By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Pacers are just going to pretend the last two series and the past two months didn’t happen, and would appreciate it if everyone else – especially the Miami Heat – played along.
Pay no attention to their sputters in March or April. Ignore their raggedy play against the Hawks before prevailing finally in seven. Disregard the way the Wizards just about emasculated them on the boards and turned home-court advantage inside-out.
These are the new Pacers, which is to say the old Pacers, as in the crew that stormed through the season’s first half. Now, in the East conference showdown they never doubted they would reach, coach Frank Vogel, Paul George, David West and the rest have the Heat down 1-0 in the best-of-seven…
You buying any of this?
If this were polite society, the Pacers might be able to pull this off. Deny, deny, deny all their struggles and vulnerabilities of the past two months, and decorum would require everybody to zip it. But this is the NBA postseason, and the Pacers’ foibles and frailties have been splayed out for all to see like frog bits on a biology student’s cutting board.
So when Indiana, out of thin air, can hang 107 points on the two-time defending champions, when the offensively challenged Pacers can relatively explode for 30 points in the first quarter and 55 by halftime – both team highs this spring – it’s pretty evident something significant has changed. The 107 points were the most scored by Indiana in the playoffs and the most given up by Miami, and were way out of character on both fronts: The Pacers had averaged 91.4 against Atlanta and Washington, while the Heat were giving up 92.2 to Charlotte and Brooklyn.
So what was it? Go with this: a profound respect for their opponents.
It wasn’t that the Pacers lollygagged or took lightly the Hawks or the Wizards. Nothing nearly that conscious about it. But it was clear in the way they started the game, clear in the way safeguarded their lead, clear in the way they cared for the ball as if it belonged in a bassinet and clear in the measured tones in which they spoke afterward that Miami brings out Indiana’s best.
Its best, as in its most guarded, its most focused, its most scared-to-death-of-what-might-happen-if-they-brought-anything-less.
When playing offense against the Miami Heat, it helps to be very, very defensive.
“We handled their pressure,” West said afterward. “We call them turnover-for-touchdowns, so we didn’t give up a tenuous flow of those, which have doomed us in the past. We were able to handle their traps, them being aggressive with two guys on the ball. I thought our ball handlers were assertive in turning the corner. And ultimately, when guys needed to move it, they moved it, and when guys needed to shoot it, they shot it. And we made enough offensive plays to win.”
Indiana had watched tape prior to Game 1 of its most recent clash with Miami, a 98-86 loss on April 11 in south Florida. That night, the Pacers coughed up the ball 16 times, the Heat turning those into 20 points. They got beat on the boards, too, a double-whammy that gave Miami 18 second-chance points.
This time, Indiana had 12 turnovers, a manageable total that still got converted into 15 points. But its rebounding edge was 38-29 (Miami only had four offensive boards) and the second-chance points favored the Heat barely, 11-8. The Pacers shot better too, a robust 51.5 percent that was as good as speed bumps against Miami’s transition game.
By hitting a bunch of early and, frankly, unlikely 3-pointers (5-of-6 in the first quarter vs. 3-of-13 the rest of the way), Indiana built a lead that had Miami responding in kind. Except for, y’know, the makes: 6-of-23.
From Miami’s side, of course, it was more about what they did not do defensively. Chris Bosh called the display unacceptable. LeBron James felt the leaks were springing at every turn.
“I mean, they got some 3s early on,” James said. “Our pick-and-roll coverage had a lot of breakdowns, including myself. … And we allowed them to get into the paint – I mean, they shot 37 free throws to our 15, which is definitely something we can’t duplicate going into Game 2.”
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra had started smaller, using Shane Battier – Vogel had anticipated burlier Udonis Haslem – and that didn’t help matters. James wound up as the power forward forced to bang with the old-school West and Roy Hibbert‘s 7-foot-2 length came into play early and often, both in buckets and over time in free throws (the big guy shot 13, nearly matching Miami’s total).
Much has been written about Hibbert’s confidence, funk, turnarounds and relapses. Suffice it to say, his biorhythms were trending up. He had nine points by halftime, 19 by the end, and the Pacers are 6-0 this postseason when Hibbert scores 10 or more (3-5 when he does not).
“He wants to be a guy we depend on. He wants to be a center of focus for us,” West said. “We’re not going anywhere if he’s not performing and playing well. … I just thought we, as a group, kept his spirits up. We know, when he’s playing well for us, that makes us that much more of a complete basketball team.”
It’s possible the Pacers learned a thing or two from finishing the regular season turned sideways, and then dithering with the Hawks and the Wizards, navel gazing they could get away with. But there’s no getting away with that against Miami and they know it. No squandering the home opener this time the way they had in the first two rounds – sheesh, not after hailing it as such a brass ring to chase all season expressly for the home advantage against this foe.
They were quicker in their decisions, more precise with their passes and their cuts. They didn’t stand and hold the ball on the perimeter, pondering options like a carnival chump playing ring toss, because the Heat pounce on such easy marks.
Miami has been through this before, dropping series openers to Chicago in 2011 and 2013, and Oklahoma City in the 2012 Final, only to sweep the next four. The Pacers? They cannot let up. They played with a desperation that animated all 48 minutes Sunday, and it had better be there for at least 144 more but quite possibly 288, with maybe another five or 10 for overtimes.