Through the first three games of the Eastern Conference finals, you couldn’t really help but feel like the reeling Indiana Pacers were being held together by some slipshod combination of Scotch tape and sticky tack; a MacGyvered bond that kept the East’s No. 1 seed on track long enough to escape the Hawks and Wizards before the year-in-the-making rematch with the Miami Heat. That bond finally gave way in Game 4 on Monday night — and the Pacers’ season may have, too.
With a 102-90 loss in Miami, which was probably even worse than the score alone would have you believe, the Pacers dropped into a 3-1 hole that feels insurmountable, mostly because it is — especially given the way the Heat have played over the last six quarters or so.
Indiana needed to win Monday’s game in the worst way if it wanted to have a chance at ousting the two-time defending champs, but the Pacers didn’t — and didn’t come close — and everything that happens between now and Game 1 of the Heat’s fourth straight NBA Finals feels like a formality.
These two teams will play one more game in Indianapolis on Wednesday, and another back in Miami on Friday if the Pacers get frisky in front of their home crowd. But at this point, after an Indiana no-show in Game 4 that felt like the basketball equivalent of letting the air out of a balloon, the best thing for everyone would be for the Heat to just put Indy out of its misery and close the series out in five.
Takeaway: Remember the scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton beat the tar out of Jared Leto while everyone else just kind of stood around looking like, “Dude, relax, it’s over”? That’s kind of how Monday felt for most of the night until Miami finally relented once the game was well in hand. By the time most fans had found their seats, Chris Bosh had already single-handedly given the Heat an 8-0 lead — a margin which would reach 10 points in the first period, 11 in the second, and double digits for all but about a minute in the third. In the fourth quarter, the gap between the Heat and Pacers reached 23 points (Miami’s biggest lead of the series) and only then did Erik Spoelstra’s club relent, allowing a 13-1 run late in the game to close the margin to 95-84.
Interestingly enough, Indiana actually shot better from the floor (49.3 percent to 46.4 percent) and from 3 (42.9 percent to 33.3 percent) than the Heat, outrebounded Miami 37-34 and had more assists (18 to 16). But Miami was virtually flawless with the ball, turning it over just five times to the Pacers’ 14, and the Heat’s 20 points off turnovers, combined with their 30 points at the free-throw line, were all the cushion they needed to put the Pacers away. Undeterred by an ineffective Roy Hibbert (zero points) and his backup Ian Mahinmi (five points), Miami connected on 19 of its 25 shots in the paint and was successful defensively when it was able to push the Pacers’ 3-point shooters out of the corners, holding them to a 3-of-13 mark on such shots. It wasn’t a perfect effort, but it was more than enough to beat an Indiana team that was eerily reminiscent of the club that should have lost to Atlanta in the first round, and the fact that Miami still has plenty of room for improvement should scare the daylights out of the Pacers and their fans.
Star Review: “Paging Lance Stephenson. Paging Lance Stephenson.” After closing the Wizards series and starting the conference finals with some of his best play of the year, the mouthy Pacers guard spun his wheels but offered little in the way of actual production in Game 4. It took Stephenson, who averaged 17.3 points over the first three games, more than 31 minutes to get on the scoreboard and even longer to register his first field goal, which didn’t come until the Pacers were down by 18 more than halfway through the fourth quarter. For the game, he finished with nine points on 3-of-7 shooting — hardly numbers that justify his yapping about being in LeBron James’ head before Game 4 — and was only matched in his hoops impotence by Hibbert, who slowly turned a corner over the last couple weeks only to find that it led him to a dead end in the most important game of the season. Hibbert was held scoreless by a Heat team playing without Chris Andersen and added just five rebounds — an effort so bad that it rendered constructive efforts by Paul George (23 points, seven rebounds) and David West (20 points, 12 rebounds) useless.
Bosh, however, was not useless for Miami in its Game 4 win, and after a very Hibbert-like nine points per game over the first three games of the series, he exploded for 25, hitting seven of his first eight shots as the Heat built that early double-digit lead. Further, Bosh hit three of his first four 3-point attempts after going just 2 of 12 from deep in Games 1-3, and was a plus-17 for the Heat after failing to register a positive plus-minus in any of the first three contests. All of this made life much easier for LeBron, who contributed an extremely casual 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists; his 74th playoff game with at least 25 points, five boards and five dimes — one more than a guy named Michael Jordan, and in 28 fewer career playoff games (179-151). It wasn’t all good for Miami, of course, as Rashard Lewis dropped a goose egg and missed all five of his shots (all 3s) in his first start of the postseason, and Dwyane Wade hit a bit of a wall, shooting just 4 of 12 from the floor after torching the Pacers and hitting nearly 60 percent of his shots over the first three games. But when LeBron is as unflappable as he has been all series long and Bosh is actually contributing, Wade can afford to take a back seat for a night.
Looking Ahead: Game 5 at Indiana, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET
What To Look For: For Indiana, the answers are basically the same as they have been all series. Everyone has to be on their game for the Pacers to have even a glimmer of hope against Miami, and ideally, the Heat need to have at least a few players miss the mark, as well. But there’s no way the Pacers will stand a chance if the whole team isn’t committed, and at times on Monday, some of the Pacers looked utterly disengaged. You wouldn’t think that a team will need an extra boost to get up for an elimination game in the Eastern Conference finals, but coach Frank Vogel needs to get right in his team’s face, if only as a precaution. Even more importantly, Indiana can’t afford to fall behind by any significant margin early, because after being thoroughly smoked for the better part of two games now, there are some confidence issues that seem to be quite prohibitive to a season-saving comeback the Pacers now need. Ideally, Indiana will lead from wire-to-wire, like it did in Game 1, and at least put some of the pressure back on the Heat to not allow the series to return to Indianapolis for a Game 7.
As for Miami, the Heat have been here before, and they know as well as anyone that all they need to do is stay the course to close this series. With San Antonio possibly facing a longer and more physical battle than previously thought now that Serge Ibaka has revived the Thunder, Miami could be in for a hefty break should they close things out on Wednesday — and any advantage would be appreciated along the team’s quest for a three-peat. As good as LeBron has been in this series, he’s yet to spoil us with one of those extraordinary outings like the one that gave Miami control for good against Brooklyn in the conference semifinals, so don’t be surprised to see James take it upon himself to single-handedly go for the kill in Game 5.