combined for two points in 52 minutes. Indiana lost, but it didn't walk away thinking Miami was unbeatable.
"We're not going to let them walk all over us," Hibbert said. "We're going to keep fighting."
Said Paul George, "We definitely let this one get away."
The Pacers know, too, the injury to Bosh could be a game-changer. The All-Star forward will have an MRI on Monday but abdominal issues can be tricky. San Antonio's Manu Ginobili had a similar injury earlier this season and missed two weeks. If Bosh can't go, an already significant front-court advantage for Indiana will become even bigger. It will likely necessitate James spending extra time at power forward, having to bang bodies with the likes of West and Tyler Hansbrough instead of chasing Granger around on the perimeter.
"If he is going to be out," James said, "I expect for our minutes to go up."
Yes, it will be another test for James, another chance to prove his greatness. He has done it all season long and on Sunday, with a shiny new trophy and a handshake from commissioner David Stern, was rewarded for his efforts. To move Miami closer to a title, he will have to do it again.