MIAMI (AP) — LeBron James walked off the court, stopped on his way to the bench to shake David Beckham’s hand, then exchanged a few high-fives and quick hugs with teammates.
No raucous celebration was necessary. Getting back to the NBA Finals isn’t nearly enough to satisfy James or the Miami Heat.
For the third straight year, the Heat are headed to the title round.
James scored 32 points and grabbed eight rebounds, ailing Dwyane Wade matched his best effort of this postseason with 21 points, and the Heat ran away from the Indiana Pacers 99-76 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night.
Next up for Miami: Game 1 of the title round, at home against the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday.
“This is what it’s all about,” James said. “I dreamed about opportunities like this as a kid to have a Game 7, no matter at home or on the road. And that game allows you to advance to the finals. I have had multiple dreams about it. To see a dream become a reality, I’m just very blessed. Our team is blessed. And we’re just happy that we are able to represent the Eastern Conference in the finals.”
The first six games of the East finals went like this for the Heat: Win, loss, win, loss, win, loss.
Form held in Game 7, though there wasn’t much doubt about this outcome.
A series that had an aggregate score of Heat 569, Pacers 564 through the first six games ended with a runaway, with the Heat leading by as many as 28 at one point. And many of the things that they were criticized for throughout the series — not being aggressive, not getting enough from Wade, not getting enough rebounds — were huge pluses on Monday night.
The aggression was spearheaded by James at both ends, starting with his lockdown defense on Paul George and outscoring the Pacers from the foul line himself, 15-14. Wade had the bounce-back night he and his painful right knee have needed for a while, not just with the 21 points but with a game-high six offensive rebounds. And the Heat controlled the backboards, winning the rebound matchup 43-36.
“Moments like this can define your career,” Wade said. “Situations when you’re looking like … when everyone is counting you out, you’re looking down, to see how you respond. And I feel like we as a team, we respond very well. I feel like we have individuals on our team that respond very well when adversity hits.”
Roy Hibbert scored 18 points for the Pacers, who got 14 from David West, 13 from George Hill and 10 from Lance Stephenson. All-Star Paul George was held to seven points on 2-for-9 shooting and fouled out early in the fourth quarter.
George was the last Indiana player on the floor as Miami prepped for its postgame celebration, shaking any hand he could find before being walked toward the visiting locker room by Pacers coach Frank Vogel, who slung an arm over his star’s shoulder.
His time will likely come — someday.
Not yet, though. Not with this Miami team built for titles. It’s the fourth trip to the finals for the Heat, who won the title in 2006 and have now been there all three years of the “Big Three” era, falling to Dallas in 2011 and then topping Oklahoma City in five games last year.
“The great thing is we’re a young team and we are past the building stage,” George said. “This is really our first year tasting success. The rate we are going, we see championships soon.”
They’re getting closer. A second-round loss to Miami in six games last year was followed by a seven-game, conference-finals exit this time around.
Still, they’ll be watching the title round.
“Everybody in this country knows who the Indiana Pacers are now,” Vogel said. “And we represent all the right things: class, character, hard work, old-school basketball, playing the game the right way. We represented our franchise, our city and our state extremely, extremely well, and we have a lot to be proud of.”
James exited with 5:08 left, shaking the hand of the retired soccer star Beckham as he made his way to the Heat bench for a relatively subdued celebration. Not long afterward, security personnel started what’s become a familiar task in Miami — surrounding the court and stretching out a yellow rope, preparing to hold people at bay for the looming on-court trophy presentation.
More than a few people didn’t stick around to see the East title formally presented. After all, it’s an all-or-nothing season for the Heat — and this trophy isn’t the one that will satisfy them.
Ray Allen added 10 points for Miami, which earned its 78th victory of the season, matching the 11th-best, single-season total in NBA history.
“They’re just an amazing group of guys,” Heat managing general partner Micky Arison said after handing the East trophy to Chris Andersen. “They’ve given us an incredible season so far, but it’s a long way from over.”
It could have ended on Monday, of course, with the Heat coming off their worst offensive outing of the year in Game 6. They responded with a rout, despite shooting just under 40 percent, well below their norm.
“By any means necessary … we took care of business,” James said.
After 5 minutes, it was 12-6 Indiana. After that, the rest of the half was pretty much all Miami. Over the final 19 minutes of the half, Miami’s edge was 46-25. Over the final 11 minutes, it was 33-14, as James and Allen outscored the Pacers by themselves.
“We just focused on every possession, trying to get stops, play Miami Heat defense, create havoc,” James said. “I thought we did that tonight.”
Indiana was still within 13 with 3:37 left in the period when Hibbert picked up his fourth foul. Ordinarily, that would mean someone goes to the bench, though Game 7 on the road for a trip to the finals hardly could be classified as an ordinary occasion.
So Vogel — who was second-guessed for not having Hibbert on the floor for the final moments in overtime of Game 1, when James got to the rim easily for a game-winning layup — left his center out there with four fouls.