The Pacers were supposed to be better this season. They’re not, and now the Heat heads to Indianapolis with a chance to close out this series on that home court Indiana was banking on.
A key player was missing for the Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday, but the two-time defending champions still pieced together perhaps their most complete game of the playoffs and defeated the Pacers 102-90 to go up 3-1 in these best-of-7 Eastern Conference finals.
Chris Andersen was a late lineup scratch due to a left thigh contusion, and that put the pressure on Chris Bosh to respond. He did. Bosh scored 25 points after struggling through the first three games of the series, and his three-point shots in the first half—he had three of them—seemed to suck the life out of the young Pacers early.
“Sometimes it’s all about simplifying things and getting back to the basics,” Bosh said. “I’m really not thinking about it much anymore and just going out there and playing.”
Bosh said he needed to “kind of put the cerebral stuff to bed,” but laughed off a question after the game about his psyche this series.
“Mental crisis,” Bosh said. “That’s for the weak-minded, my friend.”
Instead it was the Pacers who seemed to crack under the pressure in their most important game of the season. All-Star forward Paul George criticized teammate Lance Stephenson after the game and then suggested the game’s free-throw discrepancy “was just home cooking.”
Miami went 30 of 34 from the free-throw line. The Pacers were 11 of 17.
“You can’t tell me we don’t attack the basket as much as they attack the basket,” George said. “You can’t tell me we’re not aggressive. Maybe we’re too aggressive.
“But I feel like we’re just as aggressive as they are attacking the basket and making plays at the rim. Maybe this was just home cooking.”
On Stephenson, George was critical of his teammate’s suggestion on Sunday that LeBron James somehow showed signs of weakness in Game 3 by engaging Stephenson in a little trash talk.
“You know, Lance is young, and that’s a teaching point. That’s a learning lesson for him,” George said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to watch what you say. You’re on the big stage. Everything we say is going to be bulletin-board material. It’s really going to have a powerful meaning behind it.
“We’ve just got to be smarter with situations and just voicing our opinion sometimes.”
There is a history between James and Stephenson, of course. In 2012, Stephenson made the universal sign for choking in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals after James missed a free throw. James went for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists on that night. On Tuesday, James again dominated the game with 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
“I don’t need any motivation,” James said. “I’m motivated enough to try to get back to The Finals. That’s motivating enough, and being one of the leaders of this team, I have to do my job.”
James went inside on Pacers power forward David West for a three-point play to give the Heat a 102-90 lead with 1:22 left. The Heat’s lead hit 23 points in the fourth quarter before a late run by the Pacers kept everyone in their seats until the final two minutes.
George led the Pacers with 23 points and West finished with 20 points, but Indiana couldn’t stop the Heat inside. A technical foul on Pacers center Roy Hibbert after the whistle put Ray Allen at the line for a foul shot and Dwyane Wade went inside on the reset to put the Heat ahead by 19 points with 10:55 to play in the game. Allen and Wade weren’t finished.
A three-pointer by Allen gave the Heat an 89-68 lead with 8:49 to play and Wade followed with a three-point play that ran the Heat’s lead to 21 points.
“It was probably one of our better games,” Allen said. “The starting five came out and [Bosh] got us off to a great start, and consistently we just played with that aggressive the nature the whole game.”
Wade finished with 15 points, going 4 of 12 from the field, but was a perfect 7 of 7 from the free-throw line. Wade went at the teeth of the Pacers’ interior defense from the beginning, and helped put Hibbert and Stephenson in foul trouble in the first half.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel received a technical foul with 1:57 left in the third quarter and the Heat converted the mental lapse into three points with a free throw by Allen and a 17-foot fadeaway jumper by James. James then grabbed the defensive rebound on the other end and raced the length of the court for a thunderous dunk.
A block by Cole on a three-point attempt by Stephenson then triggered another breakaway and Stephenson picked up his fourth foul rather than give James another highlight. Cole made both foul shots to extend the 7-0 run.
The Heat’s lead hit 19 points with 19 seconds left in the third quarter when Cole found space for an 18-foot jumper.
It was an even first half save for a few too many turnovers by the Pacers in the first quarter. Bosh established himself early with a 17-foot jumper 18 seconds into the game. He then scored the Heat’s first eight points and finished 7-of-11 shooting and 3 of 5 from three-point range in the first half. Bosh entered the game averaging nine points in the series.
James said before the game that he wanted to be aggressive in the first quarter and he wasted no time with driving attempts into the lane. He finished the first half with 15 points and went inside for five of them in the final two minutes of the second quarter.
James’ cutting layup on a nice feed by Bosh gave the Heat a seven-point lead and James maneuvered inside on the Heat’s next possession for a reverse dunk. Hill fouled James during the dunk and the Heat’s back-to-back MVP converted the three-point play to give the Heat a 49-39 lead.