MIAMI (AP) — It could have been the perfect matchup to cap an unforgettable game. LeBron James driving to the rim to face Roy Hibbert, one play to decide Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Alas, Hibbert was on the bench for the deciding moment.
And James made Miami's game-winner seem way too easy.
James blew past Paul George and made a layup as time expired, and the Heat found a way to outlast the Indiana Pacers 103-102 in a back-and-forth Game 1 of the East title series Wednesday night. There were 18 ties and 17 lead changes, two coming in the final 2.2 seconds, the last on a play that had Hibbert shaking his head in disbelief at his seat 75 feet away from where James beat both the clock and the Pacers in one swoop.
"Once I got the ball," James said, "I was the only option."
He finished with his ninth career postseason triple-double — 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists — which might have been easily overlooked on this night. The Heat looked like they had the game won in regulation, before George connected on a tying 3-pointer from 32 feet away with 0.7 seconds left to extend the game. And then the Pacers looked like they had stolen Game 1 when George made three free throws for a one-point lead with 2.2 ticks left in overtime.
They simply left James too much time. He caught the inbounds pass from Shane Battier, benefitted from George overplaying him to his left side — James is left-handed, just plays right-hand dominant — drove and released the ball with about four-tenths of a second remaining. By the time the shot dropped softly through the net, the clock showed zeroes.
"He continues to amaze," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said.
The Pacers had a slightly different perspective.
"It was gut-wrenching," Hibbert said.
So, too, was the decision that Pacers coach Frank Vogel had to make before the final play.
Vogel calls James the best offensive player in the game. He also calls Hibbert the best rim protector in the game. He likely wouldn't face much argument on either point.
Vogel's dilemma was this: Put Hibbert on the floor and risk that he couldn't cover a possible jumper by Chris Bosh, the Heat center-by-default who is probably the best outside-shooting big man in the game — or hope the Pacers could get one more stop without him. And remember, Hibbert had one of the signature moments in these playoffs, his great block to deny Carmelo Anthony's dunk try in Indiana's clinching second-round win over the New York Knicks.
Hibbert stayed on the bench. James drove and scored. Second-guessing commenced.
"I would say we would probably have him in next time," Vogel said.
Said James: "You can't say what would have been different."
Wade finished with 19 points for the Heat, who got 17 from Bosh and 16 from Chris Andersen — who was 7 for 7 from the field, and 2 for 2 from the line off the Miami bench. Andersen is now shooting a ridiculous 29 for 35 in these playoffs, or 83 percent.
George scored 27 points for the Pacers, who got 26 from David West and 19 from Hibbert.
"It just felt like everything was in our favor," George said. "And you know, when that 3 went down and obviously when I got fouled at the 3-point line, us being in position to win that game, you feel confident (that) we were going to be able to take care of business."
Game 2 is Friday night in Miami.
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