Now that the Indiana Pacers have evened their Eastern Conference finals series with the Miami Heat by taking a hard-fought 97-93 win in Game 2, it appears that the impossible is actually possible. The Pacers have a legitimate shot to beat the Heat.
Paul George was phenomenal again, piling up 22 points and six assists on 9-of-16 shooting. It's hard to laud his defense against LeBron James, who poured in 36 points on only 20 shots, but it's no coincidence that George's plus-17 rating was the highest of any player on either team. He made James work for his buckets and got plenty of his own on the other end.
In fact, George even matched James in the highlight category, throwing down more than one vicious dunk.
The budding superstar wasn't fighting the Heat alone, though; Roy Hibbert turned in yet another great performance, scoring 29 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. At times, the big man looked like he was out there on the court with nine kids playing "keep away" by himself on the glass. His six offensive boards were absolutely critical to Indiana's surprising win.
The Pacers got production from the other three members of their starting lineup as well.
George Hill had a couple of ball-handling gaffes (as usual), but he scored with terrific efficiency (18 points on only eight field-goal attempts) and actually attacked in pick-and-roll sets for the first time all series. Plus, David West worked his way to the line 10 times and doled out plenty of physical punishment.
Ask Mario Chalmers how his shoulder is feeling after a hard shot from West.
Even Lance Stephenson chipped in with a terrific floor game. Though he was visibly upset with his 4-of-12 shooting night, the gritty 2-guard supplemented his 10 points with eight rebounds, five assists and a pair of steals.
If all five members of the Pacers' starting unit can continue to play well, it'll go a long way toward helping them pull off a previously unthinkable upset.
Looking ahead, though, there are some other signs from Game 2 that certainly favor the Pacers as the series returns to Indiana.
First, Indy seemed to shore up a major weakness that had plagued it during the regular season and playoffs. In the 2012-13 campaign, only the go-go Houston Rockets had a higher turnover ratio than the Pacers. Yet in Game 2, Indiana committed only 13 giveaways.
Frank Vogel clearly made an adjustment that helped relieve the pressure Norris Cole had been applying to Hill in the backcourt by having his players immediately fire the ball up the floor to the first available wing player. The strategy was a simple version of a press break—the kind you'd see in plenty of high school games. But it definitely helped.
And ironically, it was James who committed the most crucial turnovers, as he gave the ball up on bad passes twice in the final minute.
It's definitely unrealistic to expect James to make those mistakes again, and it's probably unlikely that the Pacers will be so careful with the ball during the rest of the series. But Indiana has at least addressed a major problem. That'll help as these games get even more tense going forward.
In addition to smaller tactical changes, the Pacers will now get to enjoy the benefit of two games at home.
During the regular season, Indiana amassed an excellent 30-11 mark in its own gym. A 6-0 home playoff record shows that its home dominance has clearly carried over into the postseason.
And speaking of records, consider the following as it pertains to Indy's chances of pulling off the upset: Coming into Game 2, everyone was fixated on the Heat's 47-3 mark over their past 50 games. Some cited it as proof that there was no way the Pacers could be expected to take four games out of six after losing Game 1.
Objectively, that makes a ton of sense. But remember, these Pacers took two out of three games from the Heat during the regular season. That number should matter more than the gaudy record Miami ran up against the rest of the league over the past few months.
We now know that the Pacers aren't like the rest of the league. They're better.
Plus, Indiana has actually had a taste of what it's like to have an edge on the Heat in the postseason. Perhaps it'll be motivated to savor that taste this time around.
And finally, the biggest thing the Pacers have going for them is sheer confidence. They know they could have taken Game 1 if not for a couple of late miscues and James' heroics. After bouncing back to notch a statement win in Game 2 on Miami's home floor, Indiana should believe it can win this series.
Look, there are plenty of reasons for the Heat to continue to be the favorite to advance. The Pacers still don't have a bench, and there's almost no way James' supporting cast pulls another disappearing act like it did in Game 2.
Plus, the Heat have finally been hit in the mouth in a game that really counts. Sure, they lost a couple of tough regular season games and even dropped a playoff contest to the Chicago Bulls, but perhaps this latest loss will finally remind the Heat that they've got to play with urgency all the time.
They haven't had to do that yet, and if there's another gear the Heat have yet to hit, Indiana's big win might actually force them to find it.
I said the Pacers had "a chance" to win this series earlier, and that's just what it is: a chance.
The Heat still have the best player in the series, a better bench and more playoff experience. If forced to make a pick, I'd still say they are more likely to win this series. At the same time, it definitely won't be a shock if Indiana wins either.
The Heat are a great team. But now we know they're not invincible.