LeBron James can beat some teams 1-on-5, but not the Indiana Pacers. So the question becomes whether he can find enough help.
The Pacers proved in the first two games of the NBA Eastern Conference finals that they're bringing the ultimate team effort against the defending champion Miami Heat.
The return to form of Pacers point guard George Hill as they won Game 2 to tie the series affirmed as much. He joined blooming superstar Paul George, force-of-nature Roy Hibbert, rock-solid David West and little brother Lance Stephenson in asserting the Pacers' will.
Here's what the Heat have to counter with as Game 3 looms at 8:30 p.m. Sunday night in Bankers Life Fieldhouse:
* James at his peak. His last two turnovers aside – a tribute to the Pacers' defense – James is playing better than ever. There's no argument he's the best player in the game, capable of doing anything possible for a basketball player to do and some things that aren't. I'm still marveling at his hanging in the air, adjusting, one-hand pass to Mike Miller for a three-point shot before Friday's halftime buzzer.
* A mortal Dwyane Wade. At one point, he was among the Top 5 players in the game. Injuries and age have slowed him and it seems as if sometimes his instincts are letting him down. He took a bad shot toward the end of Game 2, and what looked like a cheap shot on Stephenson. Wade is no longer James' near-equal.
* A finesse big man in Chris Bosh. This is not a good matchup series for Bosh, whether he tries to guard Hibbert or West. Both are more physical. Hibbert has that shot-blocking edge. West has that upper-body muscle advantage. Yes, Bosh has a nice three-point shot, but if he's away from the rim, it's one less player to stop the Pacers from a rebounding edge.
* Aging stars Ray Allen and Shane Battier. They've had better days. Much better. Allen and Battier are a combined 3-for-20 shooting the first two games. Allen is 3-for-13 (1-for-6 three-pointers) shooting in the first two games. Battier is 0-for-7 (0-for-6 threes). Unless they starting shooting well, it's going to feel like a long series in a short stretch of time.
* Chris Andersen, the Birdman. Good energy, but only useful in small bursts.
* Role players Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem and Norris Cole. When the series started, it seemed the Heat had the edge in depth, and numbers-wise they still do, but the Pacers' starters are so strong, it might not matter.
If not for George's defensive mistake in the last 2.2 seconds of Game 1, the Pacers would be up 2-0 in the series.
This is not the dominant Heat team that won 27 straight regular-season games. The difference lies not only in the fact Miami has become more reliant on James to do it all, but in the physical nature and defensive tenacity of the Pacers. People talk about “playoff basketball” and it is a different animal. Possessions are at a premium. Good shots are harder to come by and teams that find a way to play looser under pressure can gain an edge. The Heat have not looked like a championship team since the regular season.
Can the Heat win one of the next two (Game 4 is Tuesday night) in Indianapolis and regain the home-court advantage? Of course they can. They have James and a championship pedigree. But every player around James must step up his play to match the Pacers.
It's the Heat chasing the Pacers now, a role reversal that won't be easy to change. No matter the greatness of LeBron, 1-on-5 won't cut it anymore.