The Indiana Pacers looked down in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but they still have what it takes to fight back.
After both teams played each other tough for the first four games of a back-and-forth series, the Miami Heat finally looked like they gained an upper hand in their 90-79 Game 5 win.
Not only did the Pacers fail to overwhelm Miami with their physicality, but a combination of the raucous Heat fans and the completely ineffective Indy guards left the underdogs looking listless. This wasn't a lopsided result between two evenly matched teams; Miami was clearly superior for the first time in this series.
Part of the futility for the Pacers was that they were forcing the shots they wanted on the defensive end.
Roy Hibbert and David West might not feel the need to chase Chris Bosh beyond the arc every time he ventures out there, but when Udonis Haslem won't miss a midrange J, they have to leave the paint. Once LeBron James and Heat have a clear lane, it's over.
The Pacers watched Miami get easy buckets while they grinded for points on the other end, making mistakes and succumbing to pressure in a hostile environment. If they play like that again, this series will be over in Game 6.
Fortunately for Indy, many of the most egregious flaws with its execution in Game 5 are either isolated or correctable. As long as the Pacers make the requisite adjustments, they should be able to push Miami again and keep this series alive.
For a young team lacking depth like the Pacers, rhythm is everything in the postseason. Without it, the savvy Heat will eat them alive.
That's what happened when Lance Stephenson got into early foul trouble in Game 5.
Stephenson was called for two personals within the first three minutes of the game, forcing Frank Vogel to bench him and insert Sam Young for extended run. Young is a willing but unskilled player, especially on the offensive end, allowing Miami to essentially ignore him in favor of harassing George Hill.
The fifth-year point guard wilted as Miami continuously trapped him. Thoroughly rattled, Hill finished with just one point, four assists and three turnovers, later sitting half the third quarter in foul trouble himself. Stephenson also couldn't get right when he returned, scoring just four points before fouling out.
Miami will keep trapping and Indy will keep turning it over—that's par for the course for both teams—but the Pacers can reduce the backcourt imbalance by staying out of foul trouble.
It's pretty simple: Indy is significantly better when its starters stay on the floor. As long as Hill and Stephenson (and the rest of the Pacers starters, for that matter) stay disciplined, they can execute their system from the get-go and make the Heat react instead of allowing them to exact their will.
(Granted, discipline isn't really Stephenson's thing, but he is a good enough defender to get the job done without fouling. That's not going to stop him from attempting ill-advised jumpers or trying to dunk over everyone, but it will keep him playing if he's just a little smarter about it.)
In Indy's two wins, Hill and Stephenson have played a combined 160 minutes and averaged 16.8 points per game apiece. Considering Hibbert, West and Paul George combined for 66 of Indy's 79 points in Game 5, Vogel can't ask them to do much more.
The Pacers need their guards to contribute in order to win, and they can't get it if either player is forced to sit early.
Outside of LeBron James singlehandedly eviscerating everyone in the third quarter—he outscored Indy 16-13—Miami did not attack the Pacers with its usual guys, which proved devastating in Game 5.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh ended up as decoys for the likes of Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers.
Haslem was a terror from 15 feet and in, hitting 8-of-9 field goal attempts to finish with 16 points. Meanwhile, since Wade is slowed due to his bruised knee, Chalmers became more involved in scoring off of cuts and slashes, going 5-of-12 as Miami's second-leading shooter.
As disappointing as they have been in this series, no one—especially not Vogel—anticipated Wade and Bosh would be fourth and fifth for Miami in field goal attempts, respectively.
On the other hand, it was a crazy enough offensive strategy to work.
With LeBron doing whatever he wanted on the court, the Heat supporting cast members were able to get enough space to thrive as well. Indy had no time to adjust for Haslem and Chalmers in response because all defensive attention was being directed James' way.
As ugly as it got for Indy in Game 5, no team worth its salt lets that happen twice. Miami got the jump on the Pacers with its secondary options, but now the league's most efficient defense has two days to plan how to redistribute its attention on that end.
This goes hand in hand with keeping the starters on the floor. If George, Stephenson and Hill are all out their and rotating effectively to contest shooters, Hibbert and West can take a step back inside and close off the lane to Miami.
The Pacers have contained Wade and Bosh well in this series, as neither player has given them much to fear. If Indy adjusts its priorities and don't focus on the stars (excluding James, of course), it will be in much better position to limit Miami's offense.
It was an ugly display of basketball and an even uglier example of sportsmanship, but the altercation between Chris Andersen and Tyler Hansbrough sure did fire up the Miami crowd.
That has been a major part of Andersen's impact in this series: He's not afraid of Indy's size, he won't back down from contact and he's more than willing to dish it out himself. In fact, he feels Hansbrough and company should fear the Birdman and his thoroughly tattooed frame.
He went outside the spirit of the game to deck Hansbrough, but that incident and the roar of the crowd that followed told the Pacers that no one in that arena was intimidated by them. When Birdman flew in on the very next play and smacked Hansbrough's hook shot into the seats, the crowd got even louder and the Heat got even more confident.
However, guys like Hibbert, West, Stephenson and Hansbrough aren't going to just take that from the Heat. This Pacers squad is too tough and too prideful to go quietly into the night, not on their home floor and not in a series they feel they ought to be winning.
Expect Indy to enter Bankers Life Fieldhouse with fire and focus for Game 6. It remains to be seen whether the Pacers can come back against James and the Heat, but they're going to go down swinging no matter what.
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