NBA Wrap: LeBron saves Heat at buzzer in Game 1

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NBA Wrap: LeBron saves Heat at buzzer in Game 1

In a bonus edition of our coaching candidate breakdown, we look at Vinny Del Negro, who was let go by the Clippers after a franchise-best 56-win season (see story).

In other basketball-related news, Mike Krzyzewski has decided to remain coach of the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team (see story).

Now, here's a recap of Wednesday's NBA playoff action:

LeBron saves Heat at buzzer of Game 1
MIAMI -- LeBron James caught the inbounds pass, changed direction and immediately attacked the rim.

There was no one in his way.

There was no stopping him, either.

James made a layup as time expired in overtime, capping a 30-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist effort as the Miami Heat found a way to outlast the Indiana Pacers 103-102 in a wildly back-and-forth Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night. There were 18 ties and 17 lead changes, the last two of those coming in the final 2.2 seconds.

"Two teams fought hard," James said. "We were able to make one more play."

If this is how this series is going to go, then get ready for a classic between teams that absolutely wanted to face the other with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.

Paul George saved the Pacers at the end of regulation with a 32-footer with 0.7 seconds left, and then made three free throws with 2.2 ticks left in overtime to give Indiana a one-point lead. George pumped his fist gently after the third free throw, then extended his index finger skyward as the teams retreated to their benches to get ready for the final play.

He just left James too much time, and the Pacers left their best shot-blocking option on the bench. Roy Hibbert wasn't on the floor for the final play, and without a 7-foot-2 barrier to contest him, James made the winner look easy.

"Two great teams just throwing punch for punch," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. "Our spirit is very high, very confident. We know we can play with this basketball team."

Vogel said he left Hibbert off the floor for the final play out of concern of what defending champion Miami would do with Chris Bosh in that scenario. Afterward, he acknowledged he might have different thinking next time.

"I would say we would probably have him in next time," Vogel said.

Game 2 is Friday night in Miami.

Officials reviewed James' play at the end, though it was clear he beat the clock, and the Pacers walked slowly toward their locker room, lamenting one that got away -- by no fault of George's.

George was fouled by Dwyane Wade on the play where the Pacers had to think they had stolen the series opener. Referee Jason Phillips said Wade hit George, and the Pacers' star made all three free throws for the 16th lead change of the night.

The final lead change came moments later.

"Welcome to the Eastern Conference finals," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Back and forth the whole way."

Wade scored 19 points, Bosh had 17 and Chris Andersen had 16 on 7-for-7 shooting for Miami.

George scored 27 for the Pacers, who got 26 from David West and 19 from Hibbert. The Pacers have won only two series in NBA franchise history after dropping a Game 1.

"It just felt like everything was in our favor," George said.

The final few seconds of regulation were stunning, with Ray Allen -- the sixth-best free-throw shooter in NBA history -- missing one that proved big, and George making a miracle happen.

Trailing by two with 17.7 seconds left, the Pacers had to foul Allen, who surely would have been their last choice. But he missed one of the two free throws, and it remained a one-possession game. Indiana brought the ball into the frontcourt, called time, and then seemed to have nothing really working as the final seconds of regulation ticked away.

So George simply made something happen.

From 32 feet -- from the newly applied Eastern Conference finals sticker on the side of the court, technically -- George connected with 0.7 seconds left, tying the game and giving Indiana life.

Allen didn't get much of a desperation shot off at the end of regulation, and to overtime the teams went.

"It took an overtime to get it done," Spoelstra said. "Glad to get that one."

The Pacers kept landing the first punches in the extra session. George made a pair of free throws to open the OT, and Andersen tied it with a pair of his own. Hibbert scored from close range, and Wade answered with an easy one after a runout for the 16th tie of the night.

George was far from done. He went past James, got into the lane, tossed up a shot after contact and started what became a three-point play that put the Pacers up 99-96. Miami had three chances at the tie -- a desperation 3-pointer by Shane Battier as the shot clock was expiring, then a 3-point try by Battier and another 3 attempt by Battier.

All missed.

But Bosh grabbed the rebound of the last Battier shot that bounced off the rim in that sequence, scored while being fouled by George with 49.7 seconds left, calmly swished the free throw and the teams were -- what else? -- tied again at 99-all.

James scored on a drive with 10.8 seconds left in the overtime, and George answered with the three free throws. With Hibbert on the bench, Indiana had one plan for James on the last play.

"We wanted LeBron to shoot a jumper right there," George said.

He was just better.

And after 3 hours, 18 minutes, it was over.

"We're excited about the win," James said. "But we have to get better going into Game 2."

Notes
Celebrities in attendance included Jimmy Buffett and Anna Kournikova. ... James picked up two first-quarter fouls for just the ninth time in 125 career playoff games. ... West's 18 first-half points were his most before halftime since March 24, 2011, when he had 20 through two quarters against Utah. ... From the not-often-seen department, a lane violation against the Pacers that led to James getting a second (and successful) chance on a missed free throw, and a 5-second call against Wade, both of those coming in the first half.

-The Associated Press

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”