By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
MIAMI – The Indiana Pacers sought refuge wherever they could find it after their pivotal 102-90 loss Monday in the Eastern Conference finals, sending them down a 3-1 hole from which few teams in NBA history ever emerge.
Paul George surveyed the stat sheet afterward and, with a crafty selectivity, claimed that the Pacers outplayed the Miami Heat.
David West and George zeroed in on the free-throw count and the fact that Miami shot twice as many as they did and outscored them from the line by 19. West, tongue in cheek, specifically referred to some “new rules” on which he’ll bone up, to make sure he gets those same whistles next time.
Coach Frank Vogel and several Pacers brushed off the notion that Lance Stephenson‘s needless tweaking of LeBron James had any motivating effect on the four-time MVP (32 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) or ill effect on the brash, immature Indiana shooting guard (nine points, five fouls). But just in case, West and George wagged verbal fingers in Lad Lance’s direction as a reminder to knock it off.
Vogel touted his defense, saying it was Indiana’s best performance at that end in the series. West lauded his side for fighting “in the meat of the game,” while acknowledging a few pesky runs by Miami. George went even further: “I thought we did a great job. We rallied at the end to try to make a push.”
With all due respect, those various excuses, interpretations and selective memory rang as hollow as the big zero sitting on the right side of Roy Hibbert‘s stat line.
They sounded like the sort of things the Pacers will be saying all summer, which figures to start three weeks early in Indiana this year. Possibly as soon as Wednesday.
This series is over, and it has only a little to do with the history involved. For the record, only eight teams in NBA history ever climbed out of 3-1 holes in best-of-seven series to advance. More pertinent, Miami – in the Big Three era of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – has pushed eight postseason series to 3-1; eight times, it closed them out in Game 5.
That’s on the Heat’s radar again and there’s precious little the Pacers can do about it.
“We don’t want to come back with a Game 6,” James said. “We love our fans, obviously. We love being in Miami, but we want to try to close it out. But we’re going to have to work for it. It’s not going to be easy, not against this team.”
Not easy? Fine. But not nearly as hard as it was supposed to be, going by the seven games Indiana and Miami played against each other in last year’s East finals, going by the genuine dislike that has festered across three seasons with the Heat hoarding what the Pacers want.
Judged by and based on the first four months of the 2013-14 regular season, this was supposed to be a classic, champs pushed to the max by challengers, a dynasty at stake and all the other intriguing or corny storylines. But then the Pacers got sideways and sputtered through the season’s final weeks and their first two rounds against Atlanta (seven games) and Washington (six).
The Heat had to notice. It’s likely, even, they had more respect for and fear of last year’s Indiana team than this one.
It was evident after Game 1, when the Pacers went wire-to-wire but knew they hadn’t faced a sharp opponent, in the way the Heat easily shrugged off the loss in their postgame dressing room. It was obvious in Game 2, when one turbocharged fourth-quarter by James and Wade was all it took for Miami to snatch that game and home-court advantage. And it was impossible to miss in Game 3, as the Heat tore the Pacers’ early 15-point lead to pieces and left them, really, with nowhere to turn.
Miami did benefit from a few shaky whistles but that was due more to the ball and the referees rewarding the aggressors. Bosh’s early shooting success was a sweat-inducing flashback to the first round, when Atlanta rendered Hibbert irrelevant by stretching Indiana’s defense by deploying big men with shooting range.
The start of the second half was inexcusable from the Pacers’ side, their labors to stay within five points at the break cast aside when the Heat opened with an 11-4 spurt. And though it’s true the Pacers could grumble about a couple late calls when they might have cut the gap to single digits with time enough to do something about it, there still was the matter of everything they’d done or been unable to do in falling behind 10 or more.
The bottom line on this is, the Pacers know Miami is the better team. The Heat, to use the unfortunate imagery floating around over the weekend, are the Pacers’ big brothers at least. Maybe even their fathers.
Indiana’s body language, most frequently after defensive breakdowns, told the tale. There were occasions when George or Stephenson or George Hill grumbled about this or that and blew off getting back as their first priority. The third quarter was the worst, Indiana getting outscored by 11 points in that period for the second straight game.
And then there was that open Norris Cole 3-pointer early in the fourth, which none of the Indiana defenders even bothered to contest.
This was the Indiana team that went on walkabout at various points in the season’s final weeks. Hibbert let the Heat’s floor spacing neuter him, and he got in foul trouble too, spiraling down into a scoreless, five-rebound, 0-for-4 night. These were the sub-.500 Pacers who frustrated and aggravated so many of their fans from March on, a team that has little business playing on or after Memorial Day.
Are big changes in order for Game 5 Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis? Who knows. Maybe Vogel boosts the minutes for West and Luis Scola in tandem. Maybe he has a quicker hook with Hibbert. Maybe he talks to or somehow implores a bigger game out of George.
It won’t ultimately matter. The Pacers know the truth about them and Miami. And the Heat know that they know.
“I don’t know,” West said. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do. We’re going to watch film. We’ve got to get adjusted. Figure out the best way to get production. But our defense has got to hold up.
“I don’t think anybody feels defeated. The series isn’t over. We know we’re going home to a crazy environment. At this point, it’s just surviving to get to the next game.”
The Pacers aren’t yet admitting defeat. They might not even feel defeated. But they sure looked defeated, with one more snapshot coming as soon as Wednesday.