LeBron James scored the game-winning points in the dying embers of overtime as the Miami Heat held off a determined Indiana Pacers 103-102 in a thrilling Eastern Conference Finals opener on Wednesday.
If broadcasters were concerned that another easy series win for Miami would further damage ratings, they got the perfect antidote with the Pacers pushing the Heat all the way and raising the prospect of a tight best-of-seven set.
It was scrappy and foul-ridden at times in the first half, and neither side were able to dominate at any stage.
“Any time it seemed like a team was about to pull away, the other team came back,” said Dwyane Wade of Miami, who have lost just one game in the playoffs so far.
“We can expect this for seven games,” he added.
However, replicating a finish like this one might be too much to ask for.
Indiana’s Paul George, whose turnover looked to have handed Miami the win in regulation, made amends in spectacular style by sinking a huge three-pointer from deep with just 0.7 seconds left on the clock to force overtime.
Then, with Miami two points ahead and 2.2 seconds on the clock of the first extra period, George was fouled by Wade as he attempted a three-point shot and kept his cool to sink all three free throws to put Indiana ahead by a point.
The foul was Wade’s sixth, removing him from the game, but he was soon back on the court celebrating.
With Miami’s last throw of the dice, Shane Battier passed to James, who drove the lane on his way to a comfortable layup that fell a fraction ahead of the buzzer and sent the Heat crowd into a frenzy.
Pacers fans were left wondering why center Roy Hibbert, expert in protecting the basket, was not on the court for the final crucial plays.
Coach Frank Vogel had been torn about the best way to defend the Heat, but clearly regretted leaving Hibbert on the bench.
“It is the dilemma that they present,” he said.
“Obviously the way it worked out it would have been better to have Roy in the game, but you don’t know ... I would say we will probably have him in next time,” Vogel added.
James top-scored for Miami with 30 points on 12 of 24 shooting with 10 rebounds and 10 assists as he completed his ninth post-season triple-double, tying the great Wilt Chamberlain for the fifth most in post-season history.
“No matter how much you watch the game or how much you have played it — you get amazed by spectacular talent,” Wade said.
“He continues to amaze the world of basketball,” he added.
Miami’s Chris Andersen made a major contribution from the bench with seven of seven shooting and a post-season career high 16 points from his 18 minutes, 15 seconds on court.
George had 27 points for the Pacers, with David West contributing 26.
Game 2 is in Miami today.
In the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs lead the Memphis Grizzlies 2-0 ahead of Game 3 tomorrow.