INDIANAPOLIS – Paul George went into desperation mode to salvage the Pacers’ season.
It was barely good enough.
The 24-year-old All-Star scored 21 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter and inspired Indiana to fend off Miami’s late challenges as the Pacers staved off playoff elimination with a 93-90 Game 5 victory on Wednesday night.
“My message to the whole team was the light needs to be on green for all of us,” coach Frank Vogel said. “You need to go, you need to attack, you need to be aggressive. Paul took it and ran with it and took it to a crazy level.”
The most crucial shooting performance of George’s career allowed the Pacers to climb within 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals and postponed Miami’s fourth straight coronation as conference champs. Game 6 is Friday in Miami.
It took everything in George’s repertoire to get it done. He was 12 of 19 from the field in the second half, finished with six rebounds, six steals, five 3-pointers and only three turnovers in 45 minutes.
But the Pacers also needed everything else to go right.
Four-time MVP LeBron James was limited to 24½ minutes because of major foul trouble. He finished with a career playoff-low seven points, two rebounds and four assists. The Heat committed 17 turnovers, compared to just 13 for the usually turnover-prone Pacers, and Indiana had a 45-38 rebounding edge, too.
The biggest difference was George, whose 21 fourth-quarter points were the most scored against Miami in any playoff quarter. The previous record, 20, was set by Michael Jordan in May 1997.
“I just felt it. I felt in rhythm. I had to be aggressive,” George said. “I tried to come out and be aggressive to start this game off and I was getting looks. I got hot.”
George fell just short of his playoff career high, the 39 he had in Game 4 against Washington in the previous series, and was just four points short of Reggie Miller’s franchise record in an NBA playoff game.
For Miami, it was a rare stumble in an elimination game in the Big Three era. Three other times, the Heat had lost Game 1 on the road and all three times they won the next four games to close out the series. The Heat were in position to do it again Wednesday even with James’ limitations.
Chris Bosh scored 20 points, Dwyane Wade and Rashard Lewis each had 18, and the Heat made 15 of 31 3-pointers to stay within clinching distance.
After holding the Pacers to 11 points in the second quarter, only 33 in the first half and surviving two long first-half stretches without James, Miami couldn’t hold off Indiana when James went to the bench again with his fifth foul early in the third quarter. Yet, the Heat still had a chance to take the lead with 4.9 seconds left. But Bosh’s 3-pointer was off the mark and the Pacers grabbed the rebound.
“We still had enough opportunities to come away with a win,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Hard falls and tough plays were a theme all night for a Pacers team that had been roundly criticized for its lack of effort in Monday night’s loss. Lance Stephenson took it a step farther. At one point, he attempted to listen in on one of Miami’s huddle. At another, he blew in James’ ear.
“I’m just here to play basketball, man. All the extracurricular activities, I don’t really get into,” James said. “I’m just trying to win. We need one more win to get to the Finals. That’s my only concern. All the extra stuff, whatever Lance wants to do, I don’t really care about that.”
It looked like the Heat might clinch their fourth straight conference title Wednesday, something last done by the Celtics from 1984-87, when the Pacers trailed 50-41 with 6:56 left in the third quarter.
Then George took over.
He started an 11-0 run with a layup and ended it with a steal that he turned into a dunk to give Indiana a 52-50 lead. Miami quickly tied it on Udonis Haslem’s layup, but George answered with a 3-pointer that sent the Pacers on a 12-5 run to make it 64-57 after three.
Indiana extended the lead to as much as 77-66 early in the fourth on another George dunk, but when James re-entered, things changed.
The Heat scored nine straight to make it 77-75, tied it 81-81 on James’ only 3 of the night with 3:51 to play and twice managed to get within one in the final 76 seconds. George then hit a 3 and West made 1 of 2 free throws in the closing seconds to seal it.