INDIANAPOLIS – It was a miserable way to go into halftime.
And yet it was a teachable moment.
The Indiana Pacers should have been kicking themselves over the way they played in the final eight minutes of the first half Saturday night, eight minutes that wouldn’t have defined their season but certainly could have ended it.
And yet the Pacers and their coach, Frank Vogel, turned that stretch of the second quarter into a “Hey, things could be worse!” halftime alignment that propelled them into a lethal third quarter. Indiana essentially won Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals with the other three quarters tied behind their backs, packing enough into one to carry them all the way to a Game 7 Monday night in Miami.
The final: 91-77. The third quarter: 29-15.
“Explain it? You seen it,” LeBron James said. “It was total domination by the Pacers in the third.”
Maybe it’s time to mint a new cliché. Maybe it’s not the last five minutes of NBA games that matter but the first 12 after intermission. For most of this hotly contested series between the East’s two best teams (never mind that Knicks No. 2 seed), the team that won the third quarter has won the game. The lone exception: Game 2 in Miami, when Indiana lost the quarter battle but won that war.
Granted, it hasn’t been a matter each time of only winning the third. But the team that emerges more focused and driven from the halftime locker room – and applies that, along with whatever strategic adjustments it discussed, over the next half hour or so of real time – has been the team in control that night.
No one is in control of this series at the moment, tied at 3-3. Miami has the home court Monday. And the experience in such pressure situations. And the confidence inherent in defending champions. And, oh yeah, Chris (Birdman) Andersen coming back from his one-game suspension (though backup-backup Joel Anthony filled in sufficiently with eight rebounds and three blocks).
Indiana, by contrast, will mostly have the bragging rights of the third quarter. After getting smoked 30-13 in those 12 minutes in Game 5 Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, the Pacers flipped the script entirely.
And they did it by looking hard at the opportunities they already had squandered in the game.
In those final eight minutes of the half, Indiana had been its own worst enemy. The 31-25 lead it had scrapped and grunted for to that point? It vanished in a fraction of the time. Lance Stephenson threw a pass that big man Ian Mahinmi couldn’t handle for one turnover. Mahinmi got caught lingering in the lane for another. Guard Sam Young went strong to the rim for what could have been a statement dunk against Miami’s Chris Bosh – until it caromed right back out. Next trip down, veteran forward David West botched a dunk too. And Paul George already had one of his own in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, the Heat – with James on the bench – went on an 11-2 run that took all of 4 1/2 minutes. Wait, let’s repeat that: with James on the bench.
After James came back, the Pacers scored six straight points but Anthony’s tip-in and a runout dunk by the reigning MVP had Miami up 40-39. Indiana closed the half in blooper fashion, with a bad pass by Roy Hibbert and another failed dunk (at least Anthony got a hand on George’s throw-down attempt).
So what did Vogel do? The same guy who had scribbled “Be encouraged!!!” on their white board in Game 4 went with the half-full approach again.
“It wasn’t so much about getting on them for leaving plays out there,” Vogel said. “It was, ‘Look guys, we’re not even playing our best and it’s a one-point game. So just tighten the screws and do what we do.’ ”
Or do what the Heat had done at the same point 48 hours earlier. “Last game our third quarter was really what let us down,” Hibbert said. “We tried to take advantage of that and come out aggressive.”
They came out hellacious. Hibbert’s spin around Anthony and driving slam at 5:49 of the third capped a 14-2 blitz by the Pacers. And it got worse for the Heat; George scored seven straight points, shaky reserve point guard D.J. Augustin dropped in a running jumper and Hibbert got in the lane again for a layup that pushed Indiana’s lead to 17.
“Basically everything we have to do to win this series, we gave up,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And obviously we struggled with some open shots, open layups, opportunities in the open court, and those affected us on the other end.”
Miami needs to stay close on the boards, right? It got outrebounded 13-4. It needs to protect the paint, yes? It got outscored there 16-0 in the third. Take care of the ball, a basic for any team? The Heat had six turnovers that turned into eight points for Indiana and, for the Pacers, took some of the sting out of their nine turnovers (but only three points).
Bottom line for the quarter: Indiana had 23 possessions, scored on 13 and had nine turnovers. The Pacers made 12 of their 17 shots and Miami grabbed only one defensive rebound.
“We know how we give them up against a very good rebounding team,” Spoelstra said. “But they got some tip-ins from some non-blockouts. It seemed as if every tipped ball that went out to the free-throw line, loose ball, ended up in their hands. Those extra possessions in a possession series will dictate often the outcome of the game.”
Ironically, the only Miami player who did much of anything in the third – the Heat have been desperate to get him going through his series-long struggle – was Dwyane Wade, who scored nine of Miami’s 15 points compared to the one point he managed in his other 22 minutes played.
Indiana wasn’t quite free and clear after the third. West’s brain cramp on an inbounds pass with 2.6 seconds left in that period turned into giveaway free throws for James. James had nine more points in him for the fourth and Mike Miller came off Miami’s bench for two 3-pointers that sent a nervous murmur through Bankers Life Fieldhouse. In time, the Heat would get what had been a 17-point lead all the way down to four.
But West – playing through a respiratory infection that had him visibly worn down and a fever that Vogel said was “slightly over 100″ degrees – stemmed the bleeding with four manly buckets at opportune times. George hit a 3-pointer that got the lead up to 75-68. And Hibbert – after drawing an offensive foul on James that had the Miami star streaking downcourt in a shocked stage sprint that earned him a technical – dropped in a layup over him that made it 81-68 with 3:55 to play.
That’s about the time that James’ facial expression and his teammates’ body language said good night to Saturday and shifted to Monday.
“It just needed one quarter,” James said of that dastardly third. “One quarter to separate the two teams.”
Now both teams are down to four. Any one of which will do.