|Dwayne Wade and LeBron James celebrate after Game 1. (AP photo)|
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals certainly lived up to its billing, going into overtime and ending on a game-winning layup by the best player on Earth. Miami and Indiana are a perfect contrast in styles, and Wednesday’s opener only makes me more confident we’re in for a memorable series where each game will be come down to the wire. There is going to be a fascinating list of winners and losers for this series when all is said and done, and Game One kicked off that list with a bang.
LeBron James: Who else? LeBron’s game-winning layup was a thing of beauty. He somehow managed to catch the inbound pass behind the three-point line and facing away from the basket, size up Paul George and propel past him toward the hole, glide to the basket, and toss up the layup with his off hand in under two seconds. It was a play that nearly no one else in the NBA could have made. You can talk all you want about George making a defensive mistake by guarding LeBron too closely, or Frank Vogel making a boneheaded move by not keeping Roy Hibbert in to guard the hoop, but the Heat had an immediate advantage from the moment LeBron caught the ball.
James earned the ninth triple-double of his playoff career with 30 points (on 24 shots), 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He did an outstanding job of facilitating for his teammates in the opening three quarters, before becoming more aggressive in the fourth and OT. In the last minute of overtime, LeBron’s offensive board set up Chris Bosh up for a game-tying three-point play with 49.7 seconds remaining, and his layup at the 10.8 mark gave the Heat a 101-99 lead. In a series where both teams match up well with one another otherwise, James is a weapon the Pacers are incapable of containing.
BIRDMAN!!: Chris Anderson continued to add to his folk hero status by going 7-for-7 from the floor for 16 points in just 18 minutes. Anderson added energy and speed off the bench, and did an excellent job of communicating with Miami’s guards, getting nearly all his points off drive and dish plays. And his numbers don’t begin to demonstrate how much fun he is to watch on both ends of the floor. Birdman is not going to be perfect from the field again anytime soon, but he will continue to cause havoc on defense and can be an X-factor on offense. What a late season pickup by Miami.
Paul George: George was a beast in the second half and overtime, scoring 25 points. He carried the Pacers down the stretch, and his last-second 3-pointer to send the game into overtime looked like something out of a video game. George may have been beaten by LeBron on his game-winner, but that doesn’t negate his excellent defense on James down the stretch. Indiana has to be ecstatic they have an emerging superstar who is capable of going toe-to-toe with LeBron on both ends. Whatever happens to the Pacers, George has been one of my favorite players to watch in the 2013 playoffs (Steph Curry, LeBron, Tony Parker and Marc Gasol are the other guys on that list).
David West/Roy Hibbert: The pair combined for 49 points and 14 rebounds and were heavily responsible for making the game a slugfest. West carried the Indiana offense in the first half and showed he could score both at the basket and from mid-range, while Hibbert commanded the paint on defense. If West and Hibbert can continue to win the battle inside, the Pacers will be in position to steal a couple of games from Miami.
Miami Heat: Miami managed to win the first game despite being out-rebounded, committing 20 turnovers and going 16-for-25 at the free throw line. The Heat allowed Indiana to dictate the pace for much of the game and were unable to slow down the Pacers big three of George, West and Hibbert. Miami needs to play better on both sides of the ball in Game 2, or else the series will be tied and the Pacers will be returning home with a ton of momentum.
Frank Vogel: The press had a field day with Vogel after the game, when his decision to put Hibbert on the bench for the final play of overtime backfired. The thing is, you can make a strong argument it was a sound coaching decision. In that type of situation (2.2. seconds left on the clock and the offense in-bounding from the sideline), an offense is almost always going to call for a catch-and-shoot play, and the defense will need to be immediately prepared to switch and guard the perimeter. Defending the basket is not a top priority when you need your quickest players on the floor and the opposing team has almost no time to execute a play at the hoop. Vogel was correct to say after the game that Hibbert didn’t have the speed to cover Bosh outside if Miami had gone to him. It is easy to second-guess Vogel after the fact. Yes, he probably should have risked leaving Bosh open to have Hibbert protecting the rim against LeBron. Vogel admitted as much after the game. But Indiana didn’t lose because of one coaching decision. They lost because Miami made a great play call that the best player in the world executed to perfection. Sometimes, you just have to throw your hands in the air and give your opponent props.
George Hill: The hobbled Hill managed to play 45 minutes, but very few of them were productive. He finished with just five points on 2-for-9 shooting. If Hill continues to be limited on both ends, the Pacers have no chance of beating the Heat.
Ray Allen: The veteran sharpshooter went 1-for-8 for four points, and is averaging just 7.8 points over his past five playoff games while shooting 36.7% from the field. Miami needs Allen to get back in rhythm and knock down some shots if it wants to open up its offense and spread the floor more.
Shane Battier: Battier constantly looked overmatched against West, and ended up producing just three points and one board in 31 minutes. If Battier continues to be unable to handle West one-on-one, the Heat will be forced to double-team him, opening up driving lanes for George and the Indiana guards.
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers dictated the pace of the game, got a combined 72 points from their top three players, and still ended up losing. Game One demonstrated that Indiana must play its “A” game at all times to win the series. There’s no way that’s going to happen.