MIAMI -- It wasn't for nothing that disaster was being forecast for the Heat on the eve of their third straight booking to the NBA Finals. For six back-and-forth games the Pacers had bullied them on the boards and made them feel small while stifling their shooters. But this winner-take-all night was an entirely different environment for both teams. It made the young Pacers act their age, and it brought the defending champions back to life for a 99-76 win.
"Hey, you save it till the last game and it allows us to advance?" said LeBron James, who had his standard great Game 7 with 32 points, eight rebounds and four assists. "I'm OK with that."
The Western champion Spurs were able to book their charter for Game 1 here by halftime, when the Heat had seized an anticlimactic lead of 52-37. Their second-half lead never shrunk below 12 points as they celebrated the revival of sore-kneed Dwyane Wade (21 points and nine rebounds), who hadn't scored 20 or more over the previous dozen games amid the worst slump of his career. "His experience took over tonight," said Pacers forward David West. "He physically played harder tonight than we had seen in the previous six games."
It helped when James informed Wade at the morning shootaround that he would take over Wade's assignment of guarding Paul George. Not only was George made irrelevant (2 of 9 for seven points), but Wade was able to focus on restoring his rhythm offensively while attacking the glass for a game-high nine rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. "Any little pressure I could take off D-Wade, I wanted to do that," said James. "I think that was huge for him."
It could be huge all around. A more active Wade will be crucial when the NBA Finals opens here Thursday against San Antonio. "Moments like this can define your career," said Wade. "When everyone is counting you out, you're looking down, to see how you respond ... So I kind of like it a little bit. We have champions in our locker room. You know you don't become a champion by luck. I like the team we have in those moments."
The other telling development was Miami's surprising command of the glass. The league-leading Pacers had been outrebounding Miami by 10.2 boards over the previous six games, and by a combined 39 in their last two wins. But the Heat assured their win in Game 7 by seizing a breakthrough 43-36 advantage. "Those were the biggest areas we talked about if we wanted to advance -- we would have to take care of the energy, effort, 50-50 areas," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "And if we didn't take care of those, we were BSing ourselves about this opportunity."
Chris Bosh played an early hand there by providing all eight of his free throws in the opening half when nothing was assured. Much as they tried to do with Wade, the Heat also went to Bosh early -- and with little success. He was 1 for 8 midway through the second quarter, which made him 6 for 29 over the span of four games. The difference this time was that his teammates kept looking for him. A smooth elbow jumper followed by a drive-and-kick three fed to him by Ray Allen boosted Miami's advantage to 39-29 and left Bosh throwing a fist and shouting nonsense. He was 3 for 10 to that point, but he was focusing on the three and forgetting the other seven.
"Defensively -- wow," said Spoelstra of Bosh. "He was playing with a great motor tonight, and that energy was contagious for everybody."
The Pacers were sloppy from the start. In the opening half they turned it over 15 times, which may have been too many to overcome across two halves in so important a game. As it was, Miami's commission of nine fewer turnovers and seven more offensive rebounds enabled them to attempt 15 more shots in the first half than Indiana. Which is how a team can shoot a meager 40 percent for two quarters and yet lead by 15.
By then Miami held an uncharacteristic 20-10 advantage in the paint despite converting at an embarrassingly low 10 for 23 down there. It wasn't about quality but quantity for the Heat, and effort above and beyond execution. The Pacers' starting front line was no longer a strength, not while committing 10 first-half turnovers and being outscored 28-19 by Bosh, Haslem and James (who had 18 at that stage).
Roy Hibbert was having little impact. His teammates were turning it over before they could enter the ball to him in the post. A second defender was blindsiding him to try to take the ball away. Space was tight before he could make his move. The 7-foot-2 Hibbert was on his way to a 2-for-2 half -- both shots taken from longer distances than he'd grown accustomed in this series -- when he finally got the ball with a chance to drive; he backed hurriedly into the paint, struggling for balance before kicking out to a teammate with none of the assurance and patience that defined him previously.
Allen was another who had been struggling for Miami. Then he hit his first three shots -- all from the three-point line -- over the span of seven second-quarter minutes. Miami's lead was 28-27 before he got going, and it was 44-34 when he was done.
There were almost too many Heat successes to count. West shook his head while noticing that his team (14 of 20) was outscored at the free-throw line by James (15 of 16). "That's how you control tempo, by going to the free throw line," said James of Miami's 33-for-38 performance at the line overall. "That allows us to set our half-court defense. We know that we're very good in the half court. The games that Indiana won, they put a lot of pressure on us in transition."
The Spurs will try to do the same. Tony Parker will aim to beat Miami in transition, and Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter will hope to exploit the Heat's undersized front line as Indiana did for six games. But what will San Antonio do about James? In spite of the intense pressure of Game 7, he was in no hurry to shoot or to return to his heavily-referenced "Cleveland days" -- as if he'd want to revert to the style that he'd gone to so much trouble to escape three years ago. In the early going he was the decoy who was content to create space for others.
The crowd was quiet after the Pacers had taken their by-now typical 12-6 lead in the fifth minute, inspiring the PA announcer to resort to his "Stand up and make some noise" spiel -- a panicky move for sure. But James had a better idea. His first field goal was a vicious two-handed dunk of a tip-in in the eighth minute that he concluded by trying to twist off the rim like the oversized cap on a bottle of beer. Soon he was finishing an alley-oop lob from Norris Cole in transition while ducking as his white headband camouflaged with the net, and those were the plays that helped wake everyone up.
James has put up prolific numbers in seventh games, and afterward he found himself being asked about his debut appearance in an NBA Finals in 2007, when the Spurs of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili swept his Cavaliers in four games. "I'm 20, 40, 50 times better than I was," he said. He talked once again about the perspective he had earned by way of his 2010 loss in the Finals to Dallas. It was that newfound perspective that had enabled him to play so well in this game, to find the joy within the tension.
The NBA Finals was just three days away, and James was content to let it wait. "This league is so hard to win in," he said, based on personal experience. "I look forward to the challenge. But I'm not quite there mentally, because I'm not going to take it for granted what we were able to accomplish tonight."
He'll be ready soon enough. And if that series starts out badly for his team, patience is to be recommended, because everything can change in a hurry.