Lynne Sladky, Associated Press
MIAMI — Paul George's first Game 7 will be unforgettable — for all the wrong reasons.
The All-Star guard's breakthrough season ended one game short of the NBA Finals — and the manner in which it ended will likely have him wondering what might have been throughout the offseason. He was held to seven points before fouling out early in the fourth quarter, his night epitomizing the struggle that spelled the end of the Indiana Pacers' season.
LeBron James scored 32 points and grabbed eight rebounds, ailing Dwyane Wade matched his postseason high with 21 points, and the Miami Heat ran away from the Pacers 99-76 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night.
In the NBA Finals for the third straight year, the Heat will play the San Antonio Spurs in a series that starts Thursday in South Florida.
"Everybody in this country knows who the Indiana Pacers are now," Pacers coach Frank 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."
Roy Hibbert scored 18 points for the Pacers, who got 14 from David West, 13 from George Hill and 10 from Lance Stephenson. George was held to a miserable 2-for-9 shooting night, and was the last Indiana player on the floor as Miami prepped for its postgame celebration. He shook any hand he could find before being walked toward the visiting locker room by Vogel, who slung an arm over his star's shoulder.
George's 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.
"The future is bright," Hibbert said.
It might have even gotten brighter in the din of Monday's defeat, when West flatly said that he wants to return to the Pacers, though he's free to go elsewhere now.
"I can't see myself going anywhere else," West said. "We're the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, one of the top four teams in the league in my estimation, based on this year."
For the Heat, their season, their legacy, their reign atop the NBA was all at stake, so they responded in a manner befitting defending champions — with a blowout.
"They're just an amazing group of guys," Heat managing general partner Micky Arison said after handing the East championship 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. The Heat had alternated wins and losses with the Pacers in the first six games of the series, and were 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.
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