By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
VIDEO: Let’s Go! A look back at the first three games of the Eastern Conference finals
MIAMI – First to 100? Fifty percent shooting? Twelve or fewer turnovers?
As beguiling as those and other specific statistics can be to NBA teams and their head coaches, there’s one number that looms largest heading into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals (tonight, 8:30 p.m., ESPN):
Both the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers are focused on playing one full game from start to finish, free from early mistakes or late swoons, as the key to grabbing control in the best-of-seven series. So far, of six possibilities (three games each, per team), there has been only one fully satisfying performance: Indiana in Game 1. The Pacers went wire-to-wire in the opener to go up 1-0, but let Game 2 slip away late and squandered a dominant start in Game 3.
The Heat, meanwhile, feel they have played barely well enough — the fourth quarter in Game 2 and a little more than one half in Game 3 — to justify their 2-1 series lead. Coach Erik Spoelstra isn’t interested in any 19-5 deficits like he and the Heat got in the first nine minutes or so Saturday.
“You can say we’ve been out of rhythm, weren’t able to score,” Spoelstra said after his team’s shootaround session Monday. “Our turnovers last game. But they have a very good defense.
‘This is a competitive series so it’s not only us — you have to credit them for why we haven’t been able to put together consistent basketball, the type of identity that we want to impose. You have two forces going at each other, but that’s the challenge — can we impose our will more?”
The Heat had seven turnovers in a span of 5:13 in the first quarter of Game 3, the Pacers converting those into nine points. That makes for a rather obvious agenda item in this one.
“Just coming out and taking better care of the ball,” forward Chris Bosh said. “We feel if we focus on that, making sure we get open shots and beginning the game moving the ball, we’ll be right in our wheelhouse. I think our defense is going to take care of itself and if we get open shots, it’s going to work for us.”
To put this series in baseball terms on Memorial Day, Miami craves a quality start when it takes the mound at AmericanAirlines Arena. Indiana is focused more on its bullpen, given its midgame troubles in Game 3 and El Gasolino closing performances in both defeats.
Coughing up leads can take an emotional toll, too. The Pacers have had enough.
“We’ve shown we can outplay this team for long stretches,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said, “but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t put it all together into a complete game. That’s what our mindset’s on.”
It defeats the purpose of grabbing a lead if a team is going to fret about the ways in which it might fritter it away. Said forward David West: “We can’t have a bad three- or four-minute stretch where we let them back into the game or let them take control of the game. We’ve got to be in desperation mode. You don’t want to go down two games in this series.”
Only eight teams in playoff history have recovered from a 3-1 deficit. Since LeBron James signed with Miami, the Heat are 8-0 in Game 5s when they hold a 3-1 edge in a series.
Indiana can restore equilibrium to this series by grabbing back home-court advantage with a Game 4 victory, or it can put itself completely on its heels facing as many as three straight elimination games.
Other shootaround notes:
- Rashard Lewis‘ Game 3 reserve performance, primarily to defend West when Bosh got into foul trouble, produced what Spoelstra called “one of my favorite stat lines of all time in the playoffs. Basically zeroes all the way across the board.” Lewis played 17:26, missed two shots, had one block but no rebounds or assists and went scoreless. “If you weren’t a real basketball enthusiast, you would think he had a nothing impact on the game,” the Heat coach said. “Yet he had a plus-21. That just shows if you’re pure and if you play to only help your group, regardless of what it may be, you can have a great impact and you can have a moment in the playoffs.”
- Coping with Miami’s swarming, trapping defense is trouble for the Pacers for a couple of reasons. As West said, it speeds up Indiana’s way of doing things, contrary to their preferred pace. Secondly, it puts pressure on the Pacers to make Miami pay at the rim, which it could not manage in Game 3. “We got to the rim several times, but had turnovers or missed layups or blocked shots,” Vogel said. “That’s where we’ve got to be smarter about how we finish when we do attack.”
- Some members of the media poked at the Lance Stephenson vs. James trash-talking silliness for a second consecutive day, after Stephenson said Sunday that James’ responding to him was a sign of weakness. It was an overplayed angle from the start, and Bosh did his best to snuff it Monday. Asked if Stephenson could get in James’ head with his yammering, the Heat forward said: “If getting in his head is averaging 27 points, then I hope he stays there.”