To begin the Eastern Conference Finals showdown most expected at the start the season, the Indiana Pacers played like the No. 1 seed, defeating the two-time reigning NBA champion Miami Heat 107-96 in Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday.
Indiana was executing on all cylinders from the start, exploding with 30 points in the opening quarter and expanding its six-point lead to 10 by halftime. It was a struggle for Miami to get back into the contest from there, as its typically stalwart defense was weak and conceded too many Pacer points throughout.
All five Pacers starters scored in double figures, as they were able to get inconsistent big man Roy Hibbert going versus a favorable matchup. Hibbert matched frontcourt teammate David West with 19 points, and Hibbert also had a team-high nine rebounds. Paul George led the Pacers with 24 points and seven assists.
Hibbert could prove to be a difference maker in this series, and ESPN brought up a pertinent point regarding his massive frame:
Roy Hibbert is 7-2. The Heat haven’t trotted out a player over 7 feet the entire playoffs. That might be a problem. pic.twitter.com/kkVGN3sStZ— ESPN (@espn) May 18, 2014
LeBron James put up 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the losing effort and struggled in the pivotal opening portion of the game, per ESPN Stats & Info:
LeBron James with 3 turnovers in 1st 6 minutes. He'd committed 4 total 1st-quarter turnovers in 2014 playoffs entering the day— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 18, 2014
While it looked as though Indiana was in playoff mode after uneven performances throughout the postseason and a bad finish to the 2013-14 campaign, Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick noted a stark contrast from the Heat:
This game is like the Heat's regular season. Flashes of brilliance, but uneven & often lazy.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 18, 2014
George played like the best two-way player in the game near the beginning of the season before going through a funk along with the rest of his teammates. The young star came to play Sunday, mimicking the path Indiana has taken as a team this year.
ESPN's Michelle Beadle made an appropriate relationship analogy regarding the Pacers' polarizing play:
The Pacers are like that boyfriend that keeps dragging you back in. Crappy one day. Dinner and a back rub the next. #rollercoaster— Michelle Beadle (@MichelleDBeadle) May 18, 2014
The inability to defend lessened the impact of Miami's bench, which got nice production out of big man Chris Andersen (14 points, four rebounds, two blocks) and sharpshooting veteran Ray Allen (12 points, five rebounds, four assists).
NBA.com's Sekou Smith felt Andersen provided the size the Heat needed up front, while All-Star Chris Bosh managed just nine points on 4-of-12 shooting:
Birdman doing his best to provide the big man presence the Heat so desperately need. Anyone seen Chris Bosh? #NBAPlayoffs— Sekou Smith (@SekouSmithNBA) May 18, 2014
USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt praised Indiana coach Frank Vogel for designing an effective way for his squad to exploit the Heat's defense, which consisted of selflessness between the frontcourt tandem of Hibbert and West:
The Pacers' extra pass is killing the Heat in the paint. Good game plan from Frank Vogel.— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) May 18, 2014
If there was a tone-setter for the victors, though, it was standout shooting guard Lance Stephenson.
Before Game 1, Stephenson publicly declared his intentions to go after Heat superstar Dwyane Wade.
"D. Wade — I think his knee is messed up, so I’ve got to be extra aggressive and make him run and have him running around and make his knee flare up or something," Stephenson said, per The Palm Beach Post's Jason Lieser. "I’ll do anything as much as possible."
Stephenson backed up his words, although Wade was holding his own during the first half in an intriguing scoring duel. CBSSports.com's Gregg Doyel commented on the situation as it unfolded, and Wade eventually led all scorers with 27 points:
I'm pretty sure Lance Stephenson wants to win. I'm positive he wants to outscore Dwyane Wade.— Gregg Doyel (@GreggDoyelCBS) May 18, 2014
A third-quarter burst saw the lead swell as the Heat had no answers for the hosts' balanced attack. Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel alluded to one of the many uncharacteristic missed assignments from which Miami suffered:
LeBron turns his head, beaten on backdoor cut by George. Heat just not there today.— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) May 18, 2014
Eight straight points saw the Heat cut the lead to 81-70 before George hit a great floater in the lane to keep the Pacers in front by 13 entering the final quarter. A big disparity in free throws contributed to the massive deficit in which Miami was mired.
The Associated Press' Tim Reynolds noted how fouls were exacerbating the Heat's issues in denying Indiana:
It's been 1,409 quarters since the Heat committed more fouls in a period than the 11 they just got whistled for in the third today.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) May 18, 2014
The Pacers never allowed Miami to draw much closer in the final 12 minutes and held on for a wire-to-wire victory. That prompted Mike Greenberg of ESPN to weigh in:
Very, very impressed by #Pacers. For at least one day, it was like the last three months never happened.— Mike Greenberg (@Espngreeny) May 18, 2014
How will the Pacers play in Game 2?
This was one of the worst-case scenarios for Miami.
The referees were liberally blowing whistles in Indianapolis—and it was warranted, as the Pacers shot 37 free throws to the Heat's 15. Miami was out of its element and not in position to defend without fouling, which led to a long afternoon on the road.
There is plenty of basketball left to play in this series, though, and the Heat have the edge in terms of championship experience. They also defeated Indiana in the conference finals in seven games last year, which should give them at least some sort of mental edge.
Pressure will still rest on the Pacers to keep their momentum going after a huge win in Game 1. This had to be their best performance of the postseason, so expectations may be tough for Indiana to match in Game 2 after playing at such a high level to open the series.
Then again, if the Pacers can just take care of business and string together two consistent performances, they would hold a prohibitive advantage if they get the Heat to slip up in South Beach.