INDIANAPOLIS — LeBron James has played 152 NBA playoff games but never one like Game 5.
He spent nearly as much time on the bench (23 minutes, 39 seconds) as he did in the game (24:21), plagued by foul trouble that forced him to sit for a majority of the first three quarters.
James scored a playoff career-low seven points, played a playoff career-low in minutes and had his second-worst playoff shooting performance (20% on 10 shots) as the Indiana Pacers cut his Miami Heat's Eastern Conference finals lead to 3-2 with a 93-90 victory Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
One aspect of the game had a familiar air, though. For the second time in two postseasons, Lance Stephenson blew in James' ear.
As much as he tries to avoid it, James converges again with the Pacers shooting guard in a story line that will dominate the news cycles until Game 6 is played Friday in Miami (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
"I'm just here to play basketball, man. All the extracurricular activities, I don't really get into," James said, exasperated by Stephenson's antics.
James' foul trouble and his decision to pass the ball one on of the game's final plays also will play heavily in the news cycle because it's rare for James to get into foul trouble and talking heads love to criticism the four-time NBA MVP for passing with the game on the line.
During the regular season, James fouled out just once and had just two games with five fouls. In 152 playoff games, he has fouled out just twice and collected five fouls nine time.
"It's definitely something I'm not accustomed to, but my teammates kept it going and put us in a position to win," James said. "That's all we can ask for."
If James was unhappy about the officiating, he didn't say so, unlike Paul George who complained about calls after Indiana's Game 4 loss and accrued a $25,000 fine from the NBA for public criticism of the officials.
"It sucks for me because I'm not able to make plays to help our team win," James said. "I made a couple in the fourth, but 24 minutes is not enough for me to make an imprint on the game like I know I'm accustomed to doing or I know I can do."
James almost made enough plays for the victory. He hit a three-pointer and assisted on another during a stretch in which the Heat made five consecutive threes and cut the Pacers' lead to 92-90 with 13.6 seconds left.
The Heat had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. James caught the in-bound pass and drove the basket. George and 7-2 Pacers center Roy Hibbert collapsed on James, who threw it to Chris Bosh for a three in the corner, but the All-Star center missed.
"I was able to get into the paint, drew two and saw CB in the corner in his sweet spot," James said. "Thought we got a pretty good look. You live with the result."
The Heat will live with the result and James' decision to pass instead of shoot. That won't prevent criticism from those who think he shouldn't have passed. But it was the right play, one James has made over and over during his career. It's the way he plays.
"LeBron is the smartest player in this league," said George, who scored 21 of his game-high 37 points in the fourth quarter. "He's going to make the right play, and he thought that was the right play. They made 15 threes tonight. So obviously, they were hot behind the three‑point line. He found a three‑point shooter that's been hot lately for them in Chris Bosh. We were fortunate he missed. We walk away with a win."
Both teams walk away knowing Stephenson — and James by association — will again be a focal point, and that can't be what Pacers coach Frank Vogel wants.
After Game 3, Stephenson said James showed a "sign of weakness" by talking trash. George said Stephenson barked up the wrong tree, and James had 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in Game 4 while Stephenson was ineffective.
About 90 minutes before Game 5, Vogel told news reporters he had a lengthy discussion with Stephenson but declined to divulge the details. Stephenson admitted early Wednesday afternoon he said things he shouldn't have said and added, "It's definitely a learning experience. I've been learning since I got the league. I've come a long way and I'm going to keep learning until I get to that point where I'm a real pro."
That didn't stop him from blowing in James' ear. When it happened, James smiled slightly and shook his head in disbelief.
"We put ourselves in a position to win tonight, and as competitors, as professionals, that's what we are," James said. "At the end of the day, we put ourselves in a position to win. All the extra, whatever Lance wants to deal with, I don't really care about that.
"Lance is Lance. He's going to do what he needs to do to help his team win. As leaders of our team, we're going to do what it takes to help our team win."
Stephenson also blew in James' ear during last season's Eastern Conference finals, in Game 4 while lining up for a free throw. The Heat lost Game 4 of that series but won two of the next three, with James averaging 30.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists in Games 5, 6 and 7.
You have to wonder if Stephenson hasn't pulled on Superman's cape one too many times. You wonder if Stephenson, who also is auditioning for big free agency money right now, learned anything at all over the past few days.
CNN's Rachel Nichols lightened the mood with the last question in James and teammate Dwyane Wade's joint news conference.
"Have either one of you ever thought about blowing in someone's ear as a defensive tactic?" she asked.
"Probably my wife. I blew in my wife's ear before," James said. "That was definitely a defensive tactic."