MIAMI — This feels different.
The Indiana Pacers were in this same position last year, tied 1-1 with the Miami Heat and heading back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse with home-court advantage in their back pocket. They took a 2-1 series lead that time, before dropping the next three games to the eventual champs.
No matter how good the Pacers looked against the New York Knicks in the previous round and how close they were to winning Game 1, you probably didn’t see this coming.
The Heat’s worst game of the previous series was Game 1, after a similarly long layoff. And as easily as they got into the paint on Wednesday, the were never clicking on all cylinders offensively, committing too many careless turnovers and unable to get their 3-point shooters on track.
The Pacers, meanwhile, could have been deflated after the disappointment of Game 1. They could have been bitter after Frank Vogel took Roy Hibbert off the floor for the final two defensive possessions and after answering countless questions about that decision over the last 48 hours.
They could have got too wrapped up in the officiating after whistles early in the second quarter went the Heat’s way and helped the champs erase a double-digit Indiana lead. They could have watched LeBron James drain buzzer beaters and block seven footers and thought that there was no beating the best player in the world when he’s having one of those nights.
They could have seen the ball in James hands with the game on the line on two straight possessions in the final minute and wondered how they could stop him.
The Pacers overcame all of that, answered every Heat run, hit big shots, and stopped James on both of those possessions to walk away with a much-earned victory.
“They had great plays, but we didn’t waiver,” Hibbert said. “A lot of times, teams just start buckling, and we’ve been through the wringer before. We’re young guys, but we know what we’re doing.”
This was a complete performance. Offensively, the Pacers scored 97 points on just 86 possessions. The Heat’s aggressive defense kept them from getting into their offense quickly or consistently, David West struggled from the field, and they got basically nothing from their bench. But they found ways to score.
Paul George (22 points, six assists, 9-for-16 shooting) ascended one more step toward stardom, consistently beating his man off the dribble, throwing down the dunk of the playoffs on Chris Andersen, and hit a plethora of big shots. Roy Hibbert scored a career-playoff-high 29 points, using his size in the post and on the glass, while also showing some finesse as a roll man. And George Hill (18 points, 6-for-8 shooting) was aggressive as the ball-handler on those pick-and-rolls, something the Pacers desperately needed.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will tell you that a playoff series comes down to which team can best impose its own identity on its opponent. And the Pacers remained true to their style, playing physical both offensively (getting to the line 32 times) and defensively.
The Heat were somewhat efficient (93 points on 87 possessions), but for the second straight game, looked nothing like the No. 1 offense in the league. James scored 36 points, but didn’t get much help and he coughed the ball up on those two spotlight possessions with the Pacers leading 95-93.
This time, Hibbert was on the floor. While Vogel had his reasoning for sitting the 7-foot-2 center at the end of Game 1, he might never make that same decision.
“As soon as we came to the locker room the other night,” Vogel said, “I told the team we tried that way, but he’s going to be in there.”
More important than Hibbert’s presence was the defense his teammates played on the two pick-and-rolls the Heat ran, the defense that was lacking in Game 1.
On the first play, West (who was the main culprit in a lot of the Pacers’ Game 1 defensive breakdowns) stopped James’ momentum and held his containment until George was able to recover. And when James tried to get the ball back to Ray Allen, West got his hands on the pass.
On the second play, George fought through Mario Chalmers‘ screen, basically needing no help from his teammates and stopping James in his tracks before he could get to the basket. And when James saw Allen open on the other side of the floor, West again stepped in front of the pass.
“We stayed in front of him,” George said. “We knew that if it was going to happen, it was going to happen on a tough shot, a contested shot. Everybody was in the gap ready to help each other. That is how we play defense.”
And that was how they played defense most of the night. Rather make an adjustment to the way the Heat was running it pick-and-rolls in Game 1, the Pacers knew they just had to defend better. And they did just that, containing those pick-and-rolls while not letting Miami’s shooters get free.
This is why the Pacers were the No. 1 defensive team in the league. And this is why this year feels different. Until they lose four times, the Heat are still the best team in the league. But they have a serious challenge on their hands, and the Pacers will fly home on Saturday knowing that they’ve been the better team over the first two games.
“This whole team is showing great desire and great heart and great belief,” Vogel said. “They believe we can win this series.”