The Miami Heat find themselves just 48 minutes away from clinching their fourth consecutive NBA Finals berth.
The Indiana Pacers head home looking dangerously close to self-destruction.
Miami flexed its championship muscle throughout its 102-90 Game 4 win Monday night.
The Heat, slow starters for the first three games of the series, built up an eight-point lead over the first 12 minutes. Although the Pacers whittled it down to five heading into intermission, Miami all but closed the contest with a commanding 31-20 edge in the third quarter.
LeBron James led all scorers with 32 points, filling his stat sheet with 10 rebounds, five assists and two steals. Chris Bosh broke out of his prolonged slump against the Pacers, scoring 25 points on 7-of-12 shooting—his highest point total in more than three months.
The Pacers issued a number of mental challenges before the game but followed up on none of them.
Lance Stephenson attacked LeBron James' mental toughness, then promptly had his worst game of the series (nine points on 3-of-7 shooting), while James had arguably his best. Roy Hibbert, who told reporters that "every game is a must win" at this point of the season, snapped his streak of four games with double-digit points and had his fourth scoreless outing of the postseason.
The Pacers played like a team unfamiliar with this stage. The Heat looked like a group that has followed this path before.
The lasting effect is nothing more than another notch on the series standings, which now sit comfortably in Miami's favor (3-1). Momentum can still swing quickly, though, as Indiana enters true win-or-go-fishing territory.
It's a series of sprints for Indiana from here on out, while Miami looks ready to test its top gear as it approaches the same final turn it's taken before.
|Miami Heat||Indiana Pacers|
Time: Wednesday, May 28, 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana
Series Schedule: Game 6* Friday, May 30, 8:30 p.m. ET; Game 7* Sunday, June 1, 8:30 p.m. ET
* if necessary
Chris Andersen (thigh) questionable
How Miami Wins
The Heat can taste blood, and Monday night they hounded the Pacers like a shark feasting on wounded prey.
Miami's playoff plan had looked strikingly similar to its 82-game trek through the regular season: sluggish starts followed by fate-changing furious finishes. The Heat have flashed Nik Wallenda's feel for this tightrope act, but survival skills have to take a back seat to aggression, as they did in Game 4.
To take a page out of the NFL coaching book, prevent defense only prevents victories. The Heat must play to win, not try to avoid a loss.
That strike-first mentality was evident Monday night, as Bosh keyed Miami's 10-2 spurt out of the gate. When the big man is converting his outside looks, the floor becomes perfectly balanced for the Heat's high-powered offense.
"When CB hits shots like that," Mario Chalmers told reporters, "it makes things easier for everybody else, because we know we can always throw it back to him and the defense knows they have to worry about him. So it opens up the paint more."
Bosh, who hit three of five from distance, pulled the Pacers' All-Star rim-protector Roy Hibbert away from the basket. With Rashard Lewis, a career 38.6 percent three-point shooter, added to coach Erik Spoelstra's starting lineup, the Pacers' defense was spread dangerously thin.
This supersmall #Heat starting lineup brings to mind nightmares from the Atlanta series— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) May 27, 2014
With nothing left to guard the basket, James attacked at will. He converted 13 of his 21 field-goal attempts, stuffing the rest of his stat sheet at a historic rate:
#StatLineOfTheNight goes to LBJ w/ (32-10-5-2) : his 74th postseason game w/ at least 25/5/5, passing Michael Jordan (73) for most all-time— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) May 27, 2014
So much for that weakness Pacers swingman Lance Stephenson swore he saw in King James.
Miami didn't play a perfect game Monday night and really hasn't in this series.
The Heat hit just 15 of 38 uncontested field goals in Game 4 (39.5 percent), via NBA.com. After averaging 24.3 points on 62.0 percent shooting over the first three games, Dwyane Wade looked human Monday (15 points on 4-of-12 shooting). Lewis and Ray Allen combined to hit just once on 10 attempts from distance, and Miami misfired on 16 of its 24 three-point looks.
Clearly, perfection isn't needed to send the Pacers packing for the third straight year.
Neither are those verbal jabs coming out of the Circle City—they look as foolish as they initially sounded.
"We try to leave that alone," Wade said of Indiana's media-aided attacks, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "We try to beat you at basketball. We don't go into the back-and-forth talking because that's not what we're here for, and that's not what's going to win us a game."
Miami simply needs to play "its game," a style as varied as Spo's rotations.
If the Heat maintain their defensive focus (Indy has averaged just 86.7 points since scoring 107 in the series opener), their offense will come. There are too many potential sources of points (Bosh, Wade, Allen, Chalmers, etc.) along with the steadiest contributor in the business (James) for it not to.
The Heat have an "A" game that the Pacers cannot match. As long as it's not undone by a "C" effort (or worse), Miami should be on its way to a fourth straight championship appearance.
How Indiana Wins
The Pacers have to find a winning combination. This blue-collar/gold-swagger approach has mixed as well as oil and water.
Indiana hasn't done enough to go around pounding its chest. When it tries to feign cockiness, the basketball world collectively drops its head and releases a heavy sigh:
Paul George chalked up Lance Stephenson's LeBron comments to youth. Paul George is 4 months and 3 days older than Lance Stephenson.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) May 27, 2014
Stephenson is the obvious scapegoat—he followed his verbal attack of James with just nine points on 3-of-7 shooting—but he's not the reason Indiana now sits in a two-game hole.
Well, not the only reason, that is.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel must decide what to do with Hibbert. If the big man is going to be exploited by the perimeter-savvy Bosh on the defensive end, then Hibbert must be a part of the Pacers' plans on the opposite side.
That wasn't the case Monday night. Hibbert attempted only four shots, then openly questioned his role after the game.
"The game plan really wasn't to utilize me as much; I'm just trying to be effective as I can," Hibbert said to the media. "Would I like a little bit more touches early on? Yeah. But that's how the cookie crumbles sometimes."
Hibbert has proven himself to be a perennial thorn in the two-time defending champions' sides:
Roy Hibbert's point totals in previous 10 playoff games vs. Miami: 16, 12, 19, 18, 24, 22, 23, 20, 29, 19. Tonight: 0.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 27, 2014
The Heat aren't going to grow between now and Wednesday night. Hibbert is still equipped to hit Miami at its most vulnerable spot.
But the big man cannot pin his struggles solely to Vogel's game plan. It's not as if Hibbert has instilled a ton of confidence in his coach with a cringe-worthy shooting percentage (43.6) and middling numbers on the boards (7.3 rebounds per game) in this series.
Similarly, Paul George cannot write off his team's issues as stemming from the officiating crew.
"It's just demoralizing when [the free throws are] lopsided," George said after Game 4. "I mean, I'm sorry to say, but that was the case...I thought we outplayed them. They won this game at the free throw line."
George simply fell victim to the numbers. He examined the stat sheet (Miami attempted 34 free throws, Indiana took 17), but he failed to contextualize what those statistics meant. The Heat won the battle at the charity stripe by aggressively attacking the basket. The Pacers were far too passive in nearly every aspect of the game:
The Heat just beat the Pacers down the floor after a made Paul George free throw.— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) May 27, 2014
The Pacers pride themselves on their blue-collar grit, yet they've shown little interest in fighting through adversity. That's not on the officials.
"We got outplayed by the Heat," Vogel told reporters.
Indiana has to get back to the basics. This team is still a major threat to Miami when it's sharing the ball on the offensive end, flying around at the opposite side and never allowing its toughness to come into question.
Essentially, the Pacers need to start doing what they haven't done all series.
"What has become obvious is they have a mental toughness problem, a confidence problem and a stubbornness problem all wrapped into a Heat problem," Michael Wallace of ESPN.com wrote.
It's time to ditch the swagger (or at least leave it restricted to the court) and rediscover that hard-working mentality. Indiana faces a long road to recovery.
It must start showing it has the interest in fighting this uphill battle.
It's hard to have watched these last three outings and not come away with the perception that this series is already finished.
The Heat seem locked in on their three-peat pursuit. The Pacers look all too comfortable with the idea of getting their summer vacation started soon:
At this point, it is quite obvious that Miami is flat out the better team. Pacers LOOK confused...and totally discombobulated.— Sage Steele (@sagesteele) May 27, 2014
This series sees the proverbial unstoppable force against the immovable object, but Miami has refused to allow itself to be cast into that one-dimensional box. Some of the best defensive displays in this series have come from the Heat, who seem to be several strides into their championship sprint.
What will happen in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals?
The Pacers can play elite-level defense, but their offensive limitations are impossible to ignore. If Indiana can control the tempo and keep the score at its preferred level, this group still needs to execute successful offensive possessions down the stretch.
That's been an issue all season, one that probably needs some offseason tinkering to solve. The Heat should help get the ball rolling in that regard, putting the Pacers out of their current misery on Wednesday night.
Heat 98, Pacers 90