MIAMI -- Get ready for an angry LeBron James in tonight’s pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers.
James has been fuming the past few days after he was called for four fouls in the fourth quarter of the Miami Heat’s Game 4 loss that evened the series 2-2. He fouled out for just the second time in his career in a playoff game, and it came with a technical foul. James disputed three of those calls, and a review of the replays didn’t do much to ease his frustration.
On Thursday, his miserable finish to Game 4 was compounded by being fined $5,000 for flopping on a fourth-quarter play against Pacers forward David West. Add that retroactive penalty, and that fourth quarter in Indianapolis easily qualifies as the most penal quarter in James’ career.
That fine fired James up more because he believed West got away with a flop at the end of the third quarter when James was whistled for an offensive foul. That turned into a key play because the Pacers hit a 3-pointer just ahead of the buzzer with the extra possession to extend their lead.
Also bothering James was the belief that he had allowed the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson to get under his skin. Stephenson guarded James for stretches Tuesday night because James’ primary defender, Paul George, had gotten into his own foul trouble. Stephenson baited James into his technical and, as is his reputation, was disruptive at other times.
James bristled at even being asked about the matchup.
“If you are sitting here and talking about an individual one-on-one matchup between me and Lance Stephenson, I'm not going to harp on that,” James said.
Expect James to channel that emotion into the pivotal Game 5. Last season, after he fouled out of Game 4 in the conference finals against the Boston Celtics on a controversial offensive positioning foul that contributed to the Heat’s overtime loss, James responded with a venomous tear for the rest of that series.
He averaged 35.3 points and 13.3 rebounds the next three games, ultimately carrying the Heat into the Finals.
One of the noticeable differences in James’ game since his much-criticized struggles in the 2010-11 Finals is the way he approaches big playoff games. Earlier in his career, James sometimes played passively in these situations, and it led to plenty of questions about his ability to deliver in the clutch.
It has been a different James the past two seasons, especially in the late rounds of the playoffs.
“We’re excited for Game 5” was all James would say publicly. “We’re a confident bunch.”
The Heat have generally responded well to losses in the past two postseasons. They are 4-0 after losses dating to last season's conference finals. The Heat’s average margin of victory after losses to the Chicago Bulls and Pacers in the playoffs is 27.5 points.
“The main thing is how you respond to competition,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We understand the effort level and the energy level we’re going to have to bring, and we’re looking forward to that.”