MIAMI (AP) — LeBron James caught the inbounds pass, changed direction and immediately attacked the rim.
There was no one in his way.
There was no stopping him, either.
James made a layup as time expired in overtime, capping a 30-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist effort as the Miami Heat found a way to outlast the Indiana Pacers 103-102 in a wildly back-and-forth Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night. There were 18 ties and 17 lead changes, the last two of those coming in the final 2.2 seconds.
”Two teams fought hard,” James said. ”We were able to make one more play.”
If this is how this series is going to go, then get ready for a classic between teams that absolutely wanted to face the other with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
Paul George saved the Pacers at the end of regulation with a 32-footer with 0.7 seconds left, and then made three free throws with 2.2 ticks left in overtime to give Indiana a one-point lead. George pumped his fist gently after the third free throw, then extended his index finger skyward as the teams retreated to their benches to get ready for the final play.
He just left James too much time, and the Pacers left their best shot-blocking option on the bench. Roy Hibbert wasn’t on the floor for the final play, and without a 7-foot-2 barrier to contest him, James made the winner look easy.
”Two great teams just throwing punch for punch,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. ”Our spirit is very high, very confident. We know we can play with this basketball team.”
Vogel said he left Hibbert off the floor for the final play out of concern of what defending champion Miami would do with Chris Bosh in that scenario. Afterward, he acknowledged he might have different thinking next time.
”I would say we would probably have him in next time,” Vogel said.
Game 2 is Friday night in Miami.
Officials reviewed James’ play at the end, though it was clear he beat the clock, and the Pacers walked slowly toward their locker room, lamenting one that got away – by no fault of George’s.
”Gut-wrenching,” Hibbert said.
George was fouled by Dwyane Wade on the play where the Pacers had to think they had stolen the series opener. Referee Jason Phillips said Wade hit George, and the Pacers’ star made all three free throws for the 16th lead change of the night.
The final lead change came moments later.
”Welcome to the Eastern Conference finals,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. ”Back and forth the whole way.”
Wade scored 19 points, Bosh had 17 and Chris Andersen had 16 on 7-for-7 shooting for Miami.
George scored 27 for the Pacers, who got 26 from David West and 19 from Hibbert. The Pacers have won only two series in NBA franchise history after dropping a Game 1.
”It just felt like everything was in our favor,” George said.
The final few seconds of regulation were stunning, with Ray Allen – the sixth-best free-throw shooter in NBA history – missing one that proved big, and George making a miracle happen.
Trailing by two with 17.7 seconds left, the Pacers had to foul Allen, who surely would have been their last choice. But he missed one of the two free throws, and it remained a one-possession game. Indiana brought the ball into the frontcourt, called time, and then seemed to have nothing really working as the final seconds of regulation ticked away.
So George simply made something happen.
From 32 feet – from the newly applied Eastern Conference finals sticker on the side of the court, technically – George connected with 0.7 seconds left, tying the game and giving Indiana life.
Allen didn’t get much of a desperation shot off at the end of regulation, and to overtime the teams went.
”It took an overtime to get it done,” Spoelstra said. ”Glad to get that one.”
The Pacers kept landing the first punches in the extra session. George made a pair of free throws to open the OT, and Andersen tied it with a pair of his own. Hibbert scored from close range, and Wade answered with an easy one after a runout for the 16th tie of the night.
George was far from done. He went past James, got into the lane, tossed up a shot after contact and started what became a three-point play that put the Pacers up 99-96. Miami had three chances at the tie – a desperation 3-pointer by Shane Battier as the shot clock was expiring, then a 3-point try by Bosh and another 3 attempt by Battier.
But Bosh grabbed the rebound of the last Battier shot that bounced off the rim in that sequence, scored while being fouled by George with 49.7 seconds left, calmly swished the free throw and the teams were – what else? – tied again at 99-all.
James scored on a drive with 10.8 seconds left in the overtime, and George answered with the three free throws. With Hibbert on the bench, Indiana had one plan for James on the last play.
”We wanted LeBron to shoot a jumper right there,” George said.
He was just better.
And after 3 hours, 18 minutes, it was over.
”We’re excited about the win,” James said. ”But we have to get better going into Game 2.”
NOTES: Celebrities in attendance included Jimmy Buffett and Anna Kournikova. … James picked up two first-quarter fouls for just the ninth time in 125 career playoff games. … West’s 18 first-half points were his most before halftime since March 24, 2011, when he had 20 through two quarters against Utah. … From the not-often-seen department, a lane violation against the Pacers that led to James getting a second (and successful) chance on a missed free throw, and a 5-second call against Wade, both of those coming in the first half.