MIAMI -- Though the images of LeBron James ripping into his teammates in the huddle at the start of the third quarter will come to define this latest expansion of his postseason legacy, the anger that fueled it came from a much deeper place.
A furious James, knowing how pivotal Game 5s have been throughout his playoff career -- setting the stage for his greatest triumphs and failures -- needed someone to help him deliver what was needed. He'd left Cleveland three years ago because these crucial playoff tipping points had for too long been only about him, with everyone else just along for the ride.
James didn't need passengers in this series-changing crucible of Game 5 against the relentless Indiana Pacers on Thursday night. He needed another driver. He looked into every teammate's eyes -- "Everybody!" he raged -- and demanded accountability.
James told his teammates that they needed to "look in the mirror," Dwyane Wade said, "and decide what you want out of this season." A home loss to the Pacers would've doomed James to an untimely reunion with his past, would've sent him on a trip down memory lane to a time and place when he wasn't flanked with two of the best players in the world -- when he had to do it all himself.
Even in triumph on Thursday night, a 90-79 masterpiece forged by James that gave theHeat a 3-2 series lead, he got more of a glimpse into that past than he wanted.
The superstars that he left Cleveland to team up with didn't show up. In the third quarter, when James went back to what he called "my Cleveland days," Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh might as well have been Boobie Gibson and Jamario Moon.
"I just said, hey, let's try to make more plays and be more of a scoring threat as well, and just try to figure out a way that I can -- I don't know, just see if the guys would just follow me, and just lead them the best way I could," James said.
And nobody followed.
While James was busy crushing the Pacers' will with 16 third-quarter points to Indiana's 13, Wade and Bosh accounted for one point between them in nearly 20 minutes. Wade took no shots; Bosh took one, and missed.
If not for Udonis Haslem going 5-for-5 on those baseline jumpers that he'll be draining in some YMCA in a couple of years, Miami would've gotten a grand total of one field goal in the third quarter from anyone not named LeBron James.
"We were in 'wait' mode in the first half instead of going and getting it," James said. "Just waiting for things to happen. I took it upon myself to stop waiting and just go."
The way James had demolished the Pacers in the paint in Game 3, he demolished them from everywhere this time -- with no moment bigger than a quarter-closing 3-pointer that gave Miami a 70-56 lead. James turned, raised his arms and spewed a four-syllable expletive heard 'round the basketball world.
With 16 of his 30 points in the third, James stole the Pacers' will to fight, all by himself -- the way he had done so many times before in much different surroundings.
"We just didn't respond, didn't fight back," David West said in the Pacers' stunned locker room. "We didn't push back."
West pushed back after Mario Chalmers returned the dirty elbow that West had hit him with in Game 3, and went face-to-face with Haslem, who'd stepped into the fray. Tyler Hansbrough pushed back after Chris "Birdbrain" Andersen recklessly blindsided him away from the ball in the second quarter -- a mindless play that should've resulted in an ejection and will be subject to league review on Friday to determine if he'll be suspended for Game 6.
But that was it. Besides a quietly brilliant performance from Paul George, who tried to match James with 27 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, James stole the rest of the Pacers' soul.
James doing that all by himself was enough for Miami to regain command of this series. Whether it will be enough for the Heat to close out the Pacers and advance to James' fourth NBA Finals is something that James has to be wondering.
"That's what I came here for, to be able to compete for a championship each and every year," James said. "We are one step away from doing it once again.
"But it's not a promise," he said. "It's not promised at all. I made a tough decision, obviously. I think we all know the story; I'm not going to harp on that. I envisioned something that was bigger as far as a team. I sacrificed a lot for me individually [with] what I had going on in the summer of 2010 because I wanted to do something special with a team."
But this was not what James envisioned, this third-quarter onslaught unleashed by him alone. It was not what he envisioned when he left his hometown three years ago, and it wasn't what he had in mind when he blasted his teammates in that third-quarter huddle -- so many expletives that his mouth had to be blurred out on TV.
James is now 8-2 in playoff Game 5s since coming to Miami, and in each previous victory under these circumstances, the Heat have won the series. But with Wade hobbled by a knee injury that he admitted again after the game has stolen his explosiveness, and with Bosh virtually invisible on the floor, James hasn't had this little help this deep into a season since he wore No. 23 for the Cavs.
Wade has managed to score 20 points once in these playoffs and was 3 for 8 on Thursday night, attempting only two shots in the second half. Bosh is 4 for 13 in the past two games and has 18 rebounds in the entire series. Ray Allen is 11 for 38 against the Pacers and had made only six 3-pointers, showing every minute of his 37 years.
James' time in Cleveland came to end shortly after his epic failure in Game 5 against the Celtics in 2010, when he was 3 for 14 with 15 points. He made sure it wouldn't happen this time, though his effort to recruit some help with that fiery speech before the third quarter came up as empty as Wade and Bosh did after hearing it.
"I just tried to get on the guys and let them know that we can't just win with talent," James said. "We are playing a great team."
The Pacers have brought the best out in James, the way the Pistons did at the end of their Eastern Conference run in 2007 and the way Doc Rivers' Celtics have ever since. But when James reached down into his motivational well, roaring with a rare explosion of feisty rhetoric and anger, there was nothing there.
No response, no pushback from the Pacers, and none from his star teammates, either. Once again, LeBron James had to go it alone.