Updated at: 06/04/2013 1:35 AM
By TIM REYNOLDS
(AP) 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.
Miami led by as many as 28 points, a shocking amount for a series that had an aggregate score of Heat 569, Pacers 564 entering Monday night. The Heat actually trailed by six in the early going, were still down 21-19 after the first quarter and it was starting to look like one of those down-to-the-wire nights.
Not even close.
James exited with 5:08 left, shaking retired soccer star David Beckham’s hand 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.
"You never want to take anything for granted," Wade said. "Being here three straight years in a row, going back to the finals, is an amazing feat. I’m just glad we were able to do it. Everything that happened in the first six games didn’t mean anything to us. It was about tonight. It was about Game 7. It was about finding a way to win here at home."
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.
James delivered an inspirational address of sorts to his team Monday morning, publicly revealing no details of what he said afterward other than insisting that the Heat would be ready.
He was right. After 5 minutes, it was 12-6 Indiana. After that, the rest of the half was pretty much all Miami.
Once the Pacers cooled off a bit, the Heat immediately went into pull-away mode. 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.
By halftime, it was 52-37, with James scoring 18 points, Chris Bosh and Wade combining for 17 and Allen adding 10 more. And what had to be most troubling to the Pacers at halftime was their 15 turnovers, a number Vogel said earlier Monday would spell trouble if his team committed that many in the entire game.
"They’re disappointed," Vogel said. "They felt like we could have won this series. So I think, disappointed but encouraged about the future."
In the third, the run the Pacers so desperately needed never arrived. 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.
Barely a minute later, it backfired. Hibbert picked up his fifth late in the third, and George got to five fouls by getting whistled twice in the final 46.1 seconds of the quarter.
By then, the outcome was obvious.
It was Miami’s night.
"We had one heck of a run," Hibbert said.
NOTES: Miami’s Norris Cole and Indiana’s Jeff Pendergraph were ejected with 2:17 left after exchanging some heated words. ... Andersen’s streak of 18 straight field goals made (he had been 15 for 15 in the series) was snapped in the first half. ... Beckham, who is deciding whether he wants to bring a Major League Soccer team to Miami, was seated next to the Heat bench for the second straight game. Justin Bieber and Flo Rida were also in the crowd, as was reigning American League MVP Miguel Cabrera. ... The Pacers fell to 2-4 all-time in Game 7s, including 0-4 in road editions of winner-take-all games to decide the Eastern Conference title. ... Hibbert did not elaborate Monday about his comments that drew a $75,000 fine after Game 6, saying he wanted to focus on basketball instead.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)