Posts Tagged ‘Frank Vogel’

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.”

Behind unstoppable offense, Heat heading to fourth straight Finals


VIDEO: Heat dismantle Pacers in decisive Game 6

MIAMI – When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to play together in 2010, this is what it was all about. The Miami Heat are making their fourth straight trip to The Finals and are the first team to do so in the last 29 years.

The Heat’s domination of the Eastern Conference since James arrived was epitomized by their 117-92 demolition of the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. Their best game of the series came at the right time and made it clear how much distance there was between these two teams. At one point in the third quarter, the Heat led by 37.

“It’s what we wanted to do,” Bosh said afterward. “We wanted to play a very good game, and we didn’t want to really let our foot off the gas in any type of capacity.”

Though they had their ups and downs (like no other team in recent memory), the Pacers were the best team in the conference in the regular season. But no East team came close to knocking off the Heat in the playoffs. They will arrive at The Finals having played at least three (and as many as five) fewer playoff games than their opponent.

The question is how much they’ve been tested, specifically on defense. As good as the Pacers were at times this season, they were never a very good offensive team. At times in this series, they were a complete mess on that end of the floor.

The Heat brought more defensive focus as the playoffs went on, but defending the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder is a lot different than defending Charlotte, Brooklyn or Indiana. Starting with Game 1 of The Finals on Thursday, we’re going to see how far they’ve come on defense over the last six weeks.

The Heat’s offense? Well, it’s a machine right now. After struggling through the first 4½ minutes of Game 6, the champs went on a ridiculous run, scoring 58 points on their last 33 possessions of the first half, turning an early seven-point deficit into a 26-point halftime lead.

Only two of those 58 points came on a fast break. The Pacers took care of the ball and had a decent offensive second quarter (21 points on just 19 possessions), but couldn’t get stops, even when their defense was set.

“In our offense,” Ray Allen said, “we got everything we wanted.”

That was the story of this series. For six games, the Heat sliced up the No. 1 defense in the league. Talk all you want about Indiana’s need for more shooting and playmaking, but the Pacers got destroyed on the end of the floor that they take the most pride in, unable to match up with the Heat’s shooting and playmaking.

Miami neutralized Roy Hibbert‘s rim protection on the perimeter, hitting 10.4 3-pointers per game at a 44 percent clip over the last five games of the series. James, meanwhile, did what he does, shooting 31-for-38 (82 percent) in the restricted area in the conference finals, with more than twice as many buckets in the paint (36) as he had outside it (16).

As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said often over the last two weeks, this was a contrast of styles and the winner would be the team that could “impose its identity” on the other. Ultimately, the Heat imposed their identity — and their personnel — on the Pacers.

These last four years have been about three of the best players in the league coming together to win multiple championships. And no team in the league can match up with James, Wade and Bosh. But this isn’t 3-on-3, and very year, the Heat have had role players to fill in the gaps.

In this series, when another piece to the puzzle was needed, it was Rashard Lewis, who started the last three games and was a series-high plus-58 in 100 minutes (plus-28 per 48 minutes). As a fifth shooter on the floor, he made the Heat impossible to guard, and he held his own defensively against David West.

“We talk about it all the time with our team,” Spoelstra said, referencing Lewis’ sudden emergence as a major factor. “It’s about moments. It’s not necessarily about every single game or minute during January and February. It’s about the big moments, keeping yourself ready and having an opportunity to make an impact at some point during the postseason.”

“Rashard,” James added, “was obviously the key to everything.”

This year’s Heat haven’t been the best Heat we’ve seen. But things are falling into place at the right time. While we may question their ability to play great defense on a nightly basis, we have no doubt that they know how to bring their best when it’s needed.

“They play at a championship level,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.  “They have a way to raise it to the point that it’s too much to overcome.”

It’s been three years since the Heat first got to this point and stumbled in the 2011 Finals. They were just six seconds from falling short a year ago. And with many roster questions to face this summer, we don’t know what the future holds.

But right now, the Heat are still fulfilling the expectations that we had for them and that they had for themselves when they got together in July of 2010.

“We’re just going to continue to try to enjoy this moment that we’re in,” Wade said, “because it’s an amazing moment. It’s something that, for a lifetime, is going to fulfill us as athletes. Even when we can’t play this game, we’re going to always be able to talk about this. So we just want to add to what we’re accomplishing.”

“We know we still have work to do,” James told ESPN’s Doris Burke, “but we won’t take this for granted. We’re going to four straight Finals.”

24 – Second thoughts — May 30


VIDEO: The Miami Heat are 4-for-4 in attempts at making The Finals, the first time in 27 years a team has done it 4 straight times

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — History in the making.

History still to be made.

It’s all still on the table for the Miami Heat.

Four straight trips to The Finals. The opportunity to three-peat. 

“I’m blessed,” LeBron James said. “We won’t take this opportunity for granted. This is an unbelievable franchise, this is an unbelievable group.”

The Finals rematch is up next, the San Antonio Spurs (2013) or Oklahoma City Thunder (2012) will help the Heat finish that chapter of this championship story.

But The Finals is all the Heat have known in the Big 3 era. It’s all James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and crew have known since they came together.

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Greg Oden is going to The Finals!

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Three years running they go out on the wrong end of the Heat’s blade …

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This time, Hibbert meets LeBron


VIDEO: Heat vs. Pacers: Game 5

INDIANAPOLIS – This go-around, Roy Hibbert was on the floor.

Travel back in time to Game 1 of last year’s conference finals in Miami. The Indiana Pacers led by one with just 2.2 seconds left in overtime. And Pacers coach Frank Vogel took Hibbert — “the best rim protector in the game” in Vogel’s own words — off the floor, so that his team could switch all screens and stay with the Miami Heat’s shooters, including Chris Bosh.

LeBron James caught the inbounds pass at the 3-point line and Paul George got caught out too high. James immediately turned and darted to the basket. Hibbert wasn’t there and James laid in the game-winning bucket at the buzzer.

“It’s the dilemma that they present,” Vogel said after the loss. “Obviously, with the way it worked out, it would have been better to have Roy in the game. But you don’t know. If that happens, maybe Bosh is making the jump shot, and we’re all talking about that.”

At the end of Game 5 of this year’s Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday, we saw a very similar situation. The Pacers were holding on to a two-point lead with 12.8 seconds left.

James caught the inbounds pass and was isolated at the top of the key with George. And once again, he got past him.

But this time Hibbert was on the floor, and he met James at the rim…

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“We didn’t want to give up a 3,” Vogel said afterward. “But we didn’t want to give up LeBron James at the rim, like we’d done the past two. So we made sure we had rim protection and scrambled on the 3-point line.”

James, as he always does, made the pass to the open man, Bosh in the corner. It was the scenario that Vogel was planning against last year. And with this one being a two-point game instead of a one-point game, the value of the shot meant something this time.

“Thought we got a pretty good look,” James said. “You live with the result.”

“He went for the kill,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ll take that. We’ll take being able to get two feet in the paint, an opportunity to either score yourself or have an opportunity for one of our better clutch 3-point shooters in his spot. That actually was good to see that poise.”

When the Heat came back to win Game 2 on this floor, their second-half run began with a few plays just like this. Spanning the third and fourth quarters, they hit three corner 3s (one from Bosh and two from Norris Cole) on plays just like this one. James got to the basket, drew an extra defender and found an open teammate with a bullet pass. It’s the Heat’s bread-and-butter.

“My teammates trust me that I’m going to make the right play to helps us win,” James said. “I trust myself that I’m going to make the right play to helps us win. And win, lose or draw, you live with that.

“We got a great look. C.B. makes that shot, then we get a stop and we’re headed to The Finals.”

As Spoelstra noted, Bosh was one of the best clutch 3-point shooters in the league in the regular season, shooting 16-for-31 (52 percent) on 3s in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five points or less. He’s had a knack for hitting big shots from distance.

But he’s usually wide open on those plays. On Wednesday, George Hill was able to get in Bosh’s vision and provide an on-the-side shot contest.

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Hill was able to do that because Miami’s spacing was not ideal. When James hit the paint, Bosh, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were all on the right side of the floor, with Allen and Lewis bunched together at the right wing.

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So when Hibbert helped on the drive, Hill didn’t have far to travel to contest Bosh. And when he did, David West had already rotated over to Allen.

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“I asked Ray,” Bosh said later. “I said, ‘Were you open?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he came off me.'”

But the only guy open was Lewis at the top of the key. And that’s a tough pass for Bosh to make, especially with West in his line of sight.

The Pacers defended the play well, but the Heat gave them some help. If Lewis had been quicker to fill in behind James at the top of the key, the spacing might have been better and Indiana’s rotations would have been tougher.

A feigned pick-and-roll where Lewis flares out to the left wing as James drives past would also have left just one Indiana defender to defend Bosh and Allen on the right side. A kick to Bosh and a swing to Allen may have resulted in the one of the best 3-point shooters in NBA history being all alone beyond the arc.

But the Heat still got a decent look. And both teams were willing to live with the results.

“LeBron is the smartest player in this league,” George said. “He’s going to make the right play, and he thought that was the right play. They made 15 3s tonight. So obviously, they were hot behind the 3-point line. He found a 3-point shooter that’s been hot lately for them in Chris Bosh. We were fortunate he missed. We walk away with a win.”

James’ absence helps Pacers survive and George look like a star again


VIDEO: Heat vs. Pacers: Game 5

INDIANAPOLIS – We were ready to bury the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, and through the first 24 minutes of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, they were helping us dig the hole.

They couldn’t take advantage of LeBron Jamesfoul trouble, couldn’t capitalize on an ugly first quarter from the Miami Heat. Their own second quarter was much more brutal, with more turnovers (seven) than made shots (five). They were dropping passes, throwing passes away, and even committing a rare double-dribble violation.

It was the Mr. Hyde side of the Pacers that we’d seen all too often in the last three months. And it was about to send them fishing in the figurative (rather than the literal) sense. The Heat had a rather mediocre first half offensively (42 points on 41 possessions) and still led by nine, with a rested James coming back for the second half.

But then he picked up his fourth foul just 81 seconds into the third quarter and his fifth with 8:34 on the clock. If was the first time in his career that he had been called for five fouls before the end of the third quarter. He sat for the next 10 minutes of game time.

And finally, the Pacers took advantage. Starting with the possession before James’ fifth foul, they scored 42 points in a 12-minute span to turn a 10-point deficit into an 11-point lead. And they held on for a 93-90 victory to send the series back to Miami for Game 6 on Friday.

They attacked the basket, they attacked the glass, and they turned defense into offense. With James on the bench, Paul George turned into the two-way superstar he looked like at times in last year’s conference finals.

Offensively, he took advantage of smaller defenders in the post and drained five 3-pointers. Defensively, without having to worry about defending James, he jumped into passing lanes and made the Miami offense look a lot like the Indiana offense has looked over the last few games.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra‘s quote regarding the Pacers’ defense could have been something Indiana coach Frank Vogel said about the Heat after Game 3 or 4.

“They stepped up their pressure, as you would anticipate they would in front of their crowd,” Spoelstra said. “Once they got us into a couple of sloppy possessions, their energy picked up.

“We have to do a better job about it. We know that getting shots is one of the most important keys to the series for us.”

While the Pacers committed just two turnovers in the second half, the Heat committed nine, with George turning four steals into three dunks.

“Forced turnovers get easy buckets,” Vogel said. “Then half-court gets a little bit easier because you’ve seen the ball go in.”

The ball went in a lot. After scoring just 35 points on their first 46 possessions of the game (76 per 100), the Pacers scored 58 on their last 39 (149 per 100), shooting 21-for-37 (57 percent) over the final 21 minutes.

Still, the game was tight in the final few. And down the stretch, George kept his team ahead by hitting three contested jumpers (one two and two 3s). James was back on the floor, but George had long ago found his rhythm.

“Coach told me, ‘Green light. Stay on green,'” George said afterward. “[David] West kept telling me, ‘Don’t keep no bullets in the chamber.’ So I really just came out firing. My teammates found me and I got hot.”

He finished with 37 points, six rebounds and six steals, shooting 15-for-28. Thirty-one of the 37 came in the second half, and 21 of those came in the fourth quarter. Through the first four games of this series, the burden of defending the best player in the world and playing like a star offensively had been too much for George. And after Game 4, he was more concerned about the officiating than his five sloppy turnovers.

But with a little help from the whistles, George was free to spread his wings in Game 5.

“My message to the whole team was the light needs to be on green for all of us,” Vogel said. “You need to go. You need to attack. You need to be aggressive. Paul took it and ran with it and took it to a crazy level.”

Here’s the thing: George played the best game of his life. James played 24 minutes and shot 2-for-10. Indiana had a 22-8 edge in free-throw attempts. And the Heat still had a chance to win on Chris Bosh‘s 3-point attempt with five seconds left.

It missed, the Pacers survived and are 3-0 when facing elimination in these playoffs. But the next one will be the toughest of the lot. They’ll either need more from George, more from everybody else, or a little more luck with the whistles.

“We’re going against history,” George said, “but we can’t feel like it can’t be done.”

24 – Second thoughts — May 28


VIDEO: Lance Stephenson and the Pacers with the #ByAnyMeansNecessary approach

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Lance Stephenson didn’t spend any time in the head of LeBron James in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. But he did blow in his ear, when LeBron was actually on the floor.

Foul trouble kept LeBron on the bench (he played 24 minutes) and the Pacers, mainly Paul George, took full advantage (a magical and mesmerizing 31 of his 37 points game after halftime) in order to keep their season alive.

So we’ll get a Game 6 Friday, a game that wouldn’t have been possible without George and the Pacers holding on down the wild and frantic final stretch of Game 5.

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Paul George … Winning!

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Heat with one last chance, down 92-90 with a chance to win it when LeBron finds Chris Bosh for a corner 3 that bounces off the rim.

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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.

Blogtable: Larry Legend’s next move

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Indy’s big challenge | Wish he was here | Runaway Thunder


Indy's basketball braintrust: Larry Bird (left) and GM Kevin Pritchard (Kevin C. Cox, NBAE)

Indy’s basketball braintrust: Larry Bird (left) and GM Kevin Pritchard (Kevin C. Cox, NBAE)

> You’re Larry Bird. If the Pacers-Heat series ends up like it looks now — any doubts? — how can you get Indiana past Miami next season?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: If I’m Larry Bird, one of the most deft passers in the NBA, I want to throttle several Pacers over the casual, even reckless way they pass the basketball. Whether getting the ball out of traps or delivering entry passes to the post, Indiana often looks amateurish — and has so for years. That’s a change from within (intensive training camp time), most likely, because who swaps out the roster for more accurate passers? But the Pacers need better perimeter shooting, too. And they have to find ways to better utilize Roy Hibbert offensively — if that’s not in the low post, then he has to sharpen up his shot repertoire.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Convince LeBron to go back to opt out and go back to Cleveland. Otherwise, you don’t. Will Bird really keep this team together? Does he overpay for Lance Stephenson? Does he find any way to regain trust in Roy Hibbert? Sometimes the door just closes.

David West, Roy Hibbert (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

David West, Roy Hibbert (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: No doubts here that the Heat take the series and likely tonight in Game 5. How does Larry get the Pacers by the Heat next year? Hope LeBron James opts out and leaves, or better yet retires. Beyond what Bird can bring in (maybe one or two more veteran heads would help), he needs his high-dollar core guys — namely $29 million to Paul George and Roy Hibbert next season — to grow up.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I’ve got big trouble. I have huge money invested in a center I needed to be THE difference-maker against a Heat team who was most vulnerable inside, and got a good- to very good regular season from Roy Hibbert … and then the guy went over the handlebars. My chances of getting someone better at the position are basically nonexistent. If I know where the regular-season Hibbert is hiding, getting him back is my offseason priority. That’s the only way I get the Pacers past the Heat next season, under the premise Miami stays together.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The Pacers obviously need more offense, off the bench in particular. I would bring Lance Stephenson back and keep that starting unit intact (unless a point guard upgrade is available), but I’d try to use my mid-level exception on playmaking and/or shooting off the bench. Then, I’d encourage coach Frank Vogel to get a little more creative with the offense and to take a more Popovich-ian approach to playing time, so that when the chips are down, the starters are fresher and the reserves are more trusted and empowered.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I don’t have any doubts that this series ends with the Heat on top, if that’s what you mean. Making offseason moves to maneuver past the Heat will prove difficult because I’m not sure what moves the Heat will make. I don’t think this team, in its current form, is the one the Pacers and everyone else in the Eastern Conference will have to go through. I could stay the course with my current core and see if the Heat take a step back when and if Chris Bosh bolts for a max deal and his own seat in the No. 1 chair elsewhere. But I’d much rather shop Roy Hibbert and see what I can get for him (I never wanted to pay him what the Trail Blazers forced us into to keep him a couple years ago) and take my chance with Paul George, David West and Lance Stephenson as the core group of three stars to build around. I need to upgrade there and at point guard. And as much as I need star power, I need dependable guys who won’t shrink when the moment overwhelms them, guys who do what Marcin Gortat (a free agent this summer) did against Hibbert in the conference semifinals.

Vogel wants Pacers to focus on execution, not officiating


VIDEO: Frank Vogel addresses the media the day after Indiana’s Game 4 loss

MIAMI – After their 102-90 loss in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, there was much griping from the Indiana Pacers about the officiating. Paul George referred to “home cooking” for the Miami Heat, while David West said his team had to learn the “new rules.”

The Pacers are down 3-1, facing elimination in Game 5 at home on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). And desperate times can call for desperate measures.

But less than 12 hours Monday’s deflating loss, Pacers coach Frank Vogel tried to get his team to refocus. His Tuesday morning message to his players before they flew back to Indianapolis was to “worry about what we can control. We know we’re going to have to play through adversity on the road in the playoffs. Our guys just need to put their focus on what we’re doing.”

“We can’t control calls. We got to control our turnovers, our shot selection, our passing, our defense.”

Tuesday’s focus was on offensive execution. The Pacers scored 90 points in a slow-paced game on Monday, but put themselves in a hole with an ugly first quarter and benefitted from the Heat taking their foot of the gas with a 23-point lead in the fourth.

Indiana looked rushed and flustered most of the night. The Miami defense has been increasingly active and physical as the series has gone along. And, as we’ve seen often with this matchup, the Pacers haven’t been able to handle it.

Instead of complaining about the officiating, Roy Hibbert was complaining about his lack of touches to ESPN after Game 4.

But Hibbert’s lack of touches is more about his teammates not being able to get him the ball than his coach not calling plays for him.

“Roy Hibbert’s hurt the Miami Heat more in the pick-and-roll game and on the glass in previous years,” Vogel said. “That’s where he’s put up his biggest numbers, while mixing in the post game. It’s not like he’s had success getting 20-30 post-ups a game. So that’s how we’re trying to utilize him and they’re doing a great job with their hands and deflecting those passes.”

These teams have now played 28 times in the last three seasons. The Heat know exactly what the Pacers are trying to do offensively and they’ve been able to take away their primary and secondary options, as well as force the Pacers to play fast with occasional pressure in the backcourt. So Vogel believes that his team needs to be better with its improvisational execution.

“We got to play through randomness,” he said. “That’s what their defense forces. It takes you out, often times, of what you’re trying to do offensively. And you got to play through random action. You got to create good shots through random action. That’s what attacking the Miami Heat’s about.”

The other end of the floor may be the bigger issue for the Pacers right now. The matchup of the No. 1 defense of the regular season and the No. 1 offense of the playoffs has gone decidedly the way of the latter. More important than Hibbert’s zero points has been the lack of rim protection he’s been able to provide. The Heat have shot 69 percent in the paint in the series, compared to 55 percent in last year’s conference finals and 59 percent in four regular season meetings vs. Indiana.

But if the Pacers execute better offensively, they’ll be able to get their defense set and have a fighting chance to slow down the Miami onslaught … and a fighting chance to make this series interesting again.


VIDEO: GameTime on the Pacers’ struggles in Game 4