The second game of this year’s Eastern Conference Finals series was a video reel of highlights for the best player on this sphere of a planet that we live on. In 20 to 30 years when this generation of NBA fans rave to their kids about how exciting it was to watch LeBron James play the game of basketball, they should sit them down and watch Game 2 of this series from beginning to end.
Friday night was a confirmation that we’ve now entered the peak years of James’ professional basketball career. In Game, 1 he became the first player to record a triple-double and make a game winning shot, but to me he was even better in Game 2. Each of LeBron’s highlights displayed a different fascist of the reigning MVPs game: the incredible vision and strength on his pass at the end of the first half, which resulted in a wide-open Mike Miller three:
His freakish athletic ability, which makes him a tremendous in-game dunker:
His strength, which allows him to take jumpers from just inside the half-court line:
His absurd defensive capabilities, which allows him to leave a 7’2” center wondering who in the hell just blocked his shot:
Go back and listen to Marv Albert’s voice when LeBron stuffs Hibbert’s shot from behind. It’s as if he couldn’t believe what he just witnessed. I’m not sure anyone could totally understand what we all witnessed in Game 2.
We saw just how good the 28-year old super-duper-star is. We saw why some analysts are ready to anoint this as the LeBron era before he wins a second championship. We saw just how special this time period is going to be in the NBA. Yet, we saw all of those things in a losing effort to a young team that could give LeBron problems for the foreseeable future.
It seems impossible to imagine the Pacers, Grizzlies or Spurs defeating the Heat four times in seven games considering Miami is 47-4 since the first of February. (The real number to remember is 43-3, which is their record in that time frame when LeBron plays. He sat out five games at the end of the season, after the Bulls ended “The Streak”.) If there is a word more daunting than impossible, that was the adjective needed for what the Pacers needed to do after losing Game 1 of the ECF at the buzzer.
Sure, George Hill and Lance Stephenson were bound to bounce back after terrible performances in the opening game of the series, but it was unlikely for David West to dominate like he did in the first half of Game 1 and Tyler Hansborough wasn’t going to pad the bench points stat again. If Indiana could somehow find a way to replicate the execution of Frank Vogel’s game plan in the second game, they had more than a puncher’s chance, but it was going to be extremely hard to duplicate a performance in which you turn the ball over 19 times to a team who generates energy from turnovers and find yourselves up by one with just over two seconds left on the clock.
We learned a lot about Frank Vogel and his family of players in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. We discovered that they’re a fearless bunch of tough young guys, who really believe that they belong on this stage. This isn’t the dynamic of say the Warriors, aka when a team doesn’t feel any pressure because there was none to begin with. No, this is a team that oozes confidence from their coach and it reflects on the court. As the Pacers double digit lead evaporated to a one point edge in the second quarter, it seemed extremely tough for us to believe the young challenger to the Heat’s Eastern Conference crown could remain focused after referee Scott Foster had just swung the momentum of the game with the 20th letter in the alphabet. An immature team with a poor coach would have fallen apart after receiving two ridiculous technical foul calls (plus a couple of bogus regular fouls) in the second quarter.
This was the moment where the Pacers were supposed to realize that they weren’t going to get the same calls as Miami. Twitter immediately exploded with the ratings theory, which sidenote, does still have some validity to it due to the important dynamic of live sporting events and advertisers. Instead of cashing in their chips, Indiana continued to re-raise Miami. The Pacers reestablished a double digit lead until the Heat closed out the half on a 7-0 run highlighted by that Miller three. Somehow the Pacers came out of the locker room with the same level of focus and confidence. One sequence of events displayed this.
With just over two minutes gone in the third, the Pacers were holding onto a six point lead. Dwayne Wade had the ball just above the high post, he pumped to try and get Stephenson to bite and draw a foul, but Stephenson kept his feet on the ground and then drilled a three from the right wing on Indiana’s next possession. It was significant because Wade pulled off that move multiple times in the first half, but Stephenson was ready for it and then had the confidence to take a three.
This will be remembered as the series in which Paul George became a known being inside the casual fans’ house. He’s really evolving into a top 15 player in front of our eyes and more importantly, he’s standing toe to toe with the best player in the world and not backing down, while doing things like this:
In one quick motion he left LeBron in the dust and changed the immediate perception of Chris “Birdman” Andersen. Birdman went from being a key guy off of Miami’s bench (he’s 31-37 from the field in the playoffs), to the butt of Kenny Smith’s joke during the post-game show.
And then there’s Hibbert, the guy who had his national media cycle virginity broken earlier in the week after Vogel’s decision to sit him during the final couple of defensive possessions of Game 1. It was a sickening display of overreaction, but this isn’t the column for discussing that. This is the column where we think about just how great Hibbert was in Game 2. Hibbert finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds, just one point shy of his career high, but the defensive plays down the home stretch stuck out to me. It takes a great amount of body control to keep your arms straight up and absorb contact without being called for a foul (even if sometimes it really is a foul, if you have the capabilities go back and watch the play on Bosh with 4:24 left in the fourth).
Even though Indiana’s counter punch was enough to win them the second round of this seven round fight, it’s going to take another almost career high performance from Hibbert. Hill has to play a similar game. Stephenson can’t think he’s invincible after nailing a three. He can’t make risky (sometimes boneheaded) plays that result in a tough shot or turnover. David West has to have a minimum of 13/7 and most importantly George has to continue to show signs that he is evolving into a modern superstar.
The problem is, we don’t know if Game 2 was just an anomaly for the Pacers, or if it was really the start of what could be a classic series. Paul George carried over his level of play from the second half of Game 1, but we quickly forgot (or never noticed thanks to the Hibbert storyline) that George got very careless with the ball at the end of the first game and bailed himself out with a miraculous 32 foot shot. It was like watching Tiger Woods scramble from the trees and roll in a 32 foot putt to save par. George covered his ass for his mistakes and the media covered his final one of blowing his defensive positioning on LeBron during the final play of Game 1, by putting the blame on Vogel for leaving Hibbert on the bench.
Likewise the center of attention will be on the final two possessions for the Miami Heat. For all of the great plays that LeBron made earlier in the game, his two costly turnovers created by David West deflections, ultimately defined this game as a bad performance in the clutch by James. Just imagine the outrage of social media and then the sports media if LeBron didn’t have a ring and committed those turnovers. While it’s an interesting alternate universe thought, LeBron has been to hell and back publically. He’ll be able to bounce back from those mistakes. We know that LeBron can recreate his performance from Game 2. Can the Pacers recreate theirs?
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