No matter how some in the Heat camp may have howled at a couple of the fouls James was hit with, when he was on the court for 24 minutes, he wasn't very good. He shot just 2-of-10 and finished with just seven points, the lowest playoff output of his career, circumstantial asterisk or not.
James was in for those last four minutes and may have even gotten away with a shove or two on Stephenson, who was guarding him rather effectively. The Heat had their chances to solidify their spot in the Finals, but they couldn't get a stop, mostly because George was so hot with his jumper, and they couldn't execute on the final play when they had the ball down just two points.
At one point in the game, Spoelstra was so desperate with his lineup that he called on both Toney Douglas and Michael Beasley, two end-of-bench players whom he didn't dream he'd be using in the middle of a close road conference finals game.
The Heat knew it, too. Unlike the Pacers, who couldn't resist the catnip of complaining about officiating when the Heat got 34 free throws in Game 4 (they had eight in Game 5 after George's $25,000 fine for a "home cooking" reference), the Heat accepted that things don't always go the way of the road team and they'd missed a chance.
It may be odd for James to be in deep foul trouble, indeed, but the Heat got six 3-pointers from Rashard Lewis. He'd been just 3-of-21 on 3-pointers in the playoffs coming in and was relegated to being celebrated for his nebulous plus/minus success in the series. The basketball gods often provide such ebb and flow.
Had the Heat been informed before the game, for instance, that they'd get a combined 25 points from James and Lewis, they'd have probably considered that just about right. The long-standing playoff veterans know this, and it makes the outcome easier to understand if not totally digest.
"The game is reffed by the refs. They ref how they see it. We play it, and you live with the results," James said. "We were still in a position to win."
James, in fact, had the ball in his hands with 10 seconds left down two points. He got separation on George, who was on him for that vital play, and went toward the rim.
This moment instantly reminded some of Game 1 of the conference finals last season, when James beat George on a drive and scored at the rim, mostly because Pacers coach Frank Vogel had pulled rim protector Roy Hibbert from the game because he knew Chris Bosh would be on the perimeter. Vogel has lived with that mistake for a year and learned from it.
Hibbert was in the game this time, and when James headed to the rim, Hibbert left Bosh and positioned himself in front of the rim. Like a computer processing binary code, James instantly passed to Bosh in the corner for a 3-pointer the instant he saw Hibbert make his choice.
James has been making this same play for years: He lost his first conference finals game in 2007 when he made the same play to the same corner for Donyell Marshall in a game in Detroit. Marshall missed that shot. Bosh, who has a strong clutch 3-point shooting résumé, missed as well. The Pacers had it defended nicely, rotating defenders over to help and challenge.
"We know the types of sets that they like to run," Vogel said. "We didn't want to give up the rim to LeBron, as we did the last time."
James treated the outcome like he'd treated the fouls, with disappointment but acceptance. In addition to being a basketball player, James loves to play cards. He'd calculated the odds and moved on, not just with the missed Bosh game winner at the end, but the extreme outlier situation that had him glued to the bench for 24 miserable minutes.
"It's like playing cards, that's why they got backs on them. You don't know what's going to happen," James said. "I trust myself that I'm going to make the right play to help us win. And win, lose or draw, you live with that."