MIAMI — 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.
Officials reviewed James’ play at the end, though it was clear he beat the clock, and the Pacers walked slowly toward their locker room, lamenting one that got away — by no fault of George’s.
George was fouled by Wade on the play where the Pacers had to think they had stolen the series opener. Referee Jason Phillips said Wade hit George, and the Pacers’ star made all three free throws for the 16th lead change of the night.
The final lead change came moments later.
“Welcome to the Eastern Conference finals,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Back and forth the whole way.”
The final few seconds of regulation were stunning, with Ray Allen — the sixth-best free-throw shooter in NBA history — missing one that proved big, and George making a miracle happen.
Trailing by two with 17.7 seconds left, the Pacers had to foul Allen, who surely would have been their last choice. But he missed one of the two free throws, and it remained a one-possession game. Indiana brought the ball into the frontcourt, called time, and then seemed to have nothing really working as the final seconds of regulation ticked away.
So George simply made something happen.
From way deep — from the newly applied Eastern Conference finals sticker on the side of the court, technically — George connected with 0.7 seconds left, tying the game and giving Indiana life.
Allen didn’t get much of a desperation shot off at the end of regulation, and to overtime the teams went.
“It took an overtime to get it done,” Spoelstra said. “Glad to get that one.”
The Pacers kept landing the first punches in the extra session. George made two free throws to open the OT, and Andersen tied it with two of his own. Hibbert scored from close range, and Wade answered with an easy one after a runout for the 16th tie of the night.
George was far from done. He went past James, got into the lane, tossed up a shot after contact and started what became a three-point play that put the Pacers up 99-96. Miami had three chances at the tie — a desperation 3-pointer by Battier as the shot clock was expiring, then a 3-point try by Bosh and another 3 attempt by Battier.
But Bosh grabbed the rebound of the last shot by Battier that bounced off the rim in that sequence, scored while being fouled by George with 49.7 seconds left, calmly swished the free throw and the teams were — what else? — tied again at 99-all.
James scored on a drive with 10.8 seconds left in the overtime, and George answered with the three free throws. With Hibbert on the bench, Indiana had one plan for James on the last play.
“We wanted LeBron to shoot a jumper right there,” George said.
He had other ideas.
And after 3 hours, 18 minutes, it was over.
“We’re excited about the win,” James said. “But we have to get better going into Game 2.”
NOTES: Celebrities in attendance included Jimmy Buffett and Anna Kournikova. ... James picked up two first-quarter fouls for just the ninth time in 125 career playoff games. ... West’s 18 first-half points were his most before halftime since March 24, 2011, when he had 20 through two quarters against Utah. ... From the not-often-seen department, a lane violation against the Pacers that led to James getting a second (and successful) chance on a missed free throw, and a 5-second call against Wade, both of those coming in the first half.