Lance Stephenson teetered on the edge of insane and unstoppable during the third quarter of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday.
The Heat had no answer for the Pacers’ young combo guard to begin the second half, and it appeared as though Stephenson’s energy alone would will the Pacers one game closer to ending the Miami’s dreams of three NBA championships in a row. If the Heat was going to steal a game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Stephenson had to be stopped.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Heat made a surprising adjustment to deal with Stephenson’s hot hand and surging confidence, and it proved to be one of the differences in the game. LeBron James challenged reserve point guard Norris Cole to square off against Stephenson defensively, and the unexpected adjustment worked to perfection. Stephenson entered the fourth quarter with 23 points, but was limited to 1-of-3 shooting for two points in the final period.
“I was just ready to take the challenge, and we felt that this was the right matchup out there,” Cole said. “We were able to take the pick-and-roll out of it.”
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The switch also allowed Dwyane Wade to focus on Paul George defensively and for LeBron James to harass the Pacers’ point guard, George Hill.
Wade forced a key turnover on George with 3 minutes 05 seconds left in the game that led directly to the Heat’s seven-point lead. A minute earlier, James and Chris Bosh combined to force Pacers center Roy Hibbert into a bad pass, and then James followed his 18-foot jumper with a block on a three-point attempt by Hill.
“Norris had a very good game for us,” Wade said. “He is one of those guys that, he loves to play defense, and he did a great job on Lance, making it tough for him in the second half. So we’re versatile when Norris is out there with the way he guards pick-and-rolls and how low he is to the ground as well. So, he did a phenomenal job.”
Cole also came through offensively. His three-pointer in the third quarter helped cut the Pacers’ lead to one point entering the final period. He then swished a three-pointer with 10:45 left in the game to give the Heat a 67-65 lead. Earlier, Cole entered in the first quarter and helped settle the Heat’s offense after a choppy start.
Cole finished the game with 11 points, and played every minute of the fourth quarter. Only Wade and James scored more points for the Heat in Game 2. The Heat and Pacers now have three days off before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday. With the series tied at one game apiece, the Heat needs only to win its home games — Games 3, 4 and 6 — to advance to the NBA Finals.
Cole said James’ leadership in the final period provided an important boost of confidence for the young point guard. Cole prides himself as being one of the NBA’s best on-ball perimeter defenders, and his talent did the rest.
Only in his third season, Cole’s work ethic and professionalism already is well known around the league. The former Cleveland State star spends hours studying the offensive tendencies of his opponents, and that attention to detail has helped in the postseason when every possession is important.
On Stephenson, Cole pointed out after the game that “you can tell when he is in a rhythm because he likes to dribble with the ball high.”
“I switched on him a few times and we just stayed with it,” Cole said. “Kind of like if it’s not broke, then don’t change it. I could tell he was frustrated because his aggression went down.”
James’ decisive fourth-quarter chess move could be a matchup problem for the Pacers for the remainder of the series.
“I believe that he’ll be a good matchup on Stephenson, even though Stephenson is a bigger guy,” James said. “He’s going to get some shots over him. He’s going to make some plays, but I think Norris can lock in on him.”