MIAMI – It was happening again. The Indiana Pacers’ offense had ground to a halt and whatever five they had on the floor, they were getting outscored by the Miami Heat’s big two, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It was Heat superstars 21, Pacers 17, with more than two minutes left and Indiana’s lead down to 76-75. Plenty of time for heroes to be heroes.
And then, nothing. Truly nothing. Wade missed four shots from there. James got blocked on the doorstep by young Pacers guard Paul George and, with 54.3 seconds left, same score, bricked a pair of free throws, instantly bringing all his “fourth quarters, playoff games” critics to life like vampires rising at sunset.
The Pacers were no prizes themselves down the stretch: George missed a pair of free throws at 1:20, Roy Hibbert and George Hill split their pairs in the final minutes. Yet they hung on, trusted their defense and fended off the two Miami attack dogs who’d been unleashed, allegedly, by the departure of injured forward Chris Bosh.
Indiana tucked away its 78-75 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena and grabbed homecourt advantage two games into the Eastern Conference semifinals series by playing grittier basketball, focusing on defense and deploying a small lineup that gave Miami the sort of fits it usually dispenses. The Pacers battled inside to a 50-40 rebounding edge, held Miami to 34.6 percent shooting and had the Heat at 1-of-21 from 3-point range even as Miami was scrambling to launch one more in the final seconds.
That one by Mario Chalmers clanged off too — make it 1-of-22 — and all the assurances Indiana coach Frank Vogel gave his squad at halftime when they trailed 38-33 came true.
After eyeballing their flat performance through 24 minutes, Vogel urged the Pacers to calm down. And to stay tough. They built their lead to 11 points by sticking the ball inside on Miami. They got the Heat to miss 14 of 17 shots and outscored them 28-14. By the end, three Pacers – David West, Roy Hibbert and George – were in double digits in rebounds, which was three more than the Heat could manage.
“You start talking about smash-mouth basketball,” Vogel said. “It’s about winning the wars in the trenches. Defense and rebounding. That’s the East Coast basketball I grew up watching.”
Vogel also grabbed at some basketball he had just been personally involved in: Having dispatched Orlando in the first round, Indiana had dealt with the game on its smaller side. So he went that way for a spell against Bosh-less Miami, subbing Leandro Barbosa for center Hibbert and picking up intensity.
“We downsized a little bit,” West said.
Said Vogel: “Their small lineup, we played against this an entire series.”
Indiana used a 20-6 run over the final seven minutes of the third quarter for a 61-52 lead heading into the fourth. Then it toughened up: Point guard Darren Collison weathered a frustration flagrant foul from Wade on a breakout, the referees rushing over to pre-empt any escalation. Midway through the period, James and Danny Granger earned double technical fouls for a skirmish that had James’ headband snapping off, then the Miami star probing back at Granger with a elbow.
But the advice Vogel had given them earlier – calm down – stayed with them. Indiana kept hurting the Heat inside – Barbosa’s layup to edge the Pacers back 73-72, and West’s that made it 76-73 with 2:53 left.
“They created their easiest opportunities right at the rim during that stretch when we weren’t scoring,” groused Miami coach Erik Spoelstra.
Now it’s headed to the Pacers’ gym, their confidence high for Games 3 and 4, their concerns about Bosh (abdominal strain) academic probably for the series. But there was Vogel again, the voice of reason.
“The way we felt after Game 1 is how they’re feeling now,” he said of Miami. “They’re going to bring everything they’ve got in Game 3. We have to think about keeping an edge while their edge just got sharper.”