Over the course of two grueling playoff series and multiple regular-season meetings, David West has hit plenty of big shots against the Miami Heat. Very few have been threes.
West hit a critical three-point jumper with less than a minute remaining and Chris Bosh missed a potential game-winning jumper, as the Indiana Pacers escaped Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a 84-83 victory over Miami on Wednesday.
In a last-minute sequence that featured multiple clutch shots and just as many misses, Miami and Indiana proved why they're prohibitive Eastern Conference favorites—and why they have some vulnerabilities. West's three was ostensibly the dagger, giving the Pacers an 84-80 lead with 50 seconds remaining, but the Pacers' offensive struggles gave Miami a chance.
They failed to score on a subsequent possession Miami played straight up, and after Bosh hit a three-pointer with less than three seconds remaining, George Hill missed consecutive free throws to give the Heat a chance to win. Erik Spoelstra called a decoy play for LeBron James and got Bosh the shot he wanted, but the Heat big man had to rush and it came up short as time expired.
Knowing they'll likely see one another in the Eastern Conference Finals, Miami and Indiana felt the stakes coming into Wednesday night. The Pacers' win puts them up two games in the loss column for the East's No. 1 seed. Had Bosh's shot gone in, Miami would have tied Indiana in the loss column and taken a 2-1 lead in their regular-season series with one more regular-season game remaining in South Beach.
Aggression was the overarching theme of the evening, as everyone from the players to the coaches to the fans felt the playoff atmosphere in the air. Referees reviewed numerous hard foul calls, tension boiled over in the form of technical fouls and every shot down the stretch came with a back-and-forth war of words.
With no one was that more apparent than James, who finished with a game-high 38 points, eight rebounds and five assists. He played the entire second half, doing so for long stretches in the fourth quarter without Dwyane Wade (hamstring injury) and Bosh (foul trouble).
Exuding a ferocity often missing during the Heat's recent lull, James aggressively attacked the rim from the opening tip and consistently went at Roy Hibbert's chest. Seven of his 11 made field goals came in the restricted area, and he drained 14-of-15 free throws on the night.
James' aggression even sent Hibbert back to the locker room in the fourth quarter.
Flying through the air on a wild drive, James elbowed Hibbert and sent him sprawling to the ground, his mouth bloodied after biting his tongue. Hibbert stayed in the game after the Pacers' training staff attended to him, and James drew a flagrant foul, but perhaps Wednesday night was a promising sign that James would no longer be bullied by the 7-footer.
James indicated after the game his elbow had no ill intent, per Ethan J. Skolnick of Bleacher Report:
LeBron on Hibbert: "His face happened to hit my elbow." Says he'd have to be a Kung Fu master to direct elbow there mid-air.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) March 27, 2014
Indiana wasn't without its acts of aggression—not all of them positive.
Lance Stephenson, whose wild-card personality helped spark the embers of this rivalry in 2012, stepped over the edge at a key point in the fourth quarter. Stephenson, who had already picked up a technical foul, earned an ejection after getting into Wade's face and saying something after a made basket, forcing Evan Turner into crunch-time minutes.
Stephen's ejection sparked a quick 8-0 run from Miami, turning a 76-72 deficit into an 80-76 lead. But Indiana got its money's worth from Turner when it needed it most, as the former first-round pick hit consecutive layups to help halt the run and put the Pacers ahead.
Paul George and Hibbert weren't without their moments, either. Hibbert scored 13 of his 21 points in the first quarter, drawing two fouls on Greg Oden and sending him to the bench after only six minutes. George scored a team-high 23 points on 8-of-19 shooting, adding eight rebounds and four assists.
For all of the excellence of James, George and Hibbert, the game was defined at times by players who failed to show up. The Pacers' bench scored only 10 points, shooting a dreadful 5-of-20 as a unit. Turner scored eight of the 10 points, while Luis Scola went scoreless on five field-goal attempts.
James received nondescript performances from both Bosh and Wade, the latter playing through myriad injuries. Wade was obviously limited attacking off the dribble, hobbling his way to 15 points in 32 minutes. Bosh shot just 3-of-11 from the field and had only eight points despite Spoelstra's vote of confidence on the last shot.
The Heat were also playing without Ray Allen, who sat with an illness. Given their 6-of-19 performance from beyond the arc, perhaps Allen would have helped.
But in a rivalry as deep and heated as this one, excuses are unacceptable.
|LeBron James, SF||A|
|Chris Bosh, C||D|
|Greg Oden, C||C-|
|Mario Chalmers, PG||D|
|Dwyane Wade, SG||C|
|Rashard Lewis, PF||C+|
|Chris Andersen, PF||C+|
|Udonis Haslem, PF||C|
|Toney Douglas, PG||C|
|Norris Cole, PG||C+|
|David West, PF||B-|
|Paul George, SF||B|
|Roy Hibbert, C||B|
|George Hill, PG||D|
|Lance Stephenson, SG||C|
|Luis Scola, PF||D|
|Evan Turner, SF||C|
|Ian Mahinmi, C||C|
|Donald Sloan, PG||C-|
Players of the Game: Roy Hibbert (C, Indiana Pacers), LeBron James (F, Miami Heat)
Hibbert, at least from an offensive perspective, can be a bafflingly frustrating player. At a legitimate 7'2", he has a size advantage against almost any big he goes against. He also possesses smooth hook shots with either hand, and can at times look like he's becoming a two-way force. How Hibbert is a career 47 percent shooter is one of this generation's greatest NBA mysteries.
That said, it seems these moments against Miami are the times when Hibbert decides to put it all together.
Even with Greg Oden, the purported Hibbert-stopper, on the floor, the Pacers center opened as an aggressor on both ends, getting deep position and finishing easy shots close to the rim. He physically overpowered Chris Andersen when Oden picked up two quick fouls and beat up on Bosh the same way he did during last year's conference finals.
Erik Spoelstra even went as far as to dust off Udonis Haslem, whose minutes have either been minimal or nonexistent for most of the last two months. Hibbert still managed to finish the game with 21 points and his noted rim protection, which helped limit Miami to 30 points in the paint.
It's worth noting that Hibbert had a combined seven points on 2-of-10 shooting over his last two games coming into Wednesday night. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel perhaps summed up Pacers fans' relationship with Hibbert perfectly:
Imagine if Roy Hibbert did this against anyone else.— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) March 27, 2014
While both the team and the people in the stands would probably enjoy a bit more than his nearly nonexistent rebound totals of late, Hibbert is so good against the Heat it almost makes up for his other foibles.
On the other side, Bron gon' Bron.
This was the most aggressive we've seen James against the Pacers in their three regular-season meetings this year. Heck, James' attack level might have been at its highest this season during the first half, where he attacked Hibbert without a care in the world to finish through contact and draw fouls.
His jumper remained inconsistent for the most part, and James was at his best when he relentlessly attacked off the dribble. It's a mindset he often struggled with during last year's playoff run and was largely absent outside crunch-time minutes during the teams' first two meetings. If this is a sign James is ratcheting up to playoff intensity down the stretch, that's all the better considering his inconsistent play of late.
He's going to recapture consistency in his jumper sooner than later, though.
The Heat and Pacers each get a night off to lick their wounds before returning to action on Friday. Miami takes its talents to Detroit, while Indiana has a potential second-round preview against the Washington Wizards in the nation's capital.
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