INDIANAPOLIS -- In an instant, Indiana’s hopes of rolling into the AmericanAirlines Arena for Game 3 with a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals were dashed Tuesday night, losing 87-83 despite an impressive effort by guard Lance Stephenson and center Roy Hibbert.
At one point, it looked like the Pacers were in control, leading 73-69 late in the fourth quarter after a Paul George three-point shot. But Indiana’s defense could not come up with the stops it needed down the stretch.
When it counted the most, the Pacers were outscored 18-10 down the stretch to drop Game 2 of the series.
“We had a two-minute span where we had some bad possession on both ends,” said Hibbert, who scored 12 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. “We’ve been through this before. We just have to watch film and try to get two in Miami. That’s our mindset now.”
The loss foiled Indiana’s hope of winning its first two games in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1999-2000 when the Pacers beat the New York Knicks. Indiana went on to win that series 4-2 before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers 4-2 in the NBA Finals.
It was also the Pacers’ first loss to the Heat in Bankers Life Fieldhouse this year. Indiana won both regular-season games at home and then the series opener Sunday.
Stephenson carried the Pacers on his back most of the game with 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting as leading scorer George struggled from the field. Stephenson helped Indiana recover from a halftime deficit and built a 60-54 lead with about three minutes left in the period. Stephenson’s three-point play from a bounce pass from David West, followed by a three-point shot gave the Pacers the six-point advantage.
Stephenson was deadly in Game 1 as well, making eight of his 12 shots and scoring 17 to go with eight assists in the Pacers opening game victory.
“We just ain’t made shots tonight,” Stephenson said about the Pacers at crunch time. “When it comes down the last five minutes of the game we’ve got to make something happen.”
Pacers coach Frank Vogel said in his pregame comments that he believed the Pacers could improve on its defensive effort, where the Heat shot 51 percent and scored 54 of its points in the paint.
While the Pacers managed to lower the Heat’s shooting percentage a notch, it was Indiana’s ability to dominate the boards that kept Indiana in the driver’s seat most of Game 2 before falling.
Behind Hibbert, the Pacers crashed the boards particularly well on the offensive end. The Pacers held a 26-18 advantage on the boards in the first half, with 10 of those coming on the offensive end. Hibbert grabbed nine of his 13 rebounds in the first half.
Offensively the Pacers could not reproduce its magic from Game 1, where Indiana scored a playoff-high 107 points and set playoff highs for first-quarter points (30) and first-half points (55). Indiana, though, played toe-to-toe with the Heat most of the night.
The critical test for the Pacers came at the 1:08 mark of the first half after point guard Mario Chalmers buried a three-point shot to give Miami its largest first half lead, 41-33. Miami had the ball with a chance to go up double-digits by halftime.
Indiana forced a missed shot that led to two Hibbert free throws with 29.1 left. After Pacers point guard George Hill got steal off of a Heat pass, Stephenson soared for a tap-in basket off an inbounds pass at the buzzer to trim Miami’s lead to 41-37 by halftime.
Before that stretch, it looked like the Pacers returned to human form as the Heat shut them out over a five-minute stretch of the second quarter as an early Indiana 27-23 lead turned into a 32-27 deficit.
The Pacers now head to Miami with a 5-1 record on the road during the postseason and with the confidence that they beat the Heat in AmericanAirlines Arena last year.
“Our confidence is still high,” said West, who was limited to 10 points Tuesday after scoring 19 on Sunday. “Obviously it’s going to be a crazy environment in Miami but we have to maintain our composure. We have to take it possession by possession.
“This team has handled these moments before throughout the season. We’ve played particularly well on the road.”