The Indiana Pacers spent the better part of the last 12 months plotting a path to the top of the Eastern Conference, transparently pursuing home-court advantage to fuel their playoff run.
It took the Miami Heat all of 96 minutes to snatch it away.
Miami's dynamic duo scored 22 of their 45 points in the fourth quarter, including each of Miami's final 20. The pair added 12 rebounds and 11 assists to their stat sheet but needed help to secure the badly needed win. Norris Cole and Chris Andersen provided that support.
Cole chipped in with 11 points off the bench and provided timely defense on Indiana's scorer du jour Lance Stephenson, who led his team with 25 points but managed only two over the final 14 minutes. The Birdman snagged a team-high 12 rebounds in his 28 minutes, allowing the undersized Heat to nearly draw even on the boards (38-41).
Indiana will head into Game 3 knowing that it let this one slip away. Not only did the Pacers hold a three-point edge with 5:33 remaining, they also managed to stay well within striking distance despite woeful shooting nights from Paul George (14 points, 4-of-16) and David West (10 points, 5-of-16).
Home-court advantage could be just 48 minutes away for the Pacers, but so too could be a series deficit they know they shouldn't have. The Heat go back to South Beach with their desired road split in hand, along with the knowledge that they dominated the only crunch-time minutes this series has had.
Yet both teams enter Saturday's tilt in the same situation: desperate for a victory. According to WhoWins.com, NBA teams with a 2-1 series lead historically have gone 283-62 (.820 winning percentage) in their respective series.
That's the type of control the Pacers really need to find.
|Indiana Pacers||Miami Heat|
Time: Saturday, May 24, 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami, Florida
Series Schedule: Game 4, Monday, May 26, 8:30 p.m. ET; Game 5, Wednesday, May 28, 8:30 p.m. ET; Game 6*, Friday, May 30, 8:30 p.m. ET; Game 7*, Sunday, June 1, 8:30 p.m. ET
Paul George (head) questionable
How Indiana Wins
Now is hardly the time for major adjustments. Franchises fortunate enough to have it made this far are best to keep riding in the same car that brought them there.
The Game 2 loss stings, but it reinforces something the Pacers swear they've known all along: They can hang with the two-time defending champs.
Their size as in issue for Miami, and Rony Seikaly isn't about to walk into the Heat's locker room. For the series, Indiana has a 79-67 rebounding edge and a bigger advantage on the offensive glass (23-10).
Assuming this series follows the pace set in Game 2 (170 total points) and not the one from Game 1 (203), those extra possessions could prove key for an offense that struggles to score with any consistency. Getting those extra opportunities helps, but the Pacers have to cherish every chance.
That didn't happen late Tuesday night, which is why Indiana lost a potential stranglehold on the series.
"We were too careless with the basketball," West told reporters. "We knew they were going to apply pressure, we just didn't handle it. We felt the game was in hand, but we didn't close in terms of making enough plays, particularly with the basketball."
After Roy Hibbert's hook shot gave Indy a three-point cushion with 5:33 remaining, the Pacers' next five possessions went as follows: Stephenson miss, West miss, Hibbert turnover, George Hill miss, George turnover. Miami closed the coffin with a 10-0 run over that stretch, but Indy sealed its own fate through self-inflicted wounds.
What the Pacers have to realize is that this was simply a matter of poor execution—nothing was wrong with the game plan:
Hibbert gave Indiana everything it can reasonably expect out of him at this point (13 rebounds, 12 points). Stephenson was spectacular (25 points, seven assists), and Hill was solid (13 points, five rebounds). George and West found shots in their comfort areas, but they just couldn't knock them down.
Coach Frank Vogel doesn't need to erase his whiteboard, but he does need to make a few tweaks.
He has to find something from his second team. Four of his starters logged at least 39 minutes, and the fifth (West) played 34 despite battling foul problems in the first half.
Vogel has zero trust in his reserves. Scan through the stat sheets, and it's hard to blame him:
Still, he can't expect his starters to all give him 40 minutes. Not with the type of pressure Miami's defense can apply.
Vogel got a pair of triples out of seldom-used reserve Rasual Butler. The coach might find something of use out of sharpshooter Chris Copeland, whose defensive drawbacks can't be any worse than Luis Scola's. C.J. Watson (0-of-4 from the field) and Ian Mahinmi (one point in six minutes) have to do more to lengthen their appearances.
That might seem like a minor concern, but it's potentially major given George's uncertain status. The All-Star swingman has been diagnosed with a concussion, per an official team release, and will need to complete all the steps on the league's return-to-action protocol to gain medical clearance for Game 3.
Needless to say, major changes will be needed if the Pacers don't have their top scorer Saturday. If he is cleared, though, a few minor tweaks should do the trick for what has largely looked like the best team in this series.
How Miami Wins
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra put it best after Tuesday's win.
"At this point, it's just whatever it takes," he told reporters.
Every coach might take a similar stance at this time of the year, but Spo's team embodies those words.
That challenge was accepted first on the defensive end. Miami dictated the action on that side of the floor, blitzing Indy's high pick-and-rolls (a problem for the Heat in the series opener) and aggressively hounding ball-handlers.
"The best thing about tonight, even though we made mistakes, was that we were flying around and playing the type of basketball we wanted to play," James said afterward. "When we do that, we give ourselves a great chance to win and we can live with the results."
No one inside that locker room would complain about these results. Indy managed just 83 points after exploding for 107 in the series opener, converting only 40.0 percent of its field-goal attempts (down from 51.5 in Game 1).
The Heat swarmed the basketball, crisply rotating to cut off driving lanes and trusting their teammates to fill the empty spaces behind them. The Pacers made a concerted effort to get to the basket, but those touches came with defenders deep inside their comfort zones.
Indiana's best option is to force the ball to the interior, but due to Miami's defense that simply wasn't a high-percentage play Tuesday night.
This wasn't a dramatic change in philosophy, but rather a return to the principles that guided Miami's last two title runs.
"We got back to playing Miami Heat basketball," James told the media.
It's this level of intensity that Miami will have to exhibit going forward, not just in this series but in a potential fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
The Heat have an explosive offense (second-most efficient in the postseason), but the Pacers are built to contain those very same explosions. That almost happened in Game 2, but James and Wade's combined fourth-quarter barrage (22 of their 45 points on the night) kept this club from answering some uncomfortable questions about its sputtering offense.
Only three Heat players cracked double digits, and one of those three (Cole) averaged all of 6.4 during the regular season. Ray Allen and Andersen combined for only six points on nine field-goal attempts. Chris Bosh had nine points on nine shots, struggling yet again to solve Indiana's defensive puzzles:
Tonight was the 7th time in his last 10 games vs. IND that Bosh scored less than 10 points.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) May 21, 2014
James and Wade joined forces in Miami to provide the exact type of heroics they delivered Tuesday night.
"That's what we envisioned, having two guys that is able to be dynamic at the same time," Wade said to reporters. "It doesn't happen all the time, but fourth quarters and those moments, that's where we envisioned it happening."
Wade's qualifier—that this doesn't happen all the time—is important to note. Miami has plenty of supporting pieces in place, but this team still relies on its superstars to perform as such.
The quality of those performances can change on a nightly basis. What doesn't have to fluctuate, though, is Miami's defensive tenacity.
Indiana's offense isn't hard to stop, but it still takes a certain amount of elbow grease. The Heat have to be willing to do the dirty work to survive this series.
Like Spo said, it's whatever it takes at this time of year.
George's uncertain status casts an ominous cloud over Saturday's contest. The Pacers simply do not have the offensive weapons to survive his absence, let alone the perimeter stoppers to pick up the slack on James.
If George is out for Game 3, then so too are the Pacers.
If he plays, though, then we'll have a game on our hands—but still a Miami win.
The Heat have desperately been waiting to receive a wake-up call, something jarring enough to snap them out of this seven-month slumber. Coming as close as Miami did to falling into a 0-2 series hole for the first time in the Big Three era should have sounded that alarm.
Who will grab control of the Eastern Conference Finals in Game 3?
Miami is playing championship-level defense and getting championship-level offense from its two biggest stars. Wade is scorching hot (26.0 points on 61.5 percent shooting over his last three games), and James simply never cools off (28.8 points on 56.3 percent shooting for the postseason).
Indiana's best can still give Miami fits, but the Heat's top gear goes higher than the Pacers' engine can handle.
With that motor revved up, the Heat aren't about to let off the accelerator now. The Pacers lost home-court advantage in Game 2, and they won't be reclaiming it Saturday.
Heat 93, Pacers 85
(If George doesn't play—Heat 98, Pacers 81)