Do Indiana Pacers Have to Play Perfect Game to Upset Miami Heat?
The Indiana Pacers did what they needed to do on Tuesday night.
Playing in the franchise's first Eastern Conference finals since 2003-04, Frank Vogel's team strutted into enemy territory and pushed the defending champion Miami Heat to the brink of defeat.
In 24 minutes they had choked out all of the energy the AmericanAirlines Arena faithful had bottled up over the past six days. Indiana's halftime lead wasn't great, 42-37, but things were clearly going to plan.
Miami limped into the break with just two field goals over the final 5.5 minutes of the second quarter. One was a Udonis Haslem slam, the other a deep three by Mario Chalmers. In other words, they came from players not named LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh.
In fact Miami's vaunted Big Three went largely M.I.A. in the first half, as the trio combined for just 17 points, seven fewer than Indiana's twin towers (Roy Hibbert and David West) had by themselves. By the end of the second quarter, the Heat had nearly as many turnovers (11) as made field goals (16).
It was Pacers basketball at its finest and, more importantly, this was the recipe for devouring a playoff win in front of a hostile road crowd.
Maybe Indiana got ahead of itself at halftime. Maybe Frank Vogel's message had a tad too much praise in it. Or perhaps Miami simply flipped the proverbial switch it had kept in its back pocket all season long.
The Heat opened the third quarter on a 12-2 run, and suddenly it was the Pacers that couldn't keep hold of the basketball. West, Hibbert and George Hill each had a turnover of three of Indiana's first four possessions, and Vogel was forced to call a timeout with his team trailing 49-44 at the 8:25 mark of the period.
This time Vogel got it right. Paul George buried a triple out of the timeout, and Hibbert added a layup on the ensuing trip after both he and George were denied at the rim during the possession.
Indiana had found its fight and somehow weathered the storm that had sunk so many ships earlier in the season. The Pacers and Heat traded blows over the next 1.5 quarters, and a desperation three from George with less than a second left in regulation pushed the contest into overtime.
In the rare chance that you need me to lift up the rock you've been living under, the Heat ultimately emerged victorious on a LeBron James layup to beat the buzzer. It was the second of two crunch-time layups for the King, both of which came while Indiana's $58 million rim protector, Hibbert, watched helplessly from the sidelines.
Vogel's decision to sit his center during those crucial moments, one he made to give the Pacers the ability to switch on all five Heat players, was intensely scrutinized at the time. And the criticisms carried over into the following day, as many wondered why the coach would fear the threat of a game-winning jumper more than an MVP attacking the basket.
But there was a far more pressing question that Vogel's team had to ask itself: Had it just blown its best chance to unseat the reigning champs?
The Pacers hadn't played a perfect game; they committed 20 turnovers and shot just 4-of-14 from three.
But Indiana's beauty is judged by different standards than most. Embracing the ugly is a necessity to understand this team's true talent.
The Pacers' big bruisers like to mix it up on the inside, the area conventional wisdom has identified as the Heat's most vulnerable. West and Hibbert controlled the interior (45 combined points on 20-of-35 shooting), while George sliced his way into the heart of Miami's defense, finding 27 points and an overdue introduction to the casual fans that had slept through his breakout All-Star season.
Indiana's relentless defensive effort forced 21 Miami turnovers. Tyler Hansbrough (10 points) and D.J. Augustin (eight points) provided a needed scoring punch off the bench. The Pacers had nearly as many free throws made, 24, as the Heat had attempts, 25.
The Heat have the defensive ability to battle through a physical game, but the Pacers prefer this style of play.
But despite the Pacers controlling the tempo, despite their fingerprints running rampant across the box score, it was the Heat that emerged victorious. Did Indiana just throw its knockout blow only to get knocked out itself?
One loss doesn't determine the outcome of a seven-game series. The Pacers aren't going to go away, but what do they have to do to avoid a similar fate when the series resumes on Friday night?
Can Indiana recover from a crushing loss in Game 1?
Drastic changes can't take place; nothing would be more detrimental than trying to act out of character at this point of the year. Indiana has to continue attacking the paint, rely on the offensive abilities of its frontcourt and fine-tune the defensive reads that helped carry the franchise this far.
That means being ready to rotate onto Hibbert's man when he moves to clog up driving lanes. And plugging free paths to the basket by fighting through screens and hedging harder off of the screener.
Then it's just a matter of making shots when they arise within the flow of the offense. George Hill's been to this stage before (and beyond) and knows another 2-of-9 showing from the field can't happen. Lance Stephenson's still feeling his way through life as an NBA regular, and as a career 29.6 percent three-point shooter he can't continue to settle for long-range looks (0-of-5 from deep in Game 1).
Indiana has the key ingredients to bother Miami, but a glaring talent gap means four flawless efforts may be required to take this series.
Vogel will ask for nothing less from his players. Their ability to meet that lofty demand is the only way Miami's bid for a successful title defense will be thwarted in this series.
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