INDIANAPOLIS – Pick your more powerful driving force: Desperation or desire? Pride or pragmatism? Survival or statement?
All will be in play on one side or the other Wednesday night in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals (8:30, ESPN), with the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat toting diametrically opposed agendas into the clash at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
For the Pacers, this is all plight. Down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, they need to sweep the remaining three games to advance to The Finals. They have to win two in a row just to get Game 7 back on their court at BLFH, which has been the grail of their entire season. The Pacers went 35-6 there during the regular season but are only 4-5 in the playoffs.
Indiana can’t work in three-game bites, of course, or it will gag on a task too large. The Pacers have to don the blinders and focus on one game. “We are going to be home in front of our fans and I’m sure they’re going to be going crazy,” guard George Hill said. “It could happen. They won three in a row, why can’t we? The good thing is the elimination game is back home, at least for the first one.”
Sounds encouraging, except for this: Indiana fans are wise to the sputters of the past two months. They paid top dollar to see a once-dominant team lose its way against the likes of Atlanta and Washington. The crowds at Bankers Life, as a result, are never more than a 10-point deficit away from turning on their guys. Witnessing Roy Hibbert‘s trials and tribulations feels like eavesdropping on a psychologist’s session.
So the locals have come to expect the worst, which makes the home-court thing a lot more fragile. If the Pacers can go wire-to-wire the way they did in Game 1 against Miami, being at home will be a plus. If they falter early or considerably, they pretty much will be on their own.
“We need to win one game,” coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s all we’re thinking about right now.”
For Indiana, the math and the momentum breaks down like this: Game 5 is the must-win and the one that — losing it at home, getting bounced so early from the series (after going to seven last spring) — would sting the worst. Game 6 would be a bonus and one in which the Heat might feel pressure not to squander it, lest they all head back to Indianapolis. Game 7 would be, for the Pacers, right where they hoped to be since rolling out the balls in October.
Keep in mind, we never heard Indiana players talk about The Finals or actually winning the championship. Their entire season was predicated on beating Miami. It’s late now, very late, but Game 5 could be the start if the Pacers repeat their Game 1 play — and for crying out loud, take better care with their passes — against a Heat squad that’s much sharper now.
For Miami, of course, this is all opportunity. Sure, they get three bites at it if they need them, but there is so much more to gain by eliminating Indiana now.
It would give them maximum time off before The Finals begin June 5 in the Western Conference winner’s city. It would provide maximum rest while San Antonio and Oklahoma City slug it out for at least two more games. The Heat understand the value of rest, not just for Dwyane Wade‘s creaky knees or LeBron James‘ workload levels but for the nagging injuries that Ray Allen (hip and thigh) and Chris Andersen (thigh) brought to Indiana with them, making both questionable for Game 5.
It would provide the Heat maximum satisfaction, too, to clinch the East finals on the Pacers’ precious home court — and to do so two games early. Miami’s guys haven’t made it personal in their comments but, given their facial expressions and their reactions traditionally, you can sense a personal edge after stuff like Lance Stephenson‘s trash talk or Paul George‘s we-outplayed-them-but-lost parsing of Game 4.
“We understand the moment,” Wade said that night. “We’re never going to say we don’t.”
Said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra: “I want to focus on trying to get to our best game, not about closing them out, not about moving on, not about any of that. Just compartmentalize, and can we push forward to have our best game of the series?”
If they do, it also will be their last game of the series. Indiana wants to keep playing right through the weekend. The Heat don’t … and probably won’t.