One of the Pacers’ slogans is, “Indiana’s game, Indiana’s team.”
Basketball tradition and passion reign in a state that ought to have a hoop on its license plates to go with the one in practically every driveway.
Indiana gave us John Wooden, Oscar Robertson, Bobby Knight and Larry Bird. So the Pacers were not going to be eliminated from the playoffs on their home court without a fight.
Indiana, riding the hot hand of Paul George, held off Miami 93-90 before their relieved fans inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse and narrowed the Heat’s Eastern Conference finals lead to 3-2 on Wednesday night.
At the least, the Pacers forestalled the Heat’s march to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance. At the most, they added suspense to a one-sided series.
Indiana still needs to win two in a row, starting with Game 6 in Miami on Friday. It will take a miracle to dig out of that hole. Then again, this is the land of (ital)Hoosiers(ital).
The Pacers got help from an unlikely source: LeBron James. Not only was James saddled with five fouls and consigned to the bench midway through the third quarter, but he hesitated on a possible game-tying drive to the basket in the closing seconds. James, anticipating the impediment of 7-0 Roy Hibbert, instead dished to Chris Bosh, who missed from his sweet spot in the right corner.
His choice to defer rather than finish was somewhat reminiscent of James, circa 2011, but both he and Coach Erik Spoelstra defended his pass for a potential game-winning shot.
“I think he saw C.B. open for a count in the corner, his corner, so he went for the kill,” Spoelstra said. “We’ll take that. It was actually good to see that poise.”
James said he would do it again.
“It’s like playing cards – that’s why they’ve got backs on them: You don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We got a great look, and if C.B. makes that shot and we get a stop, we’re headed to the Finals.”
There was a flurry of ifs at the end of this thriller we’d been anticipating since the series started. What if Shane Battier hadn’t made an uncharacteristic error in fouling George? What if Miami had played tougher defense down the stretch? What if the Heat had capitalized on the Pacers’ missed free throws? What if an open Lewis had taken the final three-pointer?
With James fidgeting and fuming on the bench for all but 24 minutes, the henchmen tried mightily, and came very, very close, but could not win without the King.
Lewis was nearly the hero, nailing six three-pointers, including two in the closing minutes that kept Miami within striking distance. The ageless Ray Allen added 15 points. Bosh and Dwyane Wade scored in double figures and combined for 18 rebounds. Even Michael Beasley came in for a three-minute contribution.
But George finally decided to live up to his reputation as a budding superstar by pouring in 37 points – 21 in the fourth quarter. George, reduced to the role of facilitator by the Heat’s double teams in the past three games, pulled his team back from the cliff. He was sharp on defense, too, making six steals on a night when the Pacers intensified their pressure and forced Miami into 17 turnovers.
“Coach told me green light, stay on green,” George said. “D[avid] West kept telling me, ‘Don’t keep no bullets in the chamber.’ So I came out firing. My teammates found me and I got hot.”
The Pacers whined about the officiating after their Game 4 loss. George called it “home cooking” in Miami. West derisively referred to “new rules.”
Indiana Coach Frank Vogel told his players to stop making excuses and grow up. Beat the big brother.
They prevailed in the mad concluding minutes of a game of seesaw jerks, but the Heat was, essentially, playing with one hand tied behind its back. Even when James was in the game, he was out of sorts and off target. He made only two of 10 shots and scored seven points, with three turnovers and two rebounds.
Human splinter Lance Stephenson tried again to get under James’ skin. In one instance, he blew into James ear as they stood next to each other, and he wasn’t murmuring sweet nothings. He kept his motor mouth running the whole game. He also eavesdropped on a Miami sideline conference.
“That’s Lance being Lance,” George said. “I hope his breath wasn’t too bad for ‘Bron.”
James was assessed his fifth foul when he dove into Stephenson as they pursued a loose ball with 8:34 left in the third. The crowd went from disgusted to ecstatic. A huge break – James out again after just 14 minutes of action. He’d already missed a chunk of the second quarter when he picked up his third foul.
Miami fell to 13-4 in closeout games in the Big Three era. Indiana, which blew leads in Games 2 and 3 and blew up in Game 4, got back to the tactics that got it this far.
Indiana made a conscious effort to drive the ball inside and outmuscle the Heat, as they had when they played to their strengths in their Game 1 victory. They were determined to make this a grind. They played at a deliberate tempo, pounding the ball low to Hibbert, spinning hooks in the lane, utilizing the backboard with scoops from under the net. They outscored the Heat 42-22 in the paint and won the rebounding battle by seven.
George Hill awoke from his slumber and flitted to the rim like a moth to a porch light bulb. Hibbert and West collected 29 points and 22 rebounds after poor performances in Game 4, and Indiana got to the free throw line 22 times to Miami’s eight.
The Pacers, however, again reverted to their weakness – a loss of concentration. Remember Evonne Goolagong’s “walkabouts” in her tennis matches? It’s an apt comparison for the Pacers, who seem to forget the gameplan. They made careless passes, lofted dumb bombs, dithered on the perimeter, missed free throws.
Then, what seemed a godsend for the flailing Pacers. James was forced to sit when he picked up his third foul six minutes prior to halftime. He waited with a dejected look on his face, but didn’t need to worry. As usual, the reinforcements came through. In fact, they played better without him.
After a three-pointer by Allen prompted an Indiana timeout, an ebullient James came close to bear-hugging the five guys jogging off the court.
James played only 10 minutes and scored a mere two points in the half. Yet Miami outscored Indiana by seven with James on the bench, and secured a 42-33 halftime edge.
The game was a supreme test of Miami’s Big Two and supporting cast. They came within three points. They’ll have to pause now, and wait another 48 hours before attempting to become the first team since the 1987 Celtics to make a fourth straight trip to the Finals. They really do not want to go back to Indiana for a deciding Game 7. They tend to thrive under that type of pressure.
Nobody said chasing history would be a sprint.