By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
MIAMI – If you had a friend who’d spent the past seven months abroad and wanted a quick catch-up on what’s gone on in that time with the Indiana Pacers, all you’d need to do is point him or her to replay of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night.
The game’s arc mirrored the trajectory of the Pacers’ season: Terrific start, smart execution of strategy and all sorts of pinch-me rewards that flowed from that. Then, serious lapses in their care and feeding of the basketball, followed by a blown lead, an embarrassing drop in the quality of their play and a stew of scowls and dejection where once there had been smiles and elation.
It might not be too late for the Pacers to pull out of what looked an awful lot like a tailspin in the closing minutes of their 99-87 loss. But if they do, they’re going to have to solve a whole lot of what Miami threw at them and track down a corresponding amount of their own game and mojo by the time Game 4 tips Monday night, right back at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Familiar bad habits did in the Pacers, once the Heat unleashed the hounds of their pressing, trapping defense. They’re a tentative and reckless bunch initiating offense even in the best of times and, down 2-1 in the series, these definitely are not the best of times.
Indiana had a chance in Game 2 to shove Miami back to 0-2 in the best-of-seven series, a relative crisis by the Heat’s standards, and couldn’t do it Tuesday. It had everything going its way in the first half of Game 3, then reverted to sloppiness, freelancing and the sort of breakdowns that – given the stage, given the stakes – can be characterized as irresponsible.
“The way we started off the game,” forward David West said in the sterile visitors’ dressing room, “we came out and we were doing exactly what we talked about yesterday and in the shootaround [Saturday] morning. Then we just weren’t able to stay with it. And I thought it burned us down the stretch, particularly the close, the last two or three minutes of every single quarter.
“Their pressure, their ability to speed us up. We really should be able to handle what they’re throwing at us, particularly this late in the year.”
The Pacers couldn’t handle LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Ray Allen, who scored 47 points in the second half to Indiana’s 45. They couldn’t handle the extra defenders who swarmed whichever Pacer had the ball. They couldn’t handle the pressure, at the point of attack or of the circumstances overall.
All because, at root, they couldn’t handle the ball. Coughing it up against double teams or simply daring to try low-percentage passes, Indiana’s 19 turnovers led directly to 26 of Miami’s points.
“We just had turnover after turnover,” groused Lance Stephenson, who committed three. West had five and guard George Hill four.
“We’ve just got to be sharp, take care of the ball,” Stephenson said. “We were averaging about 11 turnovers for eight games, then we had  tonight. … They just pressured us. We collapsed.”
The dearth of poise for a veteran team so focused in its quest this season was unnerving. This wasn’t just a Stephenson meltdown, this was West firing the ball out of bounds or Hill flippantly flinging it over his head and hoping when trapped by two Heat defenders.
As for losing track of Allen – a brand name by now as a postseason 3-point backbreaker – in transition, that’s on all of them. The notion that West could chase Allen around and through a gauntlet of screens was folly on its face, but not accounting for him when the Heat got into the open court was equal parts masochistic and amateurish.
Part of the reason for it was Indiana going big relative to Miami’s small – and then not making the Heat pay a price. Instead of continuing to find ways for West and Roy Hibbert to assert themselves in the paint – those two scored 17 of their team’s 21 first-quarter points – the Pacers got rattled by Miami’s ball pressure and neglected or never forced things with their bigs.
“We just went away from it,” said Paul George, who was hampered in minutes and rhythm by foul trouble rather than any lingering effects of his concussion in Game 2. “That’s definitely got to be an emphasis to the team, going inside to our bigs.”
As Miami roared defensively and blew past Indiana – its first lead of the night came at 7:36 of the third quarter, and 21 seconds into the fourth Miami went up by 10 – the Pacers’ fight seemed to lag, their effort in chasing down yet another Heat breakout appeared to wane. Coach Frank Vogel claims that his guys have “a ton” of resiliency left, but many of his players’ body language near the end had gone NSFW.
It’s the same pattern the Pacers showed from preseason to postseason, an inability to put the hammer down when things were going good and a preference, it seems, for forever staying the underdog, responding best when backed into a corner.
Congratulations then, Pacers, you’ve put yourself right where you like to be.