Indiana Pacers players have said they worked all season to get the best record in the Eastern Conference for the sole purpose to have home court advantage if they had to play the Miami Heat again in the postseason.
The effort proved to be a wise strategy Sunday afternoon as the Pacers led from start to finish in beating the two-time NBA champion Heat 107-96 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to take a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
Aggressiveness seemed to be the key word in the Pacers locker room after the game, with virtually every Indiana player uttering the word from one sentence to another as their key to victory.
“We just came out aggressive from the start and [George] Hill put the pressure on those guys early,” said Indiana center Roy Hibbert, who scored 19 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in the victory. “David West and I tried to do a good job finishing in the paint and making smart plays. We went inside-out and outside-in. We trusted each other tonight.”
Going into the game, Indiana was 3-4 at home in the playoffs against Atlanta and Washington, losing the openers in both contests.
The Pacers shook off the lackadaisical first-game performance of the previous two series to play one of their best games this postseason.
The Pacers’ balance scoring effort seemed to be a huge spark, with all five Indiana starters scoring double figures by the 7:00 mark of the third quarter as they shot 51.5 percent from the field in the game.
“I was just trying to be aggressive and make high-percentage shots,” said guard Lance Stephenson, who connected on 8 of 12 of his shots to finish with 17 points, behind Paul George’s 24, along with David West and Hibbert’s 19 each.
Hill made his first three three-point shots of the game to fire-up the loud Indiana fan base and give the Pacers an early 20-10 lead before settling for a 30-24 advantage by the end of the period.
“We were focused today,” Hill said. “They’re the champs and we have to go through them to accomplish our goals and we have to give them respect. But we’re good in this locker room also and it’s going to be a good battle game to game.”
Stephenson scored 10 points in the second quarter to help the Pacers rebuild their lead to double-digits.
During one point in the quarter, the University of Cincinnati product scored six points and rocketed a perfect pass to C.J. Watson (11 points) down low for another basket within a two-minute stretch, which allowed Indiana to maintain a six-point lead, 43-37.
His layup with 55 seconds left before halftime was the scored that elevated Indiana’s advantage to 55-45 at halftime.
The Pacers’ willingness to share allowed them to shoot nearly 60 percent from the field in the first 24 minutes.
In the third quarter, Hibbert — Miami’s tormentor from last year’s playoffs — West and Paul George combined for 25 points while the Pacers stretched their edge to 19 points twice, the latest at 81-62 late in the period.
West said, though, that the Game 1 victory will mean little for the Pacers if they drop Game 2 on Tuesday night.
“I thought we handled everything they threw at us tonight,” West said.
“Listen, we know those guys and they know us. We have to handle the details which are taking care of the basketball, handling their traps on the baseline and not getting into retreat mode.
“Our front five have dealt with them for the past three years. We know we have to consistently play at a certain level to beat a very good basketball team.”