Twenty-four minutes through game 4, the Pacers were in good shape. They were dictating the speed of the game at their own pace, up 44-40 at the half, and their interior bigs Roy Hibbert and David West were once again controlling the paint. Paul George seemed to recover his game as well, and the trio's performance hid the fact that Indy got next to nothing out of their backcourt.
The reasons why the Pacers are able to stay in games should not be a surprise at this point. Indeed, what they have been exhibiting is a remarkable level of concentration and commitment to team principles for the majority of 20 quarters now. With the exception of the 2nd quarter of Game 3, Indy had done everything right to keep themselves in the games and give themselves a chance to win.
In fact, the sense I get when watching these games with nerve-wracking attention is that it feels so much like the emotion bound up in an NCAA tournament game when a 16 seed plays a competitive first half. You know the sensation. You've got a #1 seed like Duke or North Carolina playing a team like James Madison (my Alma Mater!) and for 25 minutes, the underdog is keeping it competitive. They are committing to playing great defense, not giving up anything easy, and most importantly, not allowing the superior team to play their preferred style of game and end it early. Hope, a small sliver of hope, begins to grow. Are we about to witness basketball history? Could that #16 seed play a 'perfect' game?
And then comes the stomach punch that jolts you back to reality. The #1 team's best player finally breaks free, the #1 team goes on a 30-2 run, and you wondered how you got sucked into it. Again.
Indy has played gallantly in Game 5, no doubt. They have played in front most of this series, giving them shots to win. However, as we saw in Games 1, 3, and now 5, there is no answer for what happens when, as Jared Wade at 8 Points, 9 Seconds states, "LeBron goes Legendary."
It began with a fiery halftime rally, where with the network censors working overtime on LeBron's apparent "Game of Inches" speech, and it made James look like he was breathing smoke.
Now, this may not be so easily apparent, but transferring this kind of emotion from the huddle onto the court is no simple thing. Playoff ball is about emotion, yes, but it is about keeping the emotion in check so that the fine motor skills and athleticism necessary to excel are never compromised. It is the rare athlete who can channel this kind of fury into actual productivity. Bill Russell could do it, Michael Jordan lived off of it, Kobe Bryant was able to tap into it, and in Game 5, Lebron showed that he can make it work for him as well.
Perhaps this is the final connecting point to LeBron's personal evolution. He began with the physical and the intellectual understanding, but lacked the fundamentals and the practical application. He perfected the latter two over time and we saw the outcome last spring. The emotional element remained. There are many players in the league who can tap into the emotion, but it then becomes more of a detriment than an advantage. In the case of the Thunder, both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant can get emotional, but more often than not it translates into overdribbling, bad shots, and offensive fouls.
We got a glimpse of how LeBron can transfer his emotion into something spectacular earlier in these playoffs. After committing a turnover and giving up an open shot, LeBron was not happy, and this is how he converted his displeasure into a highlight reel.
That kind of transfer of energy is logical and even hoped for. The difference with last night however was that LeBron made the perfect transition from sideline coach to a player who was under complete control as he picked apart the Pacers defense both in the paint as well as from the perimeter. He knew what he was doing at all times. The result was that he outscored the Pacers by himself and turned a tight game into a borderline blowout, crushing the Pacers 30-13 in the 3rd quarter.
Once again, Indiana controlled this game. It was theirs for the taking. They just had to avoid this kind of 3rd quarter run by James. He's the only guy on the court who can do it. Yet he did it.
Game 6 is going to play out the same way. We're going to be watching on pins and needles as the two teams duke it out in a tight game. The difference in outcome will be whether or not the Pacers can keep this kind of moment from erupting.
Against the rest of the NBA, that is not an unreasonable plan of attack.
Against LeBron, you're juggling a frag grenade.
LeBron, you're one BAD...
SHUT YO MOUTH