lebron_james_paul_george

by Thomas Johnson / @tjohnsonwriter

In last year’s Eastern Conference finals, the Heat’s lithe frontcourt allowed Roy Hibbert to look like a remixed Wilt Chamberlain, as he disposed of Miami’s bigs in the post like pesky younger siblings.

Last night, Hibbert was an afterthought, hampered by frequent fouls that limited him to a paltry 4 points and 2 rebounds in just 23 minutes.

Instead, it was Dwyane Wade’s dominance that dictated the action, as he paced the Heat with a game-high 32 points.

“When he’s able to move, he’s one of the best in the game,” LeBron James said of Wade’s performance. “He took 25 shots tonight, so he’s feeling great. For him to shoot 15-25 was huge.”

For the majority of the first half, the marquee match-up wasn’t between LeBron James and T-Mac 2.0, Paul George, but rather the two shooting guards, Wade and Lance Stephenson. Born Ready’s emergence combined with Wade’s recent health adds a new wrinkle to a match-up that was hardly lacking in juicy sub-plots.

On paper, Stephenson is one of the few guys who can literally go pound for pound with Wade in the post. Stephenson stands 6-5 and like Wade, is one of the bulkier 2-guards in the League, weighing in at 230 pounds. But Stephenson, like Alec Burks two nights ago, was unable to stop Wade from scoring on the low block.

“Lance is a guy who’s on our scouting report now,” Wade said after the game. “He’s very aggressive and I like the challenge.” After a torrid first half, the Heat defenders were able to slow down Stephenson and his one-man fast break.

James’ ankle was the central storyline before tip-off. In the pre-game press conference, Erik Spoelstra said he would not know whether James would play until tipoff. Given James’ near bionic durability, it was hardly a surprise when he confirmed that he would in fact partake in the festivities.

His sprained, twisted (or whatever other painful adjective you prefer) ankle did not hamper his athleticism, as James sprinted down the court in the first quarter for two fast break dunks. James acknowledged before and after the game that his ankle was nowhere near 100 percent, and gave it a “seven out of 10″ in terms of health.

Anticipating that James would not be playing at full strength, Wade shifted back into the leading man role and incisively attacked Indiana’s League-best defense. Wade scored in a variety of manners: half-hooks in the post, off-the-dribble jumpers and even finishing staccato crossovers with double-pump flips shots that rekindled pre-Big 3 memories.

“I knew that he (James) would be a little timid coming off the ankle early before the adrenaline starts pumping,” Wade said. “I wanted to be aggressive early on and it lasted the entire game.”

The bothersome knee that robbed Wade of his first-step last postseason and limited him to just 15 ppg on 43 percent shooting in last year’s seven-game series against the Pacers was not an issue tonight.

“This is the best I felt,” Wade said. “I’ve been putting a lot of work in. I haven’t taken a day off.”

And it showed. With James hampered by foul trouble early on and Chris Bosh starting the game slowly on offense, Wade’s scoring was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise discombobulated first half.

For Indiana, Stephenson took the offensive reins in the first half, scoring nine points in the first quarter, as he and Wade exchanged baskets, while guarding one another.

As expected, the game was not without extracurricular activity. Two of the more notorious instigators, Stephenson and Mario Chalmers, exchanged pleasantries in the second quarter, leading to a “hold me back” scuffle and a palpable increase in crowd intensity. That would not be the last confrontation of the night for Chalmers.

For much of the game, it was the Heat’s outside shooting that appeared wounded. It wasn’t until the midway through the third quarter that Miami hits its first three-pointer, courtesy of a Norris Cole jumper.

Even without Hibbert for large stretches of the game, Indiana held a steady lead behind consistent inside-outside play between George and David West. The lead ballooned to 15 by the midpoint of the third quarter, with Hibbert on the bench after picking up his fifth foul. The Heat’s inability to close the gap in that stretch led to one particularly passionate exchange between James and Chalmers during a timeout and the two had to be separated by teammates.

During the game, LeBron appeared to apologize to Chalmers and made sure the message was clear through social media.

The Heat, playing catch up most of the night, finally drew level on a timely Bosh three-pointer late in the fourth quarter. “That’s one thing I didn’t want to was hesitate,” Bosh said. “I felt I hesitated the past couple of shots so I just wanted to step into it and knock it down.”

They took the lead for good thanks to Ray Allen, Miami’s Mariano Rivera. It was Allen’s first three-pointer of the night.

George’s steady production and fluid jumper kept the Heat at bay for most of the night. It was fitting, then, that the game came down to a final possession, with George missing a three-pointer in the dying seconds to tie the game.

George claimed that he was pushed on the final shot, and he may have a case (he had a few choice words for Joey Crawford after the final buzzer), but LeBron wasn’t buying it. “I don’t think so,” James said about the potential foul on the final play. “It all evens out. It’s two great teams and if it comes to one final shot, we’ll take it.”

Considering that the game lacked Danny Granger, Michael Beasley, Hibbert for stretches, and a fully fit James, NBA fans have to be salivating at the prospect of another Eastern Conference Finals showdown.

The Heat players echoed Spoelstra’s comments and made a point to dismiss any talk of the win being a statement game, but based on what we saw from an intensity standpoint, it certainly wasn’t a trip to Toronto or Charlotte.

“They beat us on their home court; we beat them on our home court,” Wade said. “That’s a wash.”

We’ll have to wait six months for the next potential series and three months for even the next regular-season battle. Based on what we’ve seen from these two teams in the last two years, that time cannot pass by fast enough.