|Dwyane Wade's busted brow jumpstarts a very aggressive reaction out of Miami. (US Presswire)|
But Miami's full-throttle 115-83 evisceration of the Pacers in Game 5, giving them a 3-2 lead in the conference semifinals, was marred by three flagrant fouls. Well, two flagrant fouls and one felonious assault, the latter of which was perpetrated by a benchwarmer-turned-goon named Dexter Pittman.
With 19.4 seconds left in a 35-point blowout, Pittman spotted Lance Stephenson -- he who delivered the infamous choke sign to LeBron in Game 3 -- diving down the lane to get in position for a possible tip-dunk on the offensive glass. Pittman made a beeline for him, and took him out with a vicious elbow to the throat. Both players went down hard.
Like two earlier fouls in the game -- one on Tyler Hansbrough and another on Udonis Haslem -- it was ruled a flagrant foul, penalty-one, which does not come with an automatic ejection. But the league office will rectify that matter Wednesday, and in my estimation will not only upgrade it to a flagrant-two, but also assess a multi-game suspension. My initial guess: At least three games, maybe more.
"I need to see it," James said. "I need to see exactly what happened. But I think there's no room for dirty plays in our game, period – whether it's from us, or Indiana or anyone in the league. We're all one group as players, and you don't want anybody to get hurt. I haven't seen that actual play, but we'll see."
Once he sees it, he will agree: It's a dirty play that has no place in the game, unless the game is hockey, where scrubs dress up as goons and retaliation is accepted. But as disgusting as Pittman's play was, that wasn't the one that could influence the rest of the series -- because Pittman is a bum, and the only harmful punishment for him would be to force him to play, not sit.
The play that could affect the outcome of Game 6 Thursday night at Indiana was Haslem's two-armed piledriver on Hansbrough, which Hansbrough interpreted as "retaliation" for his own earlier flagrant foul on Wade. A series steeped in bad blood had some more -- and some more real blood -- in Game 5.
Hansbrough had been assessed a flagrant-one for winding up and coming down on Wade's head when trying to block his shot in the second quarter, leaving Wade bleeding above his right eye -- reminiscent of Haslem after catching an elbow from Lou Amundson in Game 4.
Haslem, wearing a thick bandage over his eye that was replicated by Heat staffers throughout the arena, retaliated against Hansbrough -- and should have been ejected. The league reviews all flagrant fouls to see if they should be upgraded, downgraded or rescinded, and this one almost certainly will be upgraded to a flagrant-two, according to a person familiar with the situation. A suspension for Game 6 has not been ruled out.
"I made a play on the ball and my rap sheet speaks for itself," Haslem said. "I've never been a dirty player. I've never been called a dirty player. Never, and I've been in the league for nine years. The only thing people say about me is that I compete hard and I bring it. Nobody's ever called me a dirty player."
Five possessions after Hansbrough's foul on Wade, Haslem came down with both arms on his face and decked him as Hansbrough went up for a jumper. Hansbrough's version of events was as follows:
"I went for the ball and came across Wade's face," Hansbrough said. "Udonis, I thought it might have been a retaliation, to be honest with you. ... I just felt like I got hit in the face."
Wade's version: "Obviously, my face is not the ball. I thought it was uncalled for."
Tolerance levels already had been running on fumes between the teams, as James said at shootaround Tuesday that Danny Granger was being "stupid" for repeatedly confronting him on the court. Before the game, Pacers coach Frank Vogel said Granger "has done nothing to initiate any of that stuff.
"We're just not going to be intimidated by antics like that after the whistle," Vogel said.
The Heat -- particularly James and Wade -- clearly were fueled by the Pacers' physical tactics and the rhetoric. Wade, who shook off the cut over his eye to score 28 points on 10-for-17 shooting, came to the interview room afterward with a big smile and a white bandage -- replicating the bandage Haslem has been playing with since taking that Game 3 elbow.
This was perhaps not the best moment to make light of a series that has become so testy, so physical that it's crossed a line that shouldn't be crossed.
"Nobody wants to see their own blood," Wade said.
While the Heat could be facing two suspensions for Game 6, the Pacers suffered collateral damage as well. Granger could be unavailable Thursday night due to a sprained ankle suffered when he landed on James' foot after attempting a 3-point shot in the second quarter. David West (10 points, 5-for-13 shooting) sprained his left knee, but is expected to be OK -- and was already talking about revenge.
"A guy just dove into my knee," West said. "It's part of the game. I can handle myself. That will be dealt with."
Lost in all of this was a dominant performance by the Heat, who had a dizzying 25-9 run spanning the second and third quarters and outscored the Pacers 22-2 on the fastbreak and 46-26 in the paint.
Coming off his monstrous Game 4 performance, James had 30 points on 12-for-19 shooting, 10 rebounds and eight assists -- and seemingly, an icy stare or cocky smile for the Indiana bench after each cold-blooded basket. The Heat, without Chris Bosh, didn't need Wade or James for the last 4:19, when both came out with a 26-point lead.
The signature moments of a 25-9 run dating to the closing minutes of the second quarter were a one-handed catch-and-pass on the move from James to Wade for a dunk, followed by a court-length baseball pass from Wade to James for another dunk. The latter gave Miami a 65-47 lead with 5:37 left in the quarter, a knockout punch that was Mike Tyson-like in its swiftness and anger.
"The talk has fueled the physical play and the physical play has fueled more talking," James said.
Clearly, the bad blood will linger into Game 6.
The Hansbrough and Haslem fouls were flagrants that can be dealt with under the rules. But while Pittman's inevitable suspension won't affect the series, the league's response to it could. It needs to be severe.
"That's not a basketball play," Pacers guard Dahntay Jones said.
Roy Hibbert (eight points on 3-for-10 shooting) didn't see the Pittman play because he was ducking for cover on the bench under a rain of wet T-shirts being thrown from the stands. And it wasn't the kind of wet T-shirt contest you'd typically associate with South Beach.
"They'd tie them up in a ball, wet it a little bit so you can throw them farther," Hibbert said.
Heat fans -- stay classy, by the way -- are as easy to hate as their team. But this could've been the night when the Heat redirected all that derision and took it out in a good, clean way on the Pacers.
Instead, we have this: A great series turned ugly, and a Game 6 where tensions will be off the charts and everyone's head needs to be on a swivel, lest it be knocked off.
"I'm going to protect myself at all times," Hibbert said. "And I told my teammates that as well."