## The Plays That Got Them Here

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MIAMI — The most important play in a game isn’t always the one you remember most. Sometimes, it’s subtle and doesn’t even make the highlight reel. Sometimes, something as simple as a change in possession can be more important than a shot that does or doesn’t go in.

The NBA has a way to use analytics to figure out just which plays had the biggest impact on a close game. It’s a “leverage” model that was developed to evaluate and instruct referees by pointing out which calls or no-calls had the biggest impact on a game’s result.

Here’s the idea: At every point of a game, each team has a certain probability of winning. Putting the quality of each team to the side, when the game tips off, the home team has a 60 percent probability of winning and the road team has a 40 percent probability of winning. After the first basket, those numbers haven’t changed much. But if the home team is up 10 with the ball and five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, their win probability (WP) is obviously a lot greater than 60 percent.

So, by calculating win probability both before and after a play occurs, it can be determined just how important that play was. Score, possession and location are the factors. And obviously, plays in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter (or overtime) in a close game are more important than any others.

Using the league’s data model, we’ve determined the 10 most important plays made by the Miami Heat or San Antonio Spurs on their way to The Finals.

10. +18.7 percent – Conference semis, Game 5 – Heat get multiple stops on the Bulls’ final possession.
With 26 seconds left, Miami up by three (94-91) and Chicago in possession, Miami had an 81.3 percent WP. After the inbounds, Nate Robinson advanced the ball and attempted a 3-pointer with 18 seconds on the clock that was contested by Norris Cole. Just before the shot, Miami had a slightly better chance of winning (83.6 percent) than at the start of the possession because eight seconds had run off the clock.

Had Robinson’s shot gone in, Miami’s WP would have dropped to 60.3 percent (about -20 percent) with the tie, possession and about 18 seconds left. Instead, the shot missed and the Bulls got the rebound. With just three seconds left, they set up Jimmy Butler for another 3-point attempt to tie.

At that point, Miami’s WP was up to 95.5 percent, but had Butler’s shot gone in as time expired, sending the game to overtime, Miami’s WP would have been cut from 81.3 percent at the start of the possession to about 58.3 percent at the start of OT (-30%). Instead, the shot missed the series was over.

9. +18.9 percent – Conference semis, Game 1 – Boris Diaw hits a three with 2:27 left in the first overtime
With 2:49 left in the first OT, Diaw rebounds a Draymond Green shot that could have given the Warriors a five-point lead. With possession and down three (111-108), the Spurs WP was 28.1 percent. After they advance the ball and swing it around, Manu Ginobili drives into the paint, draws Diaw’s defender, and hits him in the corner for an open three. Diaw drains it, increasing the Spurs’ WP to 46.9 percent. They went on to win in double-OT.

8. +19.0 percent – Conference semis, Game 1 – Dwyane Wade’s steal sets up LeBron James’ three-point play.
With 7:18 left in the fourth quarter, Miami leading Chicago 70-69. and the Bulls in possession, the Heat had a WP of 57.4 percent. At 7:07, Wade steals a pass from Marco Belinelli, increasing Miami’s WP to 64.8%. That’s a jump of +7.3 percent just for the change of possession. But Wade then gets the ball to James, who is grabbed around the shoulders by Butler and still manages to hit a shot with his left hand at 7:04. He makes the free throw, increasing Miami’s WP to 76.5 percent. But the Bulls would come back to win the game, 93-86.

7. +20.9 percent – Conference finals, Game 1 – Chris Bosh gets an and-one tip-in
With 1:20 to go in overtime, Miami is down 99-96 when James rebounds a Lance Stephenson miss. At that point, their WP is 24.5 percent. Bosh misses a three, but James gets the offensive board and sets up Shane Battier for another three. At that point, the Heat’s WP is down to 23.3 percent.

Battier misses, but Bosh rises over Roy Hibbert, gets fouled by Paul George, and tips in the miss. The tip-in with no foul would have increased Miami’s WP 32.8 percent, but when Bosh ties the game with the free throw, Miami’s WP increased to 45.4 percent, for a total possession increase of 20.9%. The Heat went on to win with a play that’s further down this list.

6. +21.3 percent – Conference finals, Game 1 – Cole steals inbounds pass
This was a judgement call as to whether there was a change of possession, because Cole never really had control of the ball, but the scorer tallied it as two successive turnovers.

With the Pacers down three and 10.8 seconds left in OT, George Hill drops the inbounds pass and Cole gets his hands on it. There’s a scramble for the ball at the mid-court line and Hill gets the ball back. He gets it to George, who is fouled by Wade on a 3-point attempt.

Before the play, the Heat’s WP was 71.8 percent, and the first change of possession increased it to 93.1 percent.

5. +22.5 percent – Conference semis, Game 1 – Diaw steal leads to Danny Green lay-up
With the score tied at 111 and 2:08 left in overtime, the Spurs’ WP was 46.6 percent, because the Warriors have possession. But Diaw steals a Draymond Green pass in the lane and gets the ball to Tony Parker, who finds Danny Green for a lay-up with 2:02 left. The steal increased the Spurs’ WP to 59.3 percent and the basket increased it to 69.1 percent.

So Diaw made two huge plays in the Spurs’ Game 1 win over the Warriors. But there were two bigger…

4. +22.6 percent – Conference semis, Game 1 – Danny Green’s three ties the game in regulation

Down three with 29 seconds left, the Spurs’ WP was 22.4 percent. But they run a great misdirection play to get Green an open three from the right wing. He makes it with 20.8 seconds left, increasing their WP to 45.0 percent.

3. +23.6 percent – Conference semis, Game 4 – James’ steal leads to Wade’s three-point play
This one is interesting, because there were still six minutes left in the fourth, but it was essentially a four-point swing, because the Pacers scored about a point per possession in the series.

With the Pacers about to inbound the ball with exactly 6:00 on the clock, the score was tied at 83 and the Heat’s WP was just 41.9 percent (because they were on the road and didn’t have possession). But James steals George’s awful inbounds pass and gets the ball to Wade, who gets fouled by David West and goal-tended by George.

The steal itself increased Miami’s WP to 50.5 percent and the three-point put it at 65.5 percent. But the Pacers would recover and win the game.

2. +61.3 percent – Conference semis, Game 1 – Ginobili’s three wins it in double-OT

With the Spurs down one with 3.4 seconds left, their WP was 35.7 percent. Ginobili’s three left 1.2 seconds on the clock, but increased their WP to 97.0 percent.

1. +77.6 percent – Conference finals, Game 1 – James’ game-winner

From 22.4 percent to 100 percent.

## With The Offseason Right Moves, Indiana’s Future Is Looking Bright

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MIAMIPaul George‘s season ended before the Indiana Pacers’ did, which was pretty ironic, considering how much shorter it would have been without him in his new and Most-Improved incarnation from November to June.

But George picked up his sixth foul with 7:43 left in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Miami. The young All-Star got slammed, competitively, by the defending champions: 2-for-9 shooting, seven points, hounded almost start to finish by LeBron James. And so did the Pacers, who had stayed within five points of the Heat through the series’ first six games, only to get beaten Monday by a disappointing 23.

Of all the players on the floor, though, from the Finals-worthy Heat to the summer-bound Pacers, none has a brighter future than George — the 23-year-old Scottie Pippen-play-alike whose reach has yet to exceed his grasp.

And given where other teams are at in their life cycles, none has a brighter future than Indiana. George’s breakout season and series sparked the Pacers as they pushed a team built around Hall of Famers that strung together victories at a historical rate to the max.

From Feb. 1 through the East finale, Miami went 42-2 against the rest of the NBA and 5-5 against Indiana. The Pacers are not going away.

“I’m proud of what we had this year,” George said in the tight visitors’ dressing room. “I don’t know, I just think what we had this year and going through what we did, gave us the experience. So us being in this situation this year and being young, I think this was what we really needed. … I don’t know what moves we need or what moves we’ll make, but we needed this to take that next step.”

Indiana has followed one of the NBA’s most time-tested blueprints, taking steps in each of the last three postseasons in building itself into a contender. Two seasons ago, it pestered Chicago in a feisty first-round series. Last year, Miami put the Pacers out in six semifinal games. This time, it took the Heat seven, with their veterans summoning all the desperation and will they could muster.

But they’d be kidding themselves if they thought that time and a good thumping one round later than a year ago would transform them. Indiana does have a future brighter than just about any other team – if it can address some key flaws. (more…)

## Heat Turn Up The Defense To Punch Their Ticket Back To The Finals

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MIAMI — The Miami Heat didn’t let Game 7 come down to shot-making. That’s a good thing, because they shot 39 percent.

The No. 1 defensive team in the league was the No. 2 defensive team on the floor on Monday, because the Heat found another level. And with a 99-76 victory over the Indiana Pacers, they’re moving on to The Finals for the third straight year. This game was about energy, on defense and on the glass. The Heat brought it from the start, reminding us how disruptive they can be when they enhance their speed and athleticism with relentless effort.

The Heat just haven’t been the defensive force that they were last season. Maybe it was a championship hangover or maybe their improved and top-ranked offense just didn’t need as much help to win games. They’ve been able to turn it on defensively — a couple of games or a couple of quarters at a time — but the consistency just wasn’t there.

In Game 7, it was there. The Heat attacked the Pacers’ Achilles’ heel — their inability to hold on to the ball under pressure — and made it impossible for them to find any offensive rhythm. Only once before garbage time set in did the Pacers score on three straight possessions, something that they did 10 times in Game 6.

“We wanted to really impose our energy defensively,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “and really get to our identity of pressuring them, hopefully making them make mistakes.”

The Heat’s defense was a swarm, attacking the Pacers’ pick-and-roll ball handler, and then recovering to attack the poor soul who got the ball next. At times, you had to count the Heat players on the court just to make sure there weren’t six or seven of them.

“They were a lot more aggressive on their back side,” David West, accountable for six of Indiana’s 21 turnovers, said. “They were there on the catch. They didn’t allow — particularly to Roy [Hibbert] — a lot of space.”

Hibbert scored 18 points on an efficient 7-for-11 shooting, because he was effective as a roll man. But he was surrounded on his post catches and when he tried to crash the offensive glass. For the second time in three games, he tallied only two offensive boards. More damaging were the turnovers. Indiana had nine in the first quarter and 15 by the half. They scored just 37 points 46 first-half possessions, making it almost inconsequential what the Heat were doing offensively.

LeBron James scored 32 points, but it was Dwyane Wade who typified the Heat’s night. The guy who struggled through the first six games, drawing criticism – and Larry Hughes comparisons – from all angles, was the guy who really got his team over the hump in what will be remembered as a fantastic series, despite the Game 7 margin.

After shooting 11-for-34 in Games 4-6, Wade was a solid 7-for-16 on Monday, though he still struggled with his jumper. He was 2-for-9 from outside of five feet.

But he got 17 points in the restricted area or at the free-throw line. They were energy points. Wade attacked the paint and attacked the glass. Five of the 17 came from his own offensive rebounds, of which he had six, three more than any other player on the floor. Those six boards produced nine second-chance points total.

With the season on the line, Wade answered the call. This wasn’t his best game, but he did not lack for effort.

“That’s probably the hardest he’s played,” West said. “We knew he, at times, was in and out of the series, just in terms of his impact.

“I thought he beat us in the effort department and he physically played harder tonight than we had seen in the previous six games.”

The effort didn’t come without a big assist from James, who took on the Paul George assignment defensively and looked to get Wade involved early. James knew he needed some help to get through this game, and he didn’t want to run out ahead of his teammates and wonder if they were going to join him.

“I called a couple of sets for him early in the game,” James said of Wade, “just to get a feel for it. And it showed throughout the whole game that he was in the rhythm.”

That was more than enough for the Heat, who beat the Pacers at what they do best, grabbing 15 offensive boards and getting to the line 38 times. In Game 7, Miami held Indiana (eight offensive boards, 20 free throw attempts) in check in both categories. Really, that was more important. The game was won at Indiana’s end of the floor, where the Heat out-defended the best defense in the league.

“They taught us a lesson,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They’ve won it all, and they know how to ratchet up their defense at a level that just imposes their will on a basketball game.”

If the Pacers can learn a lesson from Game 7, maybe the Heat can too. When they play that level of defense, it doesn’t matter much if the shots don’t go in.

## The Best Game 7s In Conference Finals History

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MIAMI — Game 7. It’s 48 minutes for everything.

This isn’t The Finals, but it’s the next best thing. The winner gets the opportunity to play for a championship against the San Antonio Spurs. And with how evenly played the Eastern Conference finals have been, it’s only appropriate that the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers play one game to decide who gets that opportunity.

This will be the 113th Game 7 in NBA history and the 33rd Game 7 in the conference finals (or division finals, as they were called before 1971). Of the 33, it’s the third straight that will be played on the shores of Biscayne Bay.

A year ago, the Heat beat the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. In 2005, the Detroit Pistons came to Miami and knocked off the Shaq-and-Wade duo in their first year together. That was one of only eight wins by the road team in the 32 conference finals Game 7s.

Here’s some more numbers regarding the history of Game 7 in the conference finals…

• 15 of the 32 winners, including four of the last six, went on to win The Finals.
• 14 of the 32 Game 7s were won by the team that had won Game 6.
• While the Heat are 1-1 in conference finals Game 7s, the Pacers are 0-3, losing to the Knicks in 1994, the Magic in 1995 and the Bulls in 1998, all on the road.
• Only twice in NBA history have both conference finals gone to seven games. In 1963, the Celtics and Lakers each won in seven, and in 1979, the Bullets and Sonics each won in seven.
• 17 of the 32 games have been decided by six points or less.

Yes, there have been some classic Game 7s in conference finals history. Here’s a rundown of the best (Home team in CAPS)…

June 6, 2005 – Detroit 88, MIAMI 82
The Pistons won their third championship in 2004 and the Heat won their first in 2006. In between, they played a tightly contested Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Heat led by six with less than seven minutes to go, but the Pistons went on a timely, 8-0 run, highlighted by a Ben Wallace dunk on Rasual Butler. Rasheed Wallace put the Pistons ahead for good with a pair of free throws with 1:26 left and then came up with a big tip-in on the Pistons’ next possession. Dwyane Wade went scoreless in the fourth quarter, missing all six of his shots and committing two of the Heat’s six turnovers.

Detroit went on to lose to the Spurs in seven games..

June 2, 2002 – L.A. Lakers 112, SACRAMENTO 106 (OT)
This one was the only overtime Game 7 in conference finals history and it wrapped up one of the craziest playoff series in recent memory, in which each of the last four games came down to the final five seconds of regulation.

The Lakers won Game 4 on Robert Horry‘s buzzer-beating three. The Kings won Game 5 on a jumper from Mike Bibby. Game 6 was the controversial night when the Lakers attempted 27 free throws in the fourth quarter and survived when Bibby missed a three with five seconds left.

Bibby tied Game 7 with a pair of free throws with eight seconds on the clock in the fourth quarter, and he gave the Kings a two-point lead with a jumper with 2:17 to go in overtime. But Sacramento went scoreless on its final six possessions and the Lakers won the game at the line. The Kings themselves made just 16 of their 30 free throws, while also shooting a brutal 2-for-20 from 3-point range.

Not only was this the only overtime Game 7 in the conference finals, but it’s the one where you can most clearly say that the winner determined the NBA champion. The Lakers went on to sweep the New Jersey Nets in The Finals.

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## ‘Not 2, Not 3’ Goes From Boast To Worry

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MIAMI – Nothing seems to have much staying power anymore. A season of your favorite TV show might run 13 episodes. Tech gadgets need to re-generate every few months or somebody’s stock price plummets. What was the next big thing tomorrow and a huge deal today morphs into old news even before yesterday arrives.

If that’s the backdrop against which we’re to judge the Miami Heat’s immediate predicament — a dynasty curtailed, should they lose to the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Monday night at AmericanAirlines Arena (8:30 ET, TNT) — then maybe the brevity of this whole thing makes sense.

But seen against the expectations the Heat raised when this group came together 35 months ago, measured by the tremors sent through the league when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all signed as free agents with Miami, a shelf life this potentially short seems startling. Way premature, too, given the smoke and mirrors, the pomp and circumstance that heralded the Big 3’s arrival and James then famously promising multiple championships with his ‘not one, not two, not three …’ line.

After Game 5, on the same night that James talked about his decision to relocate to south Florida — “That’s what I came here for, to be able to compete for a championship each and every year” — he also was candid about the limited help he was getting vs. the Pacers and the need to reach “back to my Cleveland days” in meeting the must-win challenge.

After the Heat’s 91-77 loss in Game 6, the issues were obvious, the criticism fully revved. On TNT, Reggie Miller called them the “Miami Cavaliers.” Steve Kerr said James was getting “zero help.” And Kenny Smith observed that Bosh and Wade were physically and athletically “outmatched.”

These were the supreme talents who were going to bully the rest of the NBA for years to come? The legends-in-making who would chase down Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and other giants for claims on all-time greatness?

At the moment, Wade looks old, Bosh looks overpriced and James, well, he looks lonely. In his most recent public exposure, he sat alone on the postgame podium in Indianapolis after the Game 6 loss, a long way from the lasers-and-anthems of his Miami introduction in July 2010.

“I mean, we can state the obvious: they’re both struggling,” James said, moments after reminding everyone that he believes in his teammates.

Belief comes harder when Wade, his bruised right knee showing no discernible improvement over two months, lingers on the perimeter and shows no explosiveness and lift. And when Bosh, having turned an ankle in the series, looks awkward or absent as a defender and rebounder.

Three seasons ago, in the first season of their grand experiment, the challenge was sorting out their egos and oversized games into a collaboration of trust. Last season, they all figured it out on their way to the championship. This season, the Heat seemed more formidable, its 27-game winning streak as a bit of history and prelude to what, still, they hope is a repeat title. (more…)

## Game 7: Legacy On The Line For Wade?

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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — One game doesn’t make a legacy.

One play, one moment, in one game, in one season does not make or break a career.

So why does it feel like there is so much riding on Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals for Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade? The growing mob of skeptics is writing him off as too old and battered to rebound from the struggles that have plagued him throughout this postseason and this series in particular. They’re ready to stick a fork in him and declare what had been the “Big 3” the “Big 1 and 3/4.”

Sure, there is much riding on this game for the other stars involved — LeBron James and Chris Bosh from the Heat and the Indiana Pacers’ trio of Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West. The coaches, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Indiana’s Frank Vogel — and their respective franchises — have much on the line as well.

It goes deeper than that, however, for Wade. This game is about his legacy and whether or not he can bandage that busted right knee of his up tight enough to dial-up a throwback performance and help carry the Heat to victory on Monday night at AmericanAirlines Arena (8:30 ET, TNT).

Does he have the energy and intestinal fortitude to play through whatever pain he’s in and give the Heat more than the pedestrian (at least by Wade’s own lofty standards) 14.5 points on 44 percent shooting, 4.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds he’s delivering through the first six games? Can the Heat still “Call Tyrone” (Wade’s middle name) or do they need to look elsewhere for salvation, not to mention help for LeBron, in one of the biggest games of the Heat Big 3’s run together?

Wade says he and Bosh need bigger roles to help the Heat advance. They need more touches. And they need someone, presumably LeBron (even though he didn’t mention him by name in his locker room comments after Game 6), to facilitate this process since neither one of them has been able to do it on his own.

“We’ve got to do a good job of making sure me and Chris have our opportunities to succeed throughout the game,” Wade said. “That’s something we’re going to have to look at as a team.”

We’ve got guys individually who want to play better,” Wade said. “But we’ve got to try to help each other out in this locker room and not leave it up to the individual to self-will it.”

It’s hard to tell if that’s a plea for help or just a proud man stating the obvious. The Pacers have clamped down on anyone in a Heat jersey not named James. That’s why we have a Game 7, which is the ultimate proving ground for Wade and Bosh.

For the folks fortunate enough to make it through a conference finals Game 7, it changes lives in some instances. For superstar and future Hall of Famers like Wade, one championship secures your place in history. Two makes you a living legend. Three puts you in that rarefied air that only a select few occupy.

This stage is that great. Wade knows because he’s been here before. The reward carries a world of opportunities with it, a bevy of exposure that would not otherwise be available. Wade knows this better than most, having thrived in the Game 7 spotlight as early as his rookie season with the Heat back during the 2004 playoffs.

It was his star turn during the first round against New Orleans, back when Wade operated as the Heat’s point guard and wasn’t wearing all of the aches and pains that a decade’s worth of superstar work in this league that he does now.

Wade’s career record in Game 7s is 2-2, with each of those four games serving as defining moments throughout his career. (more…)

## Pacers’ Hibbert Fined \$75K For ‘Inappropriate And Vulgar’ Language

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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Not all speech is free.

Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert found out the hard way on the eve of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, when the NBA fined him \$75,000 for using “inappropriate and vulgar language” during postgame interviews after the Pacers’ Game 6 win over the Miami Heat Saturday night in Indianapolis.

“While Roy has issued an apology, which is no doubt sincere, a fine is necessary to reinforce that such offensive comments will not be tolerated by the NBA,” said NBA Commissioner David Stern in a statement released by the league.

Hibbert’s apology, issued via Pacers.com earlier Sunday, summed up the big man’s feeling after realizing that he might have offended some people with his remarks:

“I am apologizing for insensitive remarks made during the postgame press conference after our victory over Miami Saturday night. They were disrespectful and offensive and not a reflection of my personal views. I used a slang term that is not appropriate in any setting, private or public, and the language I used definitely has no place in a public forum, especially over live television. I apologize to those who I have offended, to our fans and to the Pacers’ organization. I sincerely have deep regret over my choice of words last night.”

## Hill Must Play Big For Pacers To Advance

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — George Hill took over as the starting point guard before last season’s playoffs. Now he might be the Indiana Pacers’ most important player when they try to oust the defending champion Miami Heat and punch their own ticket to the NBA Finals on Monday night.

Game 7 (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) should be a doozy in Miami. In this unpredictable Eastern Conference Finals that features LeBron James and his struggling sidekicks Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the Heat, an emerging superstar in Paul George and a dominant and unnecessarily verbose center in Roy Hibbert, the quiet, 6-foot-2 Hill stands as the ultimate X-factor.

In three Pacers wins, Hill has averaged 17.7 ppg. In three losses, he’s averaged 8.3, including five points in Game 1 and a single point in the Game 5 loss. In do-or-die Game 6, Hill came through with 16 points and six assists as the Pacers opened a big lead, lost it and then took charge again. Hill played all but 42 seconds of the second half, delivering nine points and four assists with just two turnovers. At the other end, the long-armed Hill helped to hold Miami to 37 second-half points on 34.5 percent shooting.

“To tell you the truth, I’m not really worried about George,” Hibbert said following Indiana’s 91-77 win in Game 6. “He had an off-night [in Game 5]. “He’s a true veteran. He plays beyond his years. He learned through coach [Gregg] Popovich in a great system. He bounces back, he takes pride in himself in offense and defense and he plays both ends of the floor. He recognizes that.”

Hill’s also been getting a steady dose of advice throughout the series from former San Antonio teammate, Spurs point guard Tony Parker, on how to beat the Heat.

Even though he wasn’t scoring in Game 5, his edgy defense still helped the Pacers to a 44-40 halftime lead while also knowing Indiana was wasting a valuable opportunity to widen the the gap on the scoreboard. Two Hibbert free throws put the Pacers ahead 50-49 with 7:14 to go in the third. Then Hill picked up consecutive fouls in the span of nine seconds and headed to the bench with four personals.

Immediately Miami took off, ending the quarter on a 21-6 run.

“He’s an underrated — probably the most underrated point‑guard defender in the game,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “So when he’s out, or not right, that’s where we suffer the most, is on the defensive end.”

In a series where points are increasingly at a premium, the Pacers know what they’re going to get from their formidable frontline of Hibbert and West, who was tremendous in Game 6 despite being ill with a 100-degree-plus fever before tip.

But they can’t always count on Hill being an aggressive playmaker and getting into the paint. What they need in Game 7 is for the erratic stuff from Hill, as well as starting shooting guard Lance Stephenson, to come to an end on the Heat’s home floor where the two have struggled the most. The third-year Stephenson, a bench-warmer in these two teams’ second-round series a year ago and best remembered for the self-chokehold he applied to mock James, is just 3-for-11 from the floor in the last two games for eight points.

In Game 4, he went 9-for-15 for 20 points. In the Game 3 loss, he was 2-for-10.

In Game 5, reserve forward Tyler Hansbrough had three points. Until late in the game he had outscored Hill and Stephenson combined. It’s been feast or famine for the Pacers’ starting backcourt, and it’s hard to see a Finals berth coming against a determined James on his home floor if Hill and Stephenson shrink under pressure.

“Lance is a young player; plays better at home,” Vogel said. “He has to find a way to bring that magic while we’re on the road. George has been pretty consistent throughout the season. … When he’s aggressive with the basketball, trying to live in the paint, making the extra pass, with his ability to make shots, he just gives us a tremendous lift on the offensive end.”

One the Pacers figure unable to live without in Game 7.

## Hibbert Crossed The Line!

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — It’s a good thing Roy Hibbert isn’t worried about being fined for his comments after the Indiana Pacers’ Game 6 win in the Eastern Conference finals, because the penalty for his words is surely on the way.

It’s one thing to take shots at the media for not recognizing his defensive prowess the way he thinks we should have, it’s another thing to use an expletive with live microphones and a worldwide audience on NBA TV and NBA.com when you do it.

“Y’all m————- don’t watch us play throughout the year to tell you the truth,” Hibbert said. “So that’s fine. I’m going to be real with you, and I don’t care if I get fined. We play and we’re not on TV all of the time and reporters are the ones that are voting and it is what it is. And I don’t make it, that’s fine. I’m still going to do what I have to do.”

The gay slur used to punctuate his point about the defense being played against four-time MVP LeBron James that wasn’t intended to be a slur, well, Hibbert will try to make amends with Jason Collins and others, but the damage is already done.

Like I said, the fine is coming. The dent Hibbert put in his own reputation, however, is already there. He crossed the line in this instance — and for no reason. Hibbert is playing well enough right now that just going out and dominating the Heat would suffice. He could skip the podium every night and still make his point in this series.

You could almost see this coming, with the increased intensity in the series and Hibbert’s continued escalation of the verbal escapades directed at Shane Battier and anyone who doesn’t believe in him and his Pacers teammates. It’s an unfortunate and unnecessary storyline for the lead up to Game 7, Monday night in Miami (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

You rarely need any extra hype for Game 7 of a playoff series, though, let alone the conference finals.

Hibbert’s play has provided all the hype needed through the first six games of this series anyway. He has been an absolute nightmare for the Heat, averaging 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 39.8 minutes while shooting 55 percent from the floor and 81 percent from the free-throw line. He’s absolutely destroyed the Heat frontcourt in this series.

He and Paul George came up with 52 points and 19 rebounds on their own in Game 6, outscoring the Heat’s weary “Big 3” of James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade (44 and 13). Hibbert has been the most consistent force on both ends of the floor in this series, and that includes James.

Hibbert is getting air time with the NBA’s global audience that he’s never had. The first impression is an important one, especially for a player who aims to make a significant climb up the “best big man in basketball” ladder between now and next season, no matter how this series plays out.

I’d hate to see Hibbert ruin that momentum with one liners and verbal missteps that take away from the utter brilliance he’s shown on the court. Finish the Heat off and maybe then you will garner the respect you think you’ve already earned.

If it’s respect that Hibbert wants, he’ll earn it with another monster effort in Game 7 and not anything that comes out of his mouth before, during or after this series is done.

Meanwhile, Hibbert issued this apology on Pacers.com:

“I am apologizing for insensitive remarks made during the postgame press conference after our victory over Miami Saturday night. They were disrespectful and offensive and not a reflection of my personal views. I used a slang term that is not appropriate in any setting, private or public, and the language I used definitely has no place in a public forum, especially over live television. I apologize to those who I have offended, to our fans and to the Pacers’ organization. I sincerely have deep regret over my choice of words last night.”

## Miami Drawn-And-Third-Quartered

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INDIANAPOLIS – It was a miserable way to go into halftime.

And yet it was a teachable moment.

The Indiana Pacers should have been kicking themselves over the way they played in the final eight minutes of the first half Saturday night, eight minutes that wouldn’t have defined their season but certainly could have ended it.

And yet the Pacers and their coach, Frank Vogel, turned that stretch of the second quarter into a “Hey, things could be worse!” halftime alignment that propelled them into a lethal third quarter. Indiana essentially won Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals with the other three quarters tied behind their backs, packing enough into one to carry them all the way to a Game 7 Monday night in Miami.

The final: 91-77. The third quarter: 29-15.

“Explain it? You seen it,” LeBron James said. “It was total domination by the Pacers in the third.”

Maybe it’s time to mint a new cliché. Maybe it’s not the last five minutes of NBA games that matter but the first 12 after intermission. For most of this hotly contested series between the East’s two best teams (never mind that Knicks No. 2 seed), the team that won the third quarter has won the game. The lone exception: Game 2 in Miami, when Indiana lost the quarter battle but won that war.

Granted, it hasn’t been a matter each time of only winning the third. But the team that emerges more focused and driven from the halftime locker room – and applies that, along with whatever strategic adjustments it discussed, over the next half hour or so of real time – has been the team in control that night.

No one is in control of this series at the moment, tied at 3-3. Miami has the home court Monday. And the experience in such pressure situations. And the confidence inherent in defending champions. And, oh yeah, Chris (Birdman) Andersen coming back from his one-game suspension (though backup-backup Joel Anthony filled in sufficiently with eight rebounds and three blocks).

Indiana, by contrast, will mostly have the bragging rights of the third quarter. After getting smoked 30-13 in those 12 minutes in Game 5 Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, the Pacers flipped the script entirely.

And they did it by looking hard at the opportunities they already had squandered in the game.

In those final eight minutes of the half, Indiana had been its own worst enemy. The 31-25 lead it had scrapped and grunted for to that point? It vanished in a fraction of the time. Lance Stephenson threw a pass that big man Ian Mahinmi couldn’t handle for one turnover. Mahinmi got caught lingering in the lane for another. Guard Sam Young went strong to the rim for what could have been a statement dunk against Miami’s Chris Bosh – until it caromed right back out. Next trip down, veteran forward David West botched a dunk too. And Paul George already had one of his own in the first quarter.

Meanwhile, the Heat – with James on the bench – went on an 11-2 run that took all of 4 1/2 minutes. Wait, let’s repeat that: with James on the bench.

After James came back, the Pacers scored six straight points but Anthony’s tip-in and a runout dunk by the reigning MVP had Miami up 40-39. Indiana closed the half in blooper fashion, with a bad pass by Roy Hibbert and another failed dunk (at least Anthony got a hand on George’s throw-down attempt).

So what did Vogel do? The same guy who had scribbled “Be encouraged!!!” on their white board in Game 4 went with the half-full approach again.

“It wasn’t so much about getting on them for leaving plays out there,” Vogel said. “It was, ‘Look guys, we’re not even playing our best and it’s a one-point game. So just tighten the screws and do what we do.’ ”

Or do what the Heat had done at the same point 48 hours earlier. “Last game our third quarter was really what let us down,” Hibbert said. “We tried to take advantage of that and come out aggressive.”

They came out hellacious. Hibbert’s spin around Anthony and driving slam at 5:49 of the third capped a 14-2 blitz by the Pacers. And it got worse for the Heat; George scored seven straight points, shaky reserve point guard D.J. Augustin dropped in a running jumper and Hibbert got in the lane again for a layup that pushed Indiana’s lead to 17.

“Basically everything we have to do to win this series, we gave up,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And obviously we struggled with some open shots, open layups, opportunities in the open court, and those affected us on the other end.”

Miami needs to stay close on the boards, right? It got outrebounded 13-4. It needs to protect the paint, yes? It got outscored there 16-0 in the third. Take care of the ball, a basic for any team? The Heat had six turnovers that turned into eight points for Indiana and, for the Pacers, took some of the sting out of their nine turnovers (but only three points).

Bottom line for the quarter: Indiana had 23 possessions, scored on 13 and had nine turnovers. The Pacers made 12 of their 17 shots and Miami grabbed only one defensive rebound.

“We know how we give them up against a very good rebounding team,” Spoelstra said. “But they got some tip-ins from some non-blockouts. It seemed as if every tipped ball that went out to the free-throw line, loose ball, ended up in their hands. Those extra possessions in a possession series will dictate often the outcome of the game.”

Ironically, the only Miami player who did much of anything in the third – the Heat have been desperate to get him going through his series-long struggle – was Dwyane Wade, who scored nine of Miami’s 15 points compared to the one point he managed in his other 22 minutes played.

Indiana wasn’t quite free and clear after the third. West’s brain cramp on an inbounds pass with 2.6 seconds left in that period turned into giveaway free throws for James. James had nine more points in him for the fourth and Mike Miller came off Miami’s bench for two 3-pointers that sent a nervous murmur through Bankers Life Fieldhouse. In time, the Heat would get what had been a 17-point lead all the way down to four.

But West – playing through a respiratory infection that had him visibly worn down and a fever that Vogel said was “slightly over 100” degrees – stemmed the bleeding with four manly buckets at opportune times. George hit a 3-pointer that got the lead up to 75-68. And Hibbert – after drawing an offensive foul on James that had the Miami star streaking downcourt in a shocked stage sprint  that earned him a technical – dropped in a layup over him that made it 81-68 with 3:55 to play.

That’s about the time that James’ facial expression and his teammates’ body language said good night to Saturday and shifted to Monday.

“It just needed one quarter,” James said of that dastardly third. “One quarter to separate the two teams.”

Now both teams are down to four. Any one of which will do.