INDIANAPOLIS – Facing the NBA defending champions with virtually no wiggle room, at risk of going down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series with most of what remained of the series on the other guys’ court, caught in the crosshairs of the best basketball player in the world, the pressure was on the Indiana Pacers to find the psychological and emotional trigger that might make the improbable possible.
And sure enough, there it was, scrawled in marker on the white board in the Pacers’ dressing room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, about an hour before tipoff of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals:
Grown men facing some of the most dire circumstances possible at this point in the season, nerves frayed, joints aching, pride on the line, fortunes to be won or lost. And the Pacers’ coaching staff goes all Ward-to-Beaver and Andy-to-Opie.
Disneyland gives its “cast members” saltier pep talks before holiday weekends.
Must have been the third exclamation point, because it worked. The Pacers held off Miami’s attempt to grab control of the series with a 99-92 victory, turning it into a two-out-of-three affair starting with Game 5 in south Florida Thursday, in part because Indiana is the kind of team that can respond to something as simple as that white board message.
“Not one guy in that locker room didn’t believe we were going to win this game,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said, after anchoring (23 points, 12 rebounds) the group effort. “We showed fortitude and we picked each other up. We never held our heads down. We know they’re the champs. … We’re never going to give up.”
Hoo boy, does this stuff play well in the heartland. Especially on those rarest of nights when LeBron James fouls out.
Fact is, there were plenty of reasons for the Pacers to ignore or lose whatever they were supposed to get from the atta-boy stuff:
- They should have been discouraged that Paul George, the team’s 2013 All-Star, was bogged down and sidelined with foul trouble. By halftime, he had been on the floor for all of 14 minutes. He was 1-for-3 for three points, with the refs’ whistles doing to him this time what James’ post-ups had done in Game 3.
- The Pacers should have been discouraged when their over-adrenalized 11-0 start fizzled away completely, replaced at halftime by a single point. What they were doing better than Miami (rebounds, protecting the paint), they weren’t doing better enough. The things Miami was struggling with (James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shot a combined 5-for-19 in the first half) were almost certain to change.
- Indiana should have been discouraged by the Heat’s 9-0 run early in the third quarter that threatened to break things open. Instead, the Pacers stiffened behind veteran David West, who went to work for seven points in Indiana’s own 10-0 run across a timeout.
- The Pacers should have been discouraged later in the period when, in a scramble sparked by James’ remarkable block of George Hill‘s layup, George went hard for the loose ball and got his fourth foul. Coach Frank Vogel was discouraged enough to get T’d up.
- They should have been discouraged by a timekeeper’s error that incorrectly stuck them with a shot-clock violation, wiping out a basket that would have left them up 83-72 with 8:25 left. But no, Miami chipped away until they were tied at 83-83 (James 3-pointer) and again at 86-86 (Wade three-point play).
- That’s when Ray Allen hit a 3-pointer from the left corner with West doing everything but tackling him. Discouraged? Indiana should have been forlorn at that point.
But nope, they stayed encouraged.
“We just talked about keeping our composure,” West said. “I don’t think we got rattled.”
Turns out, behind all those discouraging developments, the Pacers had been finding figurative rays of sunshine. Smart trends and happy results about which they actually could … BE ENCOURAGED!!!
Offensively, they were getting better opportunities than they had in Game 3. They moved the ball better and, if they still struggle to deliver the ball to Hibbert in the post, they watched him grab six offensive rebounds to set himself up.
The biggest board came with 90 seconds left, when he missed a 13-foot jumper but got it back and, in making his layup, drew James’ fifth foul. His free throw made it 94-89.
Defensively, the Pacers found their comfort zone again by throwing bodies and numbers at James, deploying George, Lance Stephenson and Sam Young on him. It helped, too, that Miami didn’t send James into the post the way it had in Game 3 (he was 1-for-6 this time) and it helped that, again, James appeared to be picking his spots to attack.
“We just didn’t let each other down. We had very few breakdowns,” West said. “This is a group thing here. … Guys were just communicating far better than we did the previous games. We were a lot more attentive. We had our antennas up. We didn’t allow them to space. We were there on catch a lot of times. That’s more of us just being locked in.”
There was plenty to be encouraged about in terms of X factors because the unpredictable Stephenson stepped up with 20 points, pesky, physical defense and the tenacity that made him Indiana’s best player in the elimination game of New York last round. His corner 3-pointer to end the third quarter jolted everyone for a while. His 8-footer that rattled around the rim before making it 96-92 was just as big.
Then came the topper: With a minute left, James went to set a screen but put too much hip into it and was called for an offensive foul. It was his fourth of the quarter and his sixth of the game. For only the second time in 128 career playoff games, the four-time MVP had fouled out.
Clearly, that was something over which the Pacers could be encouraged. But no more so than by their 49-30 rebounding advantage, their 50-32 edge scoring inside or the defense that held the Heat to 39 percent shooting.
It was an in-character victory for a team that believes in its character, the single greatest source of encouragement in that room.
The big test now comes Thursday in Miami, with Game 5 and growing speculation over what stirring words will be scrawled on the visitors’ white board. Something about resolve or resiliency would suit them, unless it’s really rousing like KNOWLEDGE IS GOOD!!!