If the NBA Playoffs teach us one thing, it is that you cannot hide any longer.
Late in the fourth quarter of Miami's 78-75 Game 2 loss against Indiana Tuesday night, LeBron James pulled off yet another miraclous Houdini-style disappearing act. It wasn't just the two missed free throws late that are perplexing, but rather his complete lack of aggressiveness on the attack.
With just over a minute left, he got a high ball screen from Joel Anthony which left Pacers center Roy Hibbert on an island and forced to hedge. James had success with the same play all night; Hibbert had been abused by both him and Dwyane Wade. Instead of driving the ball, he threw a meaningless pass to Shane Battier, who was in no position to shoot his patented corner three-pointer.
Then, with the Heat trailing by two, James stood with the ball 25 feet from the basket looking dead center at a driving lane the size of an airplane hanger. In classic James form, however, he evaluated, then re-evaluated and then passed again to a guarded Battier in the corner. Battier passed it right back; James paused again, and then deferred to a cutting Wade who missed a potential game-tying layup.
In his postgame press conference, James and the rest of the Heat maintained that he was following the play that had been called, which was for Wade.
Referring to Wade, James said he makes that layup "10 out of 10 times."
Perhaps it's time to accept James for what he is and not what he should be, because his inability to close games is no longer a trend but rather a disturbing and senseless reality for a three-time league MVP. Just to be clear, he was brilliant for most of Game 2, finishing with a classic James line of 28 points, 9 rebounds, 6 steals and 5 assists. But according to 82games.com, this season James has shot just 38.6 percent in clutch situations (defined as less than five minutes left in regulation or OT with neither team ahead by more than five points). That number ranks him close to 90th in the league. When shooting free throws this season in the final minute of one-possession games, James is just 10 for 17, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Heat fans will now want to know what comes next for Miami in this series. For starters, the heavily maligned Chris Bosh is likely out for at least the second round and maybe longer. Neither Anthony or Ronny Turiaf give this team any threat on the block offensively, and unless Eddy Curry experiences a sudden career rebirth or Juwan Howard turns back the clock to his Fab Five days, this team will have zero offense from the painted area against the Pacers.
Wait, oh yeah, the Pacers! That's the other team in this series?
As good as Indiana's defensive play and all-around effort have been in this series (even in its Game 1 loss), the overwhelming national hype still surrounds the Heat. Let us not forget that this is a really, really good Pacers team that earned the third seed in the Eastern Conference, finished the regular season hot and dismantled Orlando in the first round.
With a bruising 7-footer in Hibbert patrolling the paint, the Pacers out-rebounded the Heat by 10 in Game 2. And as poorly as they shot the ball, Indiana continued its steadfast commitment to the defensive end, holding the Heat to a combined 23 points on 9-of-34 shooting, aside from James and Wade.
But the interesting aspect of their Game 2 win wasn't just the great defensive scheme, but their effort in its execution. Head coach Frank Vogel may have found something in his ultra-small lineup. Instead of countering Miami's speed with size -- which the Knicks tried unsuccessfully -- -- he elected to employ a heavy guard-and-wing core that relied on quickness to match the Heat's small-ball approach.
When Erik Spoelstra went with James or even Battier at the four, Indiana countered with George Hill, Danny Granger and Paul George, all of whom played superb perimeter defense. Most importantly, they took away Miami's spread attack with James Jones, Mike Miller and Battier all spotting up by running them off the three-point line and, in turn, forcing the Heat into a putrid 1-16 effort from distance. Through two games, the Heat is just 1-22 from beyond the arc.
Moving forward minus Bosh, Miami is highly vulnerable. Let us not forget that this was the eighth-most efficient half-court offense in basketball this year -- but that was with Bosh. In other words, if they cannot get out and run, they can be beaten. The Pacers, meanwhile, will continue to feature a cadre of long and athletic wing defenders, along with fast rotations while literally bumping every cutter possible. Unlike the Knicks, they won't outscore you; they will out-tough you.
LeBron can deflect the blame all he wants, but the bottom line is that both he and Wade need to come out of late-game hibernation right now if they want not six, or five, or four, or three, or even two, but how about just one title.
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