INDIANAPOLIS -- LeBron James staggered to his bench with a mixed look of amusement and bewilderment on his face, as if he'd just been the victim of some sort of practical joke.
"Can you believe this?" James said as he took a seat, his teammates eyeing him and not really sure what to say.
Actually, there was a word in between "you" and "believe" added for emphasis.
During a rather prolific period last season, James once went 250 consecutive minutes without being called for a foul. During a two-week stretch in 2009, he was called for a total of three fouls in nine games, including five consecutive games without drawing a whistle. A full week of NBA basketball without a single foul.
In seven of his 11 seasons, James has averaged fewer than two fouls per game, including this season, when he settled at 1.6, slightly up from his 1.4 last season. In his 153-game playoff career, he's averaged about 2.3 fouls a game.
It is with context that you can understand the shock and awe James was experiencing when he was yanked less than four minutes into the second half with the number five displayed on the scoreboard next to his foul total.
Never in James' career had he been called for five fouls in just 13 minutes on the floor. It never happened in his high school career, either. Same for his international career. Alas, the documents from Riedinger Middle School are incomplete, but if it did happen, James can't remember it.
Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was certainly unusual, as James' historic foul trouble opened the door for the Indiana Pacers to capture a 93-90 victory and extend the series, which they now trail 3-2.
The last memory of this game probably will be those James fouls, perhaps unfairly more than Paul George coming up with one of the finest performances of his career when he blitzed the Heat for 31 of his career playoff high 37 points in the second half to save the Pacers' season.
That or the image of Lance Stephenson -- who only Wednesday morning announced he had learned his lesson about trying to bait James with shenanigans -- blowing in James' ear during a stoppage in play in the second half.
In the locker room after the game, George wasn't watching the highlights of his two 3-pointers in the final two minutes that gave the Pacers their winning margin -- he was watching the slow-motion replays of Stephenson's latest maneuver aimed to annoy James.
"I hope his breath wasn't too bad for LeBron," George said.
"I blew in my wife's ear before," James said. "That was definitely a defensive tactic."
"That's the second time that's happened to you," said Dwyane Wade, remembering that Stephenson used the same tactic with James in the conference finals last season. Of course, Wade remembered, but then again, how could he forget?
Bottom line, though, is that despite those James fouls, the ear-blowing act and Stephenson's irking Heat coach Erik Spoelstra by joining a team huddle to eavesdrop, the game was tied with four minutes to play.
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."