Have the Pacers made it clear they’re the real deal?
The Pacers haven’t really given off the vibe of a 1-seed since Feb. 7, when they were 39-10 and, at the time, were the owners of the best record in basketball. But for at least one afternoon, Indiana looked the part of a heavy favorite, taking care of business against the big, bad Miami Heat Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Problem is, Indiana finished the regular season 17-16 after that date, and they haven’t been a whole lot better in the playoffs thus far, somehow escaping two rounds of postseason basketball despite being in what seems to be a perpetual stumble. No doubt, the Pacers’ demonstrative win over Miami in Game 1 was a nice cornerstone on which to build, but it’ll take a lot more convincing than that for them to really look the part of a champion.
PACERS 107, HEAT 96
Pacers lead 1-0
Takeaway: In my conference finals preview, I wrote that Indiana had the potential to knock off the Heat in this series, but that it could only happen if the Pacers left behind the team that struggled through the first two rounds. Sure, Sunday was just one game, but in that 48 minutes, Indiana looked every bit like the No. 1 seed — not the underdog myself and virtually everyone else has portrayed them to be. Virtually the entire Pacers starting lineup was on point, with each of the team’s five starters scoring in double figures. They started out hot from 3, with six first-half triples on nine attempts, and got to the free-throw line at will in the second half, taking 30 foul shots to Miami’s seven over the third and fourth quarters.
Defensively, there’s got to be some concern over letting the Heat shoot 51.3 percent from the field, and they shouldn’t expect to hold a Miami team that shot 38.7 percent from 3 in the playoffs going into the game to a clip like 26.1 percent for the series. Frank Vogel also couldn’t have liked the way Miami seemed to be rallying early in the fourth quarter before Mario Chalmers’ flagrant foul put an end to any momentum Miami had built. But when you’re shooting 51.5 percent yourself and cleaning up on the boards, as the Pacers did in Game 1, you can get away with that kind of stuff. Indiana could very well come out and lose Game 2 by 25 — and maybe recent history even suggests that they will — but if the Pacers can continue to improve upon an outstanding and surprising Game 1, they could end up making just about all of us look awfully silly over the next couple weeks.
Star review: Lance Stephenson offered up some last-minute smack talk before Game 1, proclaiming to the media that he wanted to make Dwyane Wade’s knees flare up, and though Wade got his — 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting — at least Stephenson held up his end of the bargain, with 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including a huge third-quarter 3 to push the Pacers’ lead to 18. In addition to Stephenson, Paul George played All-Star-caliber ball again, scoring 18 of his team-high 24 points in the second half to help hold off a Miami rally. David West also followed up his strong Game 6 against Washington with another throwback performance, adding 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, scoring most of his points around the basket this time after crushing the Wizards with mid-range jumpers. Even Roy Hibbert showed up, contributing 19 points and a team-high nine rebounds — though his shooting touch (5 of 13) could use some honing. And though it’s hard to picture the entire Pacers rotation being that balanced in every game going forward, as long as they can keep LeBron (25 points, 10 rebounds) from having one of those monster games and keep the Heat uncomfortable and cold from 3 (LeBron, Chalmers, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen were a combined 4 of 20 from deep), they’ll be incredibly tough to beat.
Looking ahead: Game 2 at Indiana, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET
What to look for: Indiana played Game 1 about as well as it could have hoped to, but in the grand scheme, it didn’t feel all that much different from Brooklyn’s 14-point win over Miami in Game 3 of the conference semis last Saturday. Like the Nets, the Pacers were deadly from 3 and tough on the glass — they out-rebounded the Heat 38-29; Brooklyn bested Miami 43-27 in Game 3 — and used the momentum of the home crowd to their advantage in a game they desperately needed to win. But we all know how the rest of that Brooklyn series went for the Nets, and there’s reason to believe this one could still be headed that way, too. After all, Indiana’s biggest problem this postseason has been consistency, and until it can put together a couple of solid games in a row against the two-time defending champs, there’s no choice but to believe that the Pacers are still capable of being the sad-sack team that lost a potential elimination game against Washington by 23 points at home. Certainly Game 1 was a positive sign for Pacers fans, but it was also a game that a No. 1 seed playing at home should win. In the next game after the Heat’s only other loss of the playoffs — that game in Brooklyn — LeBron scored 49 points on the road and helped his team regain control of the series. And though there’s no guarantee that he can do the same for his team against Indiana, you can sure bet he’s going to try.