VIDEO: Pacers-Heat Game 6 preview
MIAMI – It wasn’t on the grand scale of “chicken or egg?” But there was some which-came-first conversation after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday, as in: Was Indiana’s Paul George going to have that superstar performance regardless (37 points, including 21 in the fourth quarter, with six rebounds and six steals)? Or was it made possible by LeBron James‘ limited, foul-hampered court time?
The answer matters because George is hoping to perform similarly in Game 6 Friday night (8:30 ET, ESPN) at AmericanAirlines Arena as one way for the Pacers, down 3-2, to stave off elimination.
George, whose 21 points in the fourth were his most in any quarter in his career, pretty much pledged, at Indiana’s morning shootaround, to start Game 6 the way he finished Game 5.
“I’m gonna come out really aggressive,” said George, describing himself as “super excited” for the opportunity to spoil a home celebration in the Heat’s ambition of getting to a fourth consecutive Finals. “We’ve got to understand this can be our last game if we don’t come out the right way. I think that’s enough motivation for us to play right tonight.”
No one on the Miami side was suggesting that George’s big night owed unduly to James’ pine time. Still, the Heat’s most versatile defender played only 24:21 minutes to George’s 45:04. And even when they were on the floor together 10:28 of the fourth quarter, James spent more time carefully guarding George Hill or other less impactful Pacers; he didn’t want to risk a sixth foul and ejection by draping himself over George.
“It was a great performance,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to give him credit for that. He made some difficult shots where we had our chests in front of him, getting a contest and it’s right over the top. I’m not sure we can defend those better.
“He did break free for three or four system-error shots that, he still has to produce and then make ’em. But he made us pay for them. And he was extremely aggressive in the fourth quarter. Once he got on that roll, the ball just seemed to find him. That’s typically how this game works.”
George did generate some of Indiana’s most pivotal offense with his steals, which led to breakouts or a scramble back for Miami. As for ducking James as a defender for much of his big night, the Pacers’ All-Star forward said: “I never really was hounded this series by LeBron. I don’t think we really matched up that much in the series. So it wasn’t that big of a difference.”
Whether he has the hot hand for his team or not, George did have one suggestion for the Pacers if they want to force a Game 7 Sunday in Indianapolis: Avoid big deficits. Other than Game 1, when Indiana led from start to finish, its best chance to win another of the first four games came in Game 2, in which it trailed by no more than eight. Even in its Game 5 victory, it had to claw back from an 11-point Miami lead.
“We can’t have a game where we’re down 15 at any point in this [Game 6],” George said. “We’re good enough to come out of that, dig out of a hole, but we can’t put ourselves in a hole in this arena. It’s just too hard to come out of a 15-point deficit to beat this team in their arena. So this game has got to be close. If it’s not close, we’ve got to be up by big.”
Speaking of big, all the Pacers expect big grief to rain down on Lance Stephenson, the antagonist of this series so far. All of Stephenson’s antics figure to get thrown back at him by a boisterous AAA crowd, unless the Pacers do something to squelch that.
“I hope he’s able to block out the crowd,” George said. “That goes to the same mind of taking the crowd out of this. If we’re playing well and we’re the ones that’s really putting an imprint on this game, then they won’t have nothing to say.”
Spoelstra said that big man Chris (Birdman) Andersen‘s mobility still was limited by a thigh bruise. His availability for Game 6 would be determined after evening warmups and consultation with the Heat’s medical staff, the coach said.