MIAMI – Their season, their legacy, their reign atop the NBA was all at stake, and the Miami Heat responded in a manner befitting defending champions – with a blowout.
LeBron James scored 32 points and grabbed eight rebounds, ailing Dwyane Wade matched his postseason high with 21 points, and the Heat ran away from the Indiana Pacers 99-76 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference series on Monday night.
In the NBA Finals for the third straight year, the Heat will play the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 on Thursday in Miami.
“They’re just an amazing group of guys,” Heat managing general partner Micky Arison said after handing the East trophy to Chris Andersen. “They’ve given us an incredible season so far, but it’s a long way from over.”
It could have ended on Monday, of course. The Heat had alternated wins and losses with the Pacers in the first six games of the series, and were coming off their worst offensive outing of the year in Game 6.
They responded with a rout, despite shooting just under 40 percent, well below their norm.
“By any means necessary … we took care of business,” James said.
Miami led by as many as 28 points, a shocking amount for a series that had an aggregate score of Heat 569, Pacers 564 entering Monday night. The Heat actually trailed by six in the early going, were still down 21-19 after the first quarter and it was starting to look like one of those down-to-the-wire nights.
Not even close.
“You never want to take anything for granted,” Wade said. “Being here three straight years in a row, going back to the finals, is an amazing feat. I’m just glad we were able to do it. Everything that happened in the first six games didn’t mean anything to us. It was about tonight. It was about Game 7. It was about finding a way to win here at home.”
James exited with 5:08 left, shaking retired soccer star David Beckham’s hand as he made his way to the Heat bench for a relatively subdued celebration. Not long afterward, security personnel started what’s become a familiar task in Miami – surrounding the court and stretching out a yellow rope, preparing to hold people at bay for the looming on-court trophy presentation.
More than a few people didn’t stick around to see the East title formally presented. After all, it’s an all-or-nothing season for the Heat – and this trophy isn’t the one that will satisfy them.
Ray Allen added 10 points for Miami, which earned its 78th victory of the season.
“It’s just a privilege to be with this great team, great teammates, and we have another opportunity to go back to where we are,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “You never really want to get it out of the way too much.
“Game 7s don’t happen too often. We enjoyed it and now we have to move on.”
Roy Hibbert scored 18 points for the Pacers, who got 14 from David West, 13 from George Hill and 10 from Lance Stephenson. All-Star Paul George was held to seven points on 2-for-9 shooting and fouled out early in the fourth quarter.
“Everybody in this country knows who the Indiana Pacers are now,” coach Frank Vogel said. “And we represent all the right things – class, character, hard work, old-school basketball, playing the game the right way.
“We represented our franchise, our city and our state extremely, extremely well, and we have a lot to be proud of.”
James delivered an inspirational address of sorts to his team Monday morning, publicly revealing no details of what he said afterward other than insisting that the Heat would be ready.
He was right. After 5 minutes, it was 12-6 Indiana. After that, the rest of the half was pretty much all Miami.
Once the Pacers cooled off a bit, the Heat immediately went into pull-away mode. Over the final 19 minutes of the half, Miami’s edge was 46-25. Over the final 11 minutes, it was 33-14, as James and Allen outscored the Pacers by themselves.
By halftime, it was 52-37, with James scoring 18 points, Bosh and Wade combining for 17 and Allen adding 10 more. And what had to be most troubling to the Pacers at halftime was their 15 turnovers, a number Vogel said earlier Monday would spell trouble if his team committed that many in the entire game.
And in the third, the run the Pacers so desperately needed never arrived.
It was Miami’s night.
“We’ll enjoy this,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “for a short period of time.”