INDIANAPOLIS -- When the horn sounded and LeBron James began taking those first few steps toward Game 7, he made a beeline for some of his teammates.
Not the kind of beeline he'd made toward referee Monty McCutcheon to earn himself a technical foul with the outcome hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter, but more on that later.
James extended his hand as he walked with a determined gait, making contact first with Rashard Lewis, and then Mike Miller, Joel Anthony, Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers. He sought them out, one by one.
His guys. His team.
Besides Lewis, who came in as a garbage-time sub late in the fourth, these were the guys who showed up and battled alongside LeBron in Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers. The only ones.
James was on an island again on Saturday night, and was in a remarkably upbeat mood afterward, all things considered. When he delivered that line about going back to his "Cleveland days" after blitzing the Pacers in Game 5, it whooshed by like a gust of wind -- temporary, fleeting. But now, after the Pacers forced the Heat to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals with a 91-77 victory on Saturday night, this is James' new reality.
"Total domination by the Pacers in the third," James said.
Game 6 was Cleveland all over again. This series has been Cleveland all over again. And now it can be told that James is up against a very real and dangerous foe in his quest to get back to the NBA Finals and win his second straight title. The reality is: the ferocious team that entered its second-round series against Chicago 49-3 since Feb. 1 has now lost more games in the past 27 days than in the previous three months.
Frankly, the Heat are fortunate there is a seventh game to play in this series since the Pacers have outplayed them in four of the six games so far. Only James' remarkable layup in the final 2.2 seconds of Game 1 has kept all of us from packing up and heading to a Pacers-Spurs finals.
"I'm probably not going to be able to relax just because of the excitement of having a Game 7 in our building, the opportunity to go to the NBA Finals," James said.
It will be the fourth Game 7 in James' career, for the chance to advance to his fourth NBA Finals. He's 1-2, with both losses coming on the road -- in 2006 at Detroit and in 2008 at Boston. James and the Heat closed out the Celtics in Game 7 at home in the conference finals last season.
James had 31 points and 12 rebounds in that game, but he had some help. Dwyane Wade had 23 points, six rebounds and six assists. Chris Bosh came off the bench and was a huge factor in closing out Boston with 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting.
Now? Wade and Bosh are worse than invisible, because at least if they were invisible, they wouldn't be so hard to watch. Wade's balky right knee held him to 3-for-11 shooting and 10 points. He's not Dwyane Wade anymore. Chris Bosh turned his right ankle in Game 4 and has delivered nothing since –- not that he was doing anything beforehand.
Get this: LeBron has outscored both Wade and Bosh combined by 16 points in this series.
"I mean, we can state the obvious," James said. "They're both struggling."
The burden of doing it all, the energy expended probing a defense designed only to stop him, spilled out in 30-yard dash of frustration in the fourth quarter. After the Pacers had outscored the Heat 29-15 in the third to lead by as many as 17, James and his band of backups started chipping away.
The Pacers got sloppy with the ball, Mike Miller knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers and suddenly it was a six-point game with 8:11 left. James was on the floor with Anthony, Miller, Cole and Allen.
With the deficit still under double-digits, James drove the lane and met Roy Hibbert in the air. He doubled-clutched and lofted an errant shot over Hibbert's outstretched hand. When the whistle came and the offensive foul was called, James raced to the other end of the floor in disbelief -- right past McCutcheon, who teed him up.
"I had to run down the court to stop from being kicked out," James said. "I thought it was a pretty bad call. I don't complain about calls too much. I thought and Hibbert met at the mountaintop. I didn't throw an elbow. Basically, I went straight up. ... I have no idea why that was called an offensive foul."
As furious and frustrated as James has been at times in this series -- he blasted the officiating after he fouled out in Game 4 and didn't get fined -- the Pacers' slow burn from being ignored all season has started to accelerate. Hibbert, dominant in every way, managed to invite some infamy -- and almost certainly a hefty fine -- by dropping a gay slur into his postgame press conference. And he lashed out at some of the very same media members whose votes resulted in Hibbert finishing 10th in the defensive player of the year voting.
"You know what, because y'all [expletives] don't watch us play throughout the year, to tell you the truth," Hibbert said. "I'm going to be real with you, and I don't care if I get fined."
Hibbert's indignation speaks to the possibility that hardly anyone has been willing to openly contemplate, but one that now must be confronted in full: An NBA Finals without the Heat. Instead, an NBA Finals with the Spurs and Pacers. The Pacers are that good, that well-prepared, that well-coached, that mentally and physically tough. And the Heat are that vulnerable. Once again, the Heat had no answer for Hibbert in the paint and they had nothing close to the determination exhibited by David West, who battled through a 100-degree-plus fever to keep this feisty Indiana team glued together -- as he has all year.
"The guy is all heart," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "And it's contagious. I don't really have the words for it, to be honest with you. His tank was on 'E' from the time he came into the building this morning."
West missed his first seven shots, and near the end of the second quarter, Vogel told him, "I gotta get you out."
"No, leave me in," West said. "I'm all right. I'm good."
West finished with 11 points, 14 rebounds and the respect of anyone who was somehow blissfully unaware that he's one of the toughest hombres in the NBA -- one of the true leaders and best teammates in the sport.
"That's just David West stepping up to the challenge," Paul George said. "And we still went to him, because we know David West. We'll take David West any day, sick or healthy."
Heading into Game 7 on Monday night, the Pacers know what they have. They know who is showing up, and what they're bringing, with their season and a trip to the Finals on the line. They'll all take each other, in sickness and in health.
LeBron James and the Heat, despite all their regular season dominance and star power, despite the 27-game winning streak and 45-3 blitz to close the year, can't possibly know what they are now.
At least they better hope not, because what they are at the moment is beatable.