If Pacers can’t corral these Heat, are they toast in South Beach?
MAY 21, 2014 6:00a ET
After watching the Heat get flattened by the Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, one would have expected Miami to come out and play with reckless abandon in Game 2 on Tuesday. Surprisingly, however, that directive seemed lost on the two-time defending champs, who were sluggish early on once again.
But unlike Sunday, Miami eventually got it together in the second half at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and rode the fourth-quarter dominance of — who else? — LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to an 87-83 road win that knotted the series at 1-1.
Miami hasn’t looked great in this series. In fact, the Heat haven’t even really looked good for most of it, including a tense final minute during which the Heat tried their best to give away Game 2. But they escaped Indiana with a split, shifting home-court advantage in their favor. And anytime you can get that — especially when you’re 35-7 in home playoff games over the past three-plus seasons, the best in the league in that span — you’ve got to be pleased with your positioning, even if your play leaves plenty to be desired.
Series tied 1-1
Takeaway: Miami shot 50.7 percent in Game 2, but it wasn’t the Heat’s offense that won the game. Rather, it was a much stronger defensive effort across the board. After allowing Indiana to shoot 64 percent (16 of 25) at the rim in Game 1, Miami limited the Pacers to 52 percent shooting at the bucket (nearly 8 percent lower than the league average) in Game 2. The Heat’s attention to sticking their assignments on D forced Indiana to take far more low-efficiency, long two-point shots on Tuesday, and the Pacers struggled from that range, hitting just 5 of 24 two-point attempts from outside the paint. In fact, had it not been for a second consecutive strong effort from 3-point range (9 of 19), Indy may not have been competitive for as long as it was.
Overall, the Pacers’ 40-percent shooting was the team’s third-worst of these playoffs, and for the entire postseason, Indiana is just 1-5 when shooting 42 percent or lower. While limiting the Pacers to that number is hardly a guarantee for victory, it’s certainly a nice target to aim at, especially if the Heat are able to build off a Game 2 second half in which they shot 54.3 percent and hit five 3s. There still are shortcomings to be addressed when it comes to rebounding — though the Heat have outrebounded their opponent in only two games this postseason, so they’re not exactly expected to own the glass — and you’d like to see them find an answer for Lance Stephenson, who has run roughshod on them so far. But if nothing else, Game 2 taught us that Miami can beat the Pacers without necessarily being great (and on the road, no less), and that’s got to be a scary proposition for Indiana, which had better hope the Heat can’t flip the switch at home.
Star Review: Stephenson has been an absolute beast in this series and followed up an 8-of-12 shooting performance in Game 1 with a game-high 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting Tuesday. Stephenson’s mid-range and 3-point jumpers have been locked in against the Heat, and while he hasn’t made Wade’s knees flare up, he has made the 32-year-old Heat star look his age on the defensive end. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d say it was Stephenson who must be the Pacers’ All-Star swingman, not Paul George, who was virtually invisible in Game 2, scoring 14 points on just 4-of-16 shooting. Combine that with a rare poor shooting night from David West (5 of 16), and even a double-double from the suddenly-vibrant Roy Hibbert (12 points, 13 rebounds) couldn’t save the Pacers.
On the Heat side, there was no takeover by LeBron — at least not in the way he did against Brooklyn following Miami’s only other loss of the playoffs. But he did excel when it counted, with 12 of his 22 points coming in the fourth quarter (seven in the final five minutes) as Miami reclaimed the lead for good. Joining LeBron in his timely fourth-quarter scoring barrage was Wade, who scored eight of his team-high 23 points in the final five minutes on 4-of-4 shooting. Add to that a nice contribution from Norris Cole, who scored 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting in 26 minutes off the bench, and Miami was able to overcome lackluster performances from Chris Bosh (nine points, 1 of 4 from 3), Ray Allen (three points, 1-of-5 shooting) and Chris Andersen, who followed up a brilliantly efficient performance in Game 1 with three points on 1-of-4 shooting in Game 2 (though at least he redeemed himself with a team-high 12 rebounds).
Looking Ahead: Game 3 at Miami, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET
What To Look For: Game 2 wasn’t exactly a must-win game for the Heat, but it certainly was one they needed. Likewise, Indiana will face the same dilemma when the series shifts to Miami. In the grand scheme, the Pacers could have as many as three chances to steal home court back from the Heat, but LeBron has developed something of a reputation for going in for the kill the second he smells blood. So while a 2-1 deficit wouldn’t be insurmountable for Indiana, the Pacers would be better served to get out of the water while they can, rather than stand there nervously holding a chum bucket until Game 4.
A good place to start in the effort to keep from losing control of the series would be George, who isn’t doing his team any favors with his erratic play. The Pacers also need Hibbert to keep making the most of his minutes, which is no guarantee, though he has played well in the series. Additionally, the Pacers will have to continue to check LeBron — inasmuch as one can, anyway — continue to protect the ball like they have and hope that Stephenson’s carriage doesn’t turn into a pumpkin and leave him playing like the guy who shot 30.4 percent from the floor in the first four games of the Washington series. If that sounds like a tall task, it’s because it is — and that’s to say nothing of all of the things Miami could be doing so much better.
So yeah, tell yourself that Game 3 isn’t a must-win affair for the Pacers if you want. But don’t say I didn’t warn you if an Indiana loss on Thursday turns out to be the beginning of a season-ending slide.