Posts Tagged ‘2014 Eastern Conference finals’

Indiana can’t drag Heat to Game 7

VIDEO: Heat dismantle Pacers in decisive Game 6

MIAMI – In a ranking of the saddest, most enduring symbols of unrealized ambition in NBA history, it’s difficult to top the rafters of Los Angeles’ fabulous Forum in the spring of 1969, filled with multi-colored balloons that never were allowed to drop.

The balloons had been loaded up there on orders from Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, convinced that his team would win Game 7 of The Finals over the dynasty-in-decline Boston Celtics. Only the proud Celtics noticed, dialed up their focus – Bill Russell said he wanted to watch the show of Forum workers taking them down one by one – and, on the Lakers’ home court, grabbed the championship Cooke had presumed was his.

Forty-five years later, the Forum and its balloons have some company now in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Not just the rafters – the whole empty, lonely place, site of a never-to-be-played Game 7 of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

The Miami Heat rendered that game unnecessary, lights out, doors locked, by dismantling the Pacers in Game 6 117-92 and ending the best-of-seven series without the trip back to Indy. Miami beat the Pacers in all ways basketball — leading by 37, shooting 58 percent and hanging 117 points on what had been the league’s No. 1 defense, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh refusing to lose.

Miami beat them physically and mentally, too, from Shane Battier pushing a forearm across wild child Lance Stephenson‘s throat to put him on the floor to veteran Udonis Haslem threatening Stephenson from the bench in a GIF widely circulated on social media during the drubbing.

Unspoken, though, was how the Heat deprived Indiana of the essence of its entire season.

From the start of training camp – really, from the moment they trudged off the court in south Florida at the end of last year’s ECF, so similar to Friday’s outcome – the Pacers had targeted the East’s No. 1 seed for the home-court advantage it would bestow. Specifically, they wanted to know, if they locked up with the Heat again for the right to advance to The Finals, Game 7 would be at BLFH this time.

It would have been.

Only the Pacers never made it happen.

There were reasons great and small why it didn’t last the max, why Indiana never got a chance to flex a home-court advantage that, let’s be honest, had fizzled anyway (the Pacers went 35-6 at BLFH during the season, then 5-5 in the playoffs). Stephenson’s mouth and antics might not have affected the Pacers – so his teammates claimed – but they sure seemed to put a face on Miami’s quest to reach its fourth consecutive Finals.

There was Roy Hibbert‘s big fade, an 8-point, 4-rebound performance on a night that the Heat made sure wasn’t his. Miami’s use of Bosh and Rashard Lewis in a stretch-5 attack in which everyone is a deep shooting threat pulled thwarted Hibbert’s 7-foot-2 size advantage even more thoroughly than Atlanta had (with lesser players). Defensively the Heat found way to make Hibbert just as uncomfortable and then the big fella’s sensitive side took over, completing the task. The guy who averaged 22.1 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 55.7 percent in last year’s ECF against Miami slumped to 10.8, 7.7 and 41.5 percent.

The most important, elephant-in-the-room-sized reason, though, was that Indiana could not crack Miami’s code. It doesn’t have the star power, barely has the manpower and never could rise to the occasions – five players tied together as one – for any sustained success.

As bad as Game 6 was, and it was stenchified, the Pacers admitted afterward that their troubles in the series began in Game 2, which had slipped away late, pilfering the home court right there and squandering their chance to put the Heat in a 2-0 hole.

That was a mistake. Getting reckless with the ball and blowing a big lead in Game 3, another mistake. Game 4? A wire-to-wire mistake. Roll them all together and you get a team that wants to chase championship vs. a team that already owns two and is aiming for three.

“Everything starts and ends with the Miami Heat,” forward David West said. “You have to have a team that can survive and get you through a tough regular season, but ultimately you’ve got to be able to beat Miami to get to The Finals.

“This whole year, we competed to get to this moment. We just weren’t able to come through it. They’re built for these moments. Their pedigree shows in these moments, just how everybody on their team does their job. Particularly in these moments, they do it at a high level. They don’t have any breakdowns.”

Indiana has flaws and challenges. Bidding to retain free agent-to-be Stephenson, and at what price, will be a pressing one, requiring guesses as to how his psyche melds with a multimillion-dollar, guaranteed contract. Rounding up some perimeter shooting seems a must.

Coach Frank Vogel might need to find himself a new “bad cop” on the bench to keep the pressure on a squad that got too easily satisfied along the way. And basketball boss Larry Bird is going to have to get back on the horse after being thrown not once (Andrew Bynum signing) but twice (Evan Turner trade).

Here’s the trickiest part: James isn’t retiring anytime soon. What players such as Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and others went through being born too close to Michael Jordan‘s birth date, the Pacers are facing with regard to Miami’s best player and the team on which he romps.

“We’re in the LeBron James era,” West said after the game. “We fully understand that.”

West likened James to Shaquille O’Neal, another player whose size and skill set warped normal games. Beating James and the Heat, same as beating the big man, requires better personnel (to counter James’ many styles), a deeper roster (to dole out fouls when needed) and a resolve to pull it together. Oh, and one more thing …

“They’ve got that gear that continues to elude us in the moment,” West said. “We can compete in the year, tough and well enough, to beat them for the top seed. But in these moments, the Game 2 moments, this Game 6 moment, it just eludes us.”

A fair question from Pacers fans and NBA followers would be: For how long? West, Vogel and the others felt their team took a considerable step this season, running down that No. 1 seed, winning 56 games and beating better opponents in the first two rounds than a year ago.

Still, getting bounced by Miami for a third consecutive season has gotten old, and the Pacers will need to make sure their act has not.

Earlier in the series, on an off-day, Donnie Walsh – longtime Indiana exec who serves now as a consultant – talked of the 1997-2000 Pacers, Reggie Miller-led and Larry Bird-coached. After the first edition of Shaq’s and Kobe Bryant‘s Lakers beat them for the title, on the heels of two misses in the East finals, Bird told Walsh that Pacers group had nothing left. Changes were made, not the least of which was Bird hanging up his whiteboard, and by the time Indiana reached the 2004 conference finals, the roster had been remade.

West said he didn’t think this squad is at that point, though he understood why the question might get asked. This league has a history, too, of excellent also-rans that never quite broke through.

“We’re in the midst of that,” West said. “This is the third year that they’ve knocked us out, two straight years in the conference finals. It can’t deter us. It can’t deter us from the work we know is ahead of us.”

That’s for the long term, gearing up again in October with a focus on May.

Short term, there will be a big, empty field house in downtown Indianapolis Sunday evening. It was supposed to be the Pacers’ partner, alive and loud and stomping on the clutch so they actually could find that elusive gear.

Instead, it will be dark, a reminder of what could have been and a variation on Hemingway’s shortest saddest story ever (“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn”).

The sign will be posted there in spirit. “Home court, Game 7: Never needed.”

George driven to apply pressure in Game 6 for Pacers

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.

Game 6: Welcome to West’s neighborhood

VIDEO: The GameTime crew previews Game 6

MIAMI – The antics of the Indiana Pacers’ wild child have dominated the Eastern Conference finals’ news cycle over the past several game nights and off-days.

It might be time, however, for the Pacers to put away childish things. And look to their resident grown-up, David West.

West is about as far removed from Lance Stephenson as anyone on the Indiana roster gets. West doesn’t blow in opponents’ ears in a juvenile attempt to get under their skin. He has been known, though, to cast a withering glare in some guys’ direction, the intent behind it – along with West’s burly 6-foot-9, 250 pounds and New Jersey no-nonsense roots – understood and wisely heeded.

West doesn’t yap, either. He chooses his words carefully and doles them out sparingly, such that they resonate way beyond the motor-mouths’ banter. Usually his message is loud and clear before he utters a word.

This is Game 6 coming up, West’s killing field twice already in these 2014 playoffs and the moment that, unless it belongs to West, might not belong to the Pacers.

“It’s not something I go out and look to do,” West said of his Game 6 performances against Atlanta in the first round and Washington in the East semifinals. “It’s part of how the game goes. Sort of what the moment dictates.”

Those moments dictated desperation. Against the Hawks, Indiana was right where it is now: down 3-2, on the road, its season in jeopardy. The Pacers had fallen behind 84-79 in the fourth quarter when West had had enough – he scored 12 of his 24 points in that period and sparked the 16-4 run with which Indiana closed the game .It was the power forward’s first double-double of the postseason.

Against Washington, the circumstances weren’t quite as dire: Indiana led 3-2 in the series. But the precocious Wizards had blown out the East’s No. 1 seed in Indianapolis by 23 points and were gaining confidence. West and the Pacers didn’t want lose at Verizon Center and have to put their home court to the test.

“My message to [teammates] was, ‘Just come to me,’ ” West said that day. “Ultimately I wanted it to be on my shoulders. If we lost this game, I wanted it to be on me.”

So West scored 29 points, hitting 13-of-26 shots, the most field-goal attempts he’s ever taken with Indiana and his most, period, since he was playing for New Orleans in 2009.

Said Indiana center Roy Hibbert: “He’s a veteran player who’s been through it all. He exudes a lot of confidence and he’s very contagious.”

Here’s a comparison of West’s work in two Game 6s vs. his other 16 playoff games:

G6: 26.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 5.0 apg, 23.0 FGA, 50.0 FG%

Others: 14.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.0 apg, 11.8 FGA, 47.9 FG%

Against the Heat so far, West has averaged 16.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists, and he’s shooting 53.1 percent but on 12.8 attempts. He has faced a gauntlet of defenders against Miami coach Erik Spoelstra‘s multiple matchups, from LeBron James out of position and out of sorts in Game 1 to Shane Battier and most recently Rashard Lewis.

West, 33, never has been the type of player who consciously has tried to take over games. Even for guys who do, that often doesn’t go well. The pressure’s too great and the defense dedicates itself to choking him off, and that can be that.

But the approach West took in that elimination game in Atlanta, the resolve he flexed on the Wizards’ floor two weeks ago, is needed now more than ever. And as West said in Washington: “I just wasn’t going to leave anything in the clip, y’know? I felt like I had to get beyond what I usually do. … We easily could have been home already.”

The Pacers want to go home now, they just want to drag Miami back with them. They played the entire 2013-14 season for one thing: To have Game 7 of the East finals at home against the Heat. To get there, they all have to go through Game 6, and maybe David West.

LeBron was mostly LeBr-off the court

VIDEO: LeBron James responds to Lance Stephenson’s Game 5 antics

INDIANAPOLIS – Michael Jordan
had his “flu” game, Game 5 of the 1997 Finals when he played 44 minutes, scored 38 points and fell into Scottie Pippen‘s arms at the end, visibly spent but victorious.

LeBron James nearly had his “sit” game Wednesday night, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers. Nearly, that is, because James wasn’t able to overcome the foul trouble that planted him on the Miami Heat bench for stretches in the first, second and third quarters. He played less than 25 minutes, scored a career playoff-low seven points on 2-for-10 shooting and still had a chance to own the outcome if only Chris Bosh‘s 3-pointer from the right corner (off James’ penetration and kick-out) had hit with 4.9 seconds left.

In place of that, then, the Pacers had their “asterisk” game.

What else can you call it when a hangdog team, mired in a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series, gets gifted with friendlier whistles than even Kate Upton hears? Never before in James’ career had he been called for five fouls in the first three quarters of the game. It took him all of 13:53 to pick up those five compared to, say, his seven fouls in 158 minutes in Miami’s entire first-round series against Charlotte.

If the NBA conspiracy theorists had turned James’ foul trouble into a drinking game, a lot of them might have passed out and missed a dynamite fourth quarter.

“The game is reffed by the refs,” James, conspicuously unruffled by his restricted performance, said afterward. “They ref how they see it. We play it, and you live the results.”

James’ first foul was a touch foul as Paul George tried to split between James and Dwyane Wade midway through the first quarter. He got his second due to George Hill‘s early aggression in attacking the paint, and subbed out with 2:43 left in the first.

He stayed out until 7:13 of the second quarter, coming in for Wade and lasting barely a minute before picking up a charge. The best player in the league (world?) was done again and went into halftime having made only one of his five shots and scoring two more points than you or me.

Funny thing was, Miami was up 42-33. A rare opportunity for Indiana was starting to look like a looming nightmare.

“LeBron was on the bench for a stretch,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We didn’t take advantage of it.”

Said George, who would wind up with 37 points but had only six by halftime: “When he was in foul trouble, everybody had to be aggressive. That’s a huge weapon that they’re missing. Everybody was aware that he was on the bench and how limited this team was without him, and how much everybody had to step up.”

Except the Pacers didn’t. While Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen were hitting 3-pointers to keep the Heat in front, Indiana was misfiring from the arc (1-for- 8) and from the foul line (2-for-6). James was over on the bench, as calm as a commuter waiting for a late bus. At least he had a whole ‘nother half in which to do his thing.

Or did he? James fouled Hibbert on a layup just 21 seconds into the third quarter. At 8:34 he got nailed with No. 5 while scrambling against Lance Stephenson for a loose ball. The Heat’s lead was eight, on its way to 11 when Lewis hit another 3-pointer.

“It sucks for me because I’m not able to make plays to help our team win,” James said later. “I made a couple in the fourth, but 24 minutes is not enough for me to make an imprint on the game like I know I’m accustomed to.

“So you just continue to help the guys from the bench, let them know what you can see when you’re in foul trouble and ways we can try to exploit them. But I’m much better on the floor than I am off it, for sure.”

That third quarter turned ugly for Miami. Four-and-a-half minutes after James sat down, Indiana pulled even at 50-50. It was 64-57 Pacers heading into the fourth, the Heat getting outscored 27-12 after James got yanked.

In the fourth, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra waited 90 seconds before subbing in James. He scored five points, shooting 1-for-5 again, and clearly was out of rhythm and not in synch with the rest of the game. But he still commanded enough respect that, on Miami’s last possession, Hibbert came to help when James drove into the lane with George on his hip. If Bosh’s shot had dropped, James would have been lauded for his playmaking.

Instead, he was remembered for his absence.

“We run a lot through LeBron and he’s our best defender, our best offensive player, and our best player, period,” Bosh said. “Anytime you have your best player out, it’s a little bit more difficult. And he creates for everybody, so we had to fend for ourselves out there. He spoils us a little bit.”

James seemed determined afterward to shrug off the foul calls, a conscious effort not to bellyache the way the Pacers had after Game 4. He talked more than once about “the things that we can control and not the things we can’t control.”

What he and the Heat can control now in this series is Game 6, Friday in Miami.

“We’re expecting LeBron to be LeBron,” George said, “and that’s how we want it. … We’re capable of winning the ballgame with LeBron scoring 30 to 40 points.”

Careful what you wish for, young fella. James scored seven and Indiana won by three. And he might not hear five whistles the rest of this postseason.

Competing agendas clash in Game 5

VIDEO: The GameTime crew breaks down the problems facing the Pacers

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.

Gentlemen, stop your engines, it’s over

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: The Pacers fall apart in a Game 4 loss to the Heat

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.

‘First to 48 minutes’ could grab big edge

By Steve Aschburner,

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):

Forty-eight minutes.

Erik Spoelstra (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Erik Spoelstra (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

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.”

Lewis’ reserve role with Heat would not have fit his younger self

By Steve Aschburner,

A notable scorer prior to arriving in Miami, Rashard Lewis has sacrificed to fit the Heat mold.

A notable scorer prior to arriving in Miami, Rashard Lewis has sacrificed to fit the Heat mold.

MIAMI – The 24-year-old Rashard Lewis would have wanted no part of this 34-year-old Rashard Lewis guy or, for that matter, the job he has.

If RL34 tried to pitch his role with the Miami Heat to RL24 – a lot of sitting, scarce playing time, limited touches on those occasions when you do play and a heavy priority on defense – the younger version of himself might have walked away muttering expletives and fearing insanity in his future.

“Ten years ago? [Bleep],” Lewis said Sunday, talking after the Heat’s practice about him then vs. him now. “I’d have been [hacked] off.

“Even if we was winning the ball game, I’d have been sitting over there furious. If I was in the game and felt like I hadn’t gotten a shot in a long time, and it came to the fourth quarter and zero points, I probably would have taken a bad shot trying to get myself going.”

Lewis came into the NBA projected as, and expecting to be, a star. He was drafted straight out of a Elsik High in Alief, Texas, by Seattle in the second round of the 1998 Draft and the only reason he slid that low was because he was 19 and the preps-to-pros thing still was sorting itself out. Not every high school kid was proving to be Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett. But Lewis figured to be plenty good and after a couple of years, he got real traction with the Sonics.

By age 24, in 2003-04, the 6-foot-10 forward was logging 37 minutes nightly, putting up 15 or 16 shots and averaging in the high teens. The next year, he was named to his first of two All-Star teams and began a streak of three seasons averaging at least 20 points.

In 2007, Lewis “got paid” – overpaid actually, in a six-year, $118 million sign-and-trade deal to Orlando – and while he never grew into that contract as a superstar or a franchise guy, Lewis did make it to another All-Star Game, led the league in 3-point attempts and makes and helped the Magic reach the 2009 Finals.

And yet here he was at 34, getting praised for a Game 3 performance in the Eastern Conference finals in which he played almost 18 minutes, shot 0-2, didn’t grab a rebound and went home scoreless. RL24 wouldn’t have wanted any part of that stats line, either, but RL34 felt proud of it because the players and coaches around him were pleased.

“It’s big time,” Miami’s LeBron James said. “For the non‑basketball people, you look at this stat sheet and see zeros across the board. When he was on the floor, it was a plus-21. That’s winning basketball. He sacrificed, defended, and he helped us get the lead. There’s a plus on the floor with him out there.’

Lewis hadn’t played at all in the first two games against Indiana, but when Chris Bosh got into foul trouble, coach Erik Spoelstra called on Lewis primarily to guard Pacers power forward David West. His best work came in the second quarter, then Lewis played nine minutes, West played 12 and the Indiana strongman got up only two shots for two points.

“He just brought energy,” Spoelstra said Sunday. “It was just we went deeper in the rotation. And maybe that’s a function of having a fresh body at that point in the game. It was a spark. It wasn’t necessarily planned. It just happened, we had to go deeper, and he produced.” (more…)

A strong start, then Pacers lose way

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Paul George talks after the Pacers’ Game 3 loss

MIAMI – If you had a friend who’d spent the past seven months abroad and wanted a quick catch-up on what’s gone on in that time with the Indiana Pacers, all you’d need to do is point him or her to replay of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night.

The game’s arc mirrored the trajectory of the Pacers’ season: Terrific start, smart execution of strategy and all sorts of pinch-me rewards that flowed from that. Then, serious lapses in their care and feeding of the basketball, followed by a blown lead, an embarrassing drop in the quality of their play and a stew of scowls and dejection where once there had been smiles and elation.

It might not be too late for the Pacers to pull out of what looked an awful lot like a tailspin in the closing minutes of their 99-87 loss. But if they do, they’re going to have to solve a whole lot of what Miami threw at them and track down a corresponding amount of their own game and mojo by the time Game 4 tips Monday night, right back at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Familiar bad habits did in the Pacers, once the Heat unleashed the hounds of their pressing, trapping defense. They’re a tentative and reckless bunch initiating offense even in the best of times and, down 2-1 in the series, these definitely are not the best of times.

Indiana had a chance in Game 2 to shove Miami back to 0-2 in the best-of-seven series, a relative crisis by the Heat’s standards, and couldn’t do it Tuesday. It had everything going its way in the first half of Game 3, then reverted to sloppiness, freelancing and the sort of breakdowns that – given the stage, given the stakes – can be characterized as irresponsible.

“The way we started off the game,” forward David West said in the sterile visitors’ dressing room, “we came out and we were doing exactly what we talked about yesterday and in the shootaround [Saturday] morning. Then we just weren’t able to stay with it. And I thought it burned us down the stretch, particularly the close, the last two or three minutes of every single quarter.

“Their pressure, their ability to speed us up. We really should be able to handle what they’re throwing at us, particularly this late in the year.”

The Pacers couldn’t handle LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Ray Allen, who scored 47 points in the second half to Indiana’s 45. They couldn’t handle the extra defenders who swarmed whichever Pacer had the ball. They couldn’t handle the pressure, at the point of attack or of the circumstances overall.

All because, at root, they couldn’t handle the ball. Coughing it up against double teams or simply daring to try low-percentage passes, Indiana’s 19 turnovers led directly to 26 of Miami’s points.

“We just had turnover after turnover,” groused Lance Stephenson, who committed three. West had five and guard George Hill four.

“We’ve just got to be sharp, take care of the ball,” Stephenson said. “We were averaging about 11 turnovers for eight games, then we had [19] tonight. … They just pressured us. We collapsed.”

The dearth of poise for a veteran team so focused in its quest this season was unnerving. This wasn’t just a Stephenson meltdown, this was West firing the ball out of bounds or Hill flippantly flinging it over his head and hoping when trapped by two Heat defenders.

As for losing track of Allen – a brand name by now as a postseason 3-point backbreaker – in transition, that’s on all of them. The notion that West could chase Allen around and through a gauntlet of screens was folly on its face, but not accounting for him when the Heat got into the open court was equal parts masochistic and amateurish.

Part of the reason for it was Indiana going big relative to Miami’s small – and then not making the Heat pay a price. Instead of continuing to find ways for West and Roy Hibbert to assert themselves in the paint – those two scored 17 of their team’s 21 first-quarter points – the Pacers got rattled by Miami’s ball pressure and neglected or never forced things with their bigs.

“We just went away from it,” said Paul George, who was hampered in minutes and rhythm by foul trouble rather than any lingering effects of his concussion in Game 2. “That’s definitely got to be an emphasis to the team, going inside to our bigs.”

As Miami roared defensively and blew past Indiana – its first lead of the night came at 7:36 of the third quarter, and 21 seconds into the fourth Miami went up by 10 – the Pacers’ fight seemed to lag, their effort in chasing down yet another Heat breakout appeared to wane. Coach Frank Vogel claims that his guys have “a ton” of resiliency left, but many of his players’ body language near the end had gone NSFW.

It’s the same pattern the Pacers showed from preseason to postseason, an inability to put the hammer down when things were going good and a preference, it seems, for forever staying the underdog, responding best when backed into a corner.

Congratulations then, Pacers, you’ve put yourself right where you like to be.

Andersen’s high IQ: ink, intensity, impact

By Steve Aschburner,

Chris "Birdman" Andersen continues to elevate his game in the postseason. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

Chris “Birdman” Andersen continues to elevate his game in the postseason. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

MIAMI – The tall, spiky Mohawk is gone now, replaced by a low ridge of dark blond hair that looks more Duck Dynasty than rooster’s comb. But Chris (Birdman) Andersen‘s impact remains the same, or at least nearly so: Considerable.

Through the Miami Heat’s 11 postseason games so far this spring, Andersen has posted some of the defending champions’ most impressive advanced statistics: An offensive rebound percentage of 12.2, a playoffs-best blocked shot percentage of 7.1, a 66.3 true shooting percentage and a PER of 21.9 (compared to his career 16.8 mark).

And then there’s his impact on the scoreboard in the Eastern Conference championship round against Indiana that resumes with Game 3 Saturday night in Miami (8:30 ET, ESPN). In the series opener, Andersen missed only one of his seven shots and scored 14 points with four rebounds, two blocks and a steal. He was a plus-3 in plus/minus rating in a game the Heat lost by 11.

In Game 2, Birdman – who allegedly prefers to be called “Birdzilla” lately – scored just three points but grabbed 12 rebounds. And in the 28:30 Andersen was on the court, Miami was 25 points better than Indiana.

His net offensive/defensive rating of 16.1 across the Heat’s three rounds is better than those of LeBron James (5.3), Dwyane Wade (3.2) or Chris Bosh (1.6). In the second halves of these games, when winning gets dialed up (Miami is 9-2), Andersen’s net is 20.4.

And if your eyes are starting to glaze over at all the numbers an decimal points, here’s Miami coach Erik Spoelstra putting Andersen’s impact in more traditional terms prior to the calendar break in this series: “We needed his energy, his toughness, his rebounding, his defense,” he said. “This is a big-muscle series, so we need what he brings to the table.”

At 6-foot-10, 245 pounds and six weeks shy of his 36th birthday, Andersen is giving up four inches, 45 pounds and nearly eight years to Indiana center Roy Hibbert. But compared to Udonis Haslem (even shorter) and Bosh (even slighter), Birdman is the best choice to body up the Pacers’ big man, and sometimes power forward David West.

Then there’s the way he throws himself at the boards and around the court, a bigger, paler and probably inkier version of Dennis Rodman doing the blue-collar stuff for a team built around future Hall of Famers. Frankly, the way the Heat embraced Andersen and his checkered reputation (drug ban in 2006-07, bogus allegations against him as victim in an extortion scheme in 2012), it is reminiscent of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Chicago Bulls accepting – and reaping rewards from – Rodman during their 1996-98 three-peat.

More tats or fewer, hairier or less so, Andersen has shown himself to be a solid playoff performer in his herky-jerky career, posting PER numbers better than his regular season performances in four of the past five seasons. A year ago, he was better even than now, with a 19.2 net rating and a 24.9 PER (17.4 in the regular season). But that was achieved on raw ferocity and activity, coming at the end of his first Miami season.

This time around, Andersen is more familiar with his teammates and Spoelstra’s sets. As he told Jason Lieser, Heat beat writer for the Palm Beach Post, this week: “I feel a lot more comfortable just because I’ve been here for a while. I learned the system by repetition and I just do what I do, so that makes it a little more simplified.”

That qualifies as a soliloquy for the gruff, media-dodging Andersen, who in some interviews can make Gregg Popovich seem Dick Vitale loquacious. It has been the talking Birdman does on the court that has mattered in this round – he’s averaging 24 minutes compared to 14.9 in the regular season and 16.1 in the Heat’s first two series against Charlotte and Brooklyn. He wears himself out as a half-time player, too, from all the banging, the pounding and the intensity level at which he plays.

Spoelstra said of Andersen at one point in these playoffs: “He plays until he has zero in the tank.” Given Birdman’s results, though, the Pacers are the ones feeling a little empty when he’s on the floor.