Pacers should be worried as Heat’s killer instinct kicks in

LeBron James celebrates after Ray Allen hits one of four 3-pointers in the 4th quarter of Game 3.

Robert Mayer/Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The Pacers have seen three iterations of the Miami Heat in the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Heat team Indiana saw Saturday in a 99-87 loss at AmericanAirlines Arena was the scariest one yet: one that’s finally figuring it out.

See, even at its best, Miami only looked “meh” in Games 1 and 2 of the series. And the same general observation held true for the first half of Game 3, which saw the Pacers lead by as many as 15 points while the Heat struggled to get their affairs in order.

But in the second half of Saturday’s game, Miami’s game finally clicked in a way that no opponent wants to see from a two-time defending champion, and if the Pacers can’t get the Heat to snap out of it in what boils down to a must-win Game 4, Indiana may not be as long for this series as Game 1 would have had you believe.

SATURDAY’S RECAP:

HEAT 99, PACERS 87

SHOCKING DECISIONS

Heat lead 2-1

Takeaway: It’s really a misnomer to call this one a game of two halves, because the Pacers’ wheels had already started to fall off by the latter portion of the second quarter. After Indy built a 37-22 lead by shooting 57.7 percent from the field and holding Miami to 36.4 percent over the first 17:38 of the game, both teams went into shutdown mode — Miami defensively and the Pacers offensively — after a timeout by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Over the final 30:22 of action, Miami outscored Indiana 77-50, and outshot the Pacers 63 percent to 41 percent from the floor. During the second half, LeBron James got into one of those plugged in, teeth-gnashing frames of mind that no opponent wants to see, while Dwyane Wade continued his recent string of throwback play and Ray Allen toyed with a Pacers team that apparently didn’t think the old guy could hang.

Defensively, Miami coughed up just 14 points in the paint in the second half after allowing Indiana to shoot 12-of-15 inside in the first half. They also forced the Pacers to chew a ton of clock on offensive possessions, only to hoist up bad shots late in the 24 — with no such stop coming at a more critical time than the shot clock violation the Heat forced with 3:33 left in the third quarter, with their lead just at one. From the second the Heat took the lead for the first time at 52-51, following a LeBron dunk with 7:36 left in the third, you kind of felt like the result had been decided, and after watching Miami outclass Indiana in every facet of the game — even on the boards! — down the stretch, it seems fair to wonder whether the fate of the series wasn’t also decided, as well.

Star Review: I can’t very well say what mumbo jumbo Lance Stephenson is chirping in Wade’s ear out on the court, but I can tell you that he needs to cut it out and replace it with some new smack talk, because Wade has been eating Indiana’s bacon virtually non-stop for three straight games now. After an 0-for-3 start to the game, Wade went unconscious from the field during that 30:22 game-ending run, hitting 9 of his last 13 shots — including two surprising 3s to now give him three multiple-3 games this year — to finish the game with 23 points. In the fourth quarter, he was joined in his dead-eye effort by Allen, who hit all four 3s he took in the period and added 16 points. And that’s all to say nothing of the looming presence of LeBron (26 points, five rebounds, seven assists) who still feels like he’s due for one of his patented monster games.

On the Indy side, Roy Hibbert continued his series-long run as the Pacers’ most consistent player — hard as it is to believe — and David West (13 points, 5-of-8) rejoined the fray after a couple games in no-man’s-land, but Stephenson (10 points, 11 rebounds) returned to Earth and Paul George (17 points) still struggled with his range and hit just one of his six 3-point attempts. It was another uncharacteristic setback for George, who, for a time this season, seemed to have snaked his way into the “who is the NBA’s next great player” discussion, and if he doesn’t get his bearings about him soon, it’s tough to see the Pacers making this thing more competitive.

Looking Ahead: Game 4 at Miami, Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET

What To Look For: George really is the Pacers’ only hope if they want to validate their No. 1 seed and make this into a series, so he can’t dilly-dally around as he attempts to wrangle his All-Star form back from whoever originally stole it from him. There’s not much time for his team to work with, and both he and Indiana know that. In addition, Hibbert needs to continue to turn in the level of productivity that he has — which feels like asking a lot of the guy, despite his All-Star credentials — and Stephenson, like George, can’t afford to play another game out of the spotlight either; he thrust himself into it by throwing shade at D-Wade before Game 1 and he’s got to get back to holding up his end of the deal.

You can say all you want that there’s still a sizeable window for Frank Vogel’s club to get all this done and point out that, even with a loss Monday, the Pacers will still get one more crack at the Heat in Miami — but to do so would be naive. If this series leaves Miami with the Heat up 3-1, the Pacers won’t be coming back to South Beach with them after Game 5. And while the Eastern Conference Finals hasn’t become the type of Goofus and Gallant affair we’ve seen out west, the Pacers are a fragile bunch, mentally, and can be easily had in Game 4.