With another season on the brink, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James took their two-man game to new heights.
Just like that, the Miami Heat and a Big Three-Minus-One are headed back to the Eastern Conference finals.
Wade scored 41 points, James added 28 and the Heat finished off the once-frisky Indiana Pacers 105-93 in Game 6 Thursday night, advancing to face either Boston or Philadelphia in the next round.
The way Miami's dynamic duo is playing, it may not matter who's got next.
"They're going to be tough to beat by anybody," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said.
This was a 4-2 triumph that came down to a trilogy, Wade and James responding with the most remarkable week of their high-powered partnership, just when it looked as though the Heat were down and might be out.
Over the course of three dazzling games, James scored 98 points, grabbed 34 rebounds and dished out 24 assists. Wade had 99 points, 22 rebounds and 11 assists. Chris Bosh, sidelined by an abdominal injury, wasn't missed at all.
"In the regular season, we've had some good games," Wade said. "But I don't know if we've ever had three in a row like that in the playoffs, the way we played off each other."
Of course, nothing less than an NBA title will do in South Beach.
Two series down, two to go.
One week earlier, Miami was down 2-1 after getting thumped 94-75 in Indianapolis. The fired-up Pacers had another game on their home court and a chance to build a commanding lead.
Wade and James simply refused to let it happen.
"We understand that when Chris went out, we had to step up," D-Wade said. "The team looked to us to lead."
The banged-up Heat will get a chance to relax a couple of days before worrying about the next opponent, who will be determined in Game 7 at Boston on Saturday. The conference finals start Monday in Miami.
Bosh hopes to return at some point, but it might not matter.
Not the way Wade and James are playing.
"Chris Bosh is an awesome basketball player, but when he goes down, that just means more touches for LeBron and Wade," Vogel said. "That's not exactly an advantage."
The Heat rallied from an early 11-point deficit, riding the hot hand of Wade in the opening half. He scored 26 points by the break, tying Tim Hardaway's 16-year-old franchise record for most playoff points in the first two quarters. James hit consecutive baskets with just over a minute remaining to close it out.
David West led Indiana with 24 points and all five starters were in double figures. Balance, it turned out, was no match for Wade and James.
"Guys are disappointed but understand that it's not our time yet," West said.
In a game of spurts, the decisive one came in the closing minutes of the third quarter.
The Pacers tied it at 66 on Darren Collison's 3-pointer, but it was all Heat the rest of the period. They closed on a 13-3 run, capped by Mario Chalmers' buzzer-beating 3 from the corner. Wade, who was on the bench getting his customary breather at the end of the quarter, leaped from his seat as the ball left Chalmers' hand at the far end, raced along the baseline and pumped his fist when it swished.
When Chalmers raced toward the Miami bench, Wade greeted him near the free throw line with a low-five.
"We just had a bad stretch," West said. "They got us in the third quarter."
Cheerleading aside, D-Wade did his best work while in the game. He dropped 11-of-16 shooting on the Pacers in the first half, but also made sure the MVP stayed involved, dishing off a behind-the-back pass to James for a thunderous jam.
"They're too good," West said. "They pressure you all over the place."
There was none of the nastiness that marked Game 5, when a bunch of flagrant fouls resulted in suspensions for two Miami players, co-captain Udonis Haslem and backup center Dexter Pittman. Pacers president Larry Bird was so disgusted with his team's performance in a 115-83 loss that he accused them of going "soft."
Toughness wasn't the problem this time. This was merely a Miami team on a mission, a mission that began in the summer of 2010 when the Heat signed James and Bosh to join Wade in a seemingly unbeatable trio. There was a glitzy introduction and predictions of multiple championships, which left the rest of the league seething and plenty of people cheering when Miami was knocked off in the NBA finals by the Dallas Mavericks last season.
Shaking off that disappointment, James had perhaps his greatest season yet. But it was Wade who took control in the decisive game against the Pacers. He sliced into the lane, throwing up a one-handed shot that looked like it might go over the backboard, only to catch the top of the glass and drop through, barely touching the twine. He delivered one final blow when he split West and George Hill, banking in the shot despite taking a knee from Hill that sent the Heat guard tumbling to the court.
"We just didn't have enough yet," Vogel said, "but we'll be back."
Chalmers finished with 15 points, while Mike Miller stepped up to provide some quality minutes, scoring 12 points on four 3-pointers to help fill the void without Haslem, Pittman and Bosh.
When Miller wasn't in the game, he stretched out along the baseline to cope with his various aches and pains, more comfortable that way than sitting in a chair. When coach Erik Spoelstra called his number, Miller summoned several of his teammates to help lift him up.
"He might be the toughest guy on the team," Wade said.
The Big Two aren't too shabby, either.
Notes: Indiana started 8 of 9 from the field, but went just 26 of 61 (43 percent) the rest of the way. ... The Heat held the Pacers to an average of less than 40 points in the second half over the last three games. ... Miami had only 10 turnovers, its fewest in the series.
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