A brilliant third quarter by LeBron James and the Miami Heat turned the game around and lifted the hosts to a 90-79 win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, taking a 3-2 lead in the NBA Eastern Conference finals.
James scored 16 of his 30 points in the third, helping to turn a six-point deficit into a 14-point lead and put the Heat within one win of a third-straight trip to the NBA Finals.
"That's what I came here for, to be able to compete for a championship each and every year," James said. "I'm one step away from doing it once again. It's not promised. It's not promised at all."
Another trip to the title decider- this time against San Antonio - was exactly what James had planned when he made the move to Miami.
"I made a tough decision. I envisioned something that was bigger as far as a team ... and we've got an opportunity as a team, once again, for the third year straight to make a trip to the NBA Finals."
Indiana was up 46-40 early in the third, surely sensing a chance to win and then close out the series on its home court on Saturday.
But over the next 11 minutes, the Heat outscored the Pacers 30-10, with James either scoring or accounting for 25 Miami points. He shot 7 for 10 in the third quarter; the Pacers shot 3 for 14. He had four rebounds in the quarter; the Pacers, as a team, grabbed six. He had four assists in the quarter; the Pacers had one.
"That's LeBron showing his greatness and making it look easy," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "His engine in that third quarter was incredible. He was tireless, he was making plays on both ends of the court, rebounding, covering so much ground defensively and then making virtually every play for us offensively. It's really remarkable."
James added eight rebounds and six assists, and Udonis Haslem made his last eight shots on the way to a 16-point night. Mario Chalmers scored 12 and Dwyane Wade added 10 for the Heat, who ousted the Pacers in six games in a second-round matchup last season and will look to do the same this time around, albeit one round deeper.
Paul George had 27 points and 11 rebounds for the Pacers, who got 22 points from Roy Hibbert and 17 from David West. The Pacers led by as many as seven at one point, but had no answer for the Heat in the third and now have to win back-to-back games - against a team that hasn't lost consecutive games since early January.
"I don't really know," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, when asked if there's anything a team can do when James gets on a roll like the one he had in the third quarter. "He was pretty special tonight. There's no question about it. This whole team is special. It's one of the best teams that this league's ever seen and we're enjoying competing against them. We know we can beat them, but we've got to play better than we did tonight."
Haslem said Juwan Howard threw a few things in the locker room and had a few choice words for teammates at halftime - "a lot of bleeps and stuff like that," Haslem said - and that James echoed the same remarks just before the start of the third.
"We had 24 minutes to play for our livelihoods," Haslem said. "And that's how we played in the second half."
Haslem's first shot of the night was a complete brick, bouncing off the top of the backboard. He was perfect the rest of the way, including going 5 for 5 in the third.
For the second time in the series, Haslem - who has struggled with his shot for the better part of two years - finished 8 for 9.
"That burned us," Vogel said.
Haslem got past Hibbert easily and into the lane for a dunk that put Miami up 47-46, the first Heat lead since 4-2. The Pacers were back on top by a point with 6:58 left in the third when fighting words reappeared, on a play where George Hill was called for an offensive foul after getting caught pushing off on a drive. West angrily approached Chalmers after the play and both of those players, along with Haslem, got technicals when it was all said and done.
It clearly fired up Miami.
James and Haslem combined to score 18 of their team's 21 points in the final 6:04 of the third. Everything came on jump shots, including a 3-pointer from Chalmers, three jumpers averaging 20 feet from Haslem, and five more from James, including a 3-pointer with 16 seconds left in the quarter that put Miami up 70-56 and had him yelling at no one in particular as the arena roared.
"We didn't have enough fight," West said. "We stalled."