TIM REYNOLDS, AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI (AP) — There’s one area where the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat agree.
LeBron James, they insist, will be better in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Everyone, it seems, is waiting to see what sort of bounce-back effort James brings in Game 6 of the East finals after struggling mightily in Game 5, spending long stretches as a spectator because of foul trouble. The series resumes Friday in Miami.
“The greats usually try to respond with a comeback-type of performance,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “So I think we can expect that.”
Said Pacers star Paul George: “LeBron’s going to be LeBron. … Our hands are going to be full with LeBron. We know that.”
Sounds like a safe assumption, since James’ final stat line in Game 5 on Wednesday night — seven points, five fouls, two field goals, two air balls, one ear blown into by Indiana’s Lance Stephenson — was one of the worst in his career.
His first shot of the night? An alley-oop dunk that got the Miami bench celebrating.
Everything else that happened in Game 5 didn’t provide the Heat with much cause for celebration.
Five of his remaining nine shots were short, another was a missed layup and he didn’t take a single shot in the second and third quarters — the first time in his career that’s happened.
Of course, it wasn’t like he chose not to shoot: Fouls limited him to 4½ minutes in the middle two periods.
“It was frustrating last night, but I’m good now,” James said Thursday after practice. “Yesterday is old news. Today is a new opportunity, and tomorrow is another opportunity to get better. So for me, I move on. That’s why I’m able to stay who I am and be able to be better the next day.”
By any measure, Game 5 will go down as a historically bad night for James.
—He played 24 minutes, the sixth-fewest of his 994-game career.
—He was whistled for five fouls faster than ever before in an NBA game.
—He shot 2 for 10, his worst performance from the field in more than six years.
—He had two rebounds, matching the second-worst showing in that category in his last 370 games.
—He scored seven points, tying for the fourth-fewest of his career, with the other entries on that list all coming during his first 15 months as a pro.
—He failed to reach double-digits in scoring for the first time since the 2011 NBA Finals, ending what was a 276-game stretch counting both the regular season and playoffs.
“You have to compartmentalize in a series, and it’s all about the task at hand,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Thursday. “Tomorrow, we can’t even live in the past. That’s why we came in today. And you can’t think about the future. The only thing you think about is what we need to do to get tomorrow’s game. No contest.”
James showed little interest in discussing Game 5, either the game or the shenanigans within the game, most notably the moment when Stephenson — who has already talked about the Heat star’s “weakness” when engaging with him during this series — blew into his left ear during a stoppage in play.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” Stephenson said. “He’s a great player. You’ve got to do whatever it takes to get under him and win the game because he’s that good. So if I got to do all that stuff, I’m going to do that to win the game.”
Stephenson was asked if he’s worried he’s giving James too much motivation. It’s a fair point since there’s some history there, such as James getting 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists in a playoff game two years ago that immediately followed Stephenson making a choking sign to him following a missed free throw. And in this series, after the “weakness” line, James came out and scored 32 points in a Heat win.
“He should be motivated anyway,” Stephenson said. “There’s a lot on the line. Like I said, we’re all motivated, and we’re all trying to get one thing. We’re all trying to win. So he’s definitely motivated. He’s motivated, and I know he’s going to come out even stronger in his building. He’s got his fans behind him.”
A win on Friday (or Sunday, if necessary) would put Miami into the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year.
And Heat guard Dwyane Wade thinks that’s all the motivation James will need in Game 6.
“I’m very excited,” Wade said. “It wasn’t ideal for us to have him play 24 minutes, but I do know that guy, and I know how he responds. So I’m good with it now. Now I’m good with it because I know he’s going to come out and put his mark on the game, whichever way that may be, and that gives us the best opportunity to win.”
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