Pacers recover from slow start to beat Heat in low-scoring affair
Roy Hibbert threw all the inside body jabs Tuesday night. Paul George finished it off with the knockout blow.
Together, the Pacers' devastating one-two scoring punch did it again to the champs.
Hibbert finished with 24 points, George made two big 3-pointers during a 15-point second half scoring spree and Indiana rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit to take Round 1 against Miami 90-84.
"It was fun, a real intense game," George said. "Both teams were playing at a high level. You could see an urgency to win this game tonight."
While Indiana extended its franchise-record home start to a perfect 10-0 and took a three-game advantage over Miami in the early chase for home-court advantage, this was no ordinary regular season game.
During pregame media availability, Indiana's Lance Stephenson said this game felt like a championship matchup. Two of Miami's big three, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, tried to downplay that sort of talk by explaining this was not a win or go home night.
The hometown fans didn't care what the Heat thought. They were already in postseason form, booing loudly at the officials, chanting "He's a flopper" on some contestable foul calls and eventually serenading Miami players with those familiar chants of "Beat the Heat."
But the Pacers (19-3) also understood this was only be the start of a season-long quest that could pit the two best teams in the East in the conference finals for a second straight year.
First, there's the rematch in Miami on Dec. 18. They won't meet again until March 26 in Indy, then head back to Miami on April 11 before what most expect to be a third straight meeting in the playoffs. If those games have as much intrigue and pizazz as Tuesday night's showdown, they may be the most compelling all season.
And the Pacers can't wait to show how much they can improve — even on a win over the two-time champs and four-time MVP LeBron James.
"It's just one game," Hibbert said. "We're going to learn from it. It's a learning experience. It's still early in the season. We have a lot more work to do."
To the average fan, it looked a lot like last season's playoff series, which Miami won in seven games.
Hibbert dominated the middle, scoring nine of Indiana's first 11 points and making a season-high 10 baskets — most from point-blank range — despite playing in the second half with cotton in his nose. David West added 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists including a left-handed 4-foot runner that gave Indiana an 88-81 lead with 38.9 seconds to go.
James' defense and Miami's physical double-teams frustrated George most of the night, but when George finally got free late, he made three big 3-pointers s to help the Pacers pull away. George, the NBA's No. 4 scorer, finished with 17 points, three rebounds and four assists.
"I knew it was going to be a night when I was going to explode offensively," George said. "I knew I had to move the ball and share it."
Chasing George all night apparently took a toll on James and the Heat (16-6).
While James, the league's No. 2 scorer did get 17 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, he was just 3 of 11 from the field with nine points over the final 36 minutes — three quarters when Miami failed to top the 20-point mark and had five turnovers. Wade also finished with 17 points, while Bosh added 12.
It was Miami's third loss in five games.
"I thought we brought it tonight," James said. "We know they're a very good defensive team. I thought they hit some tough shots and they attacked the rim real well but even though they had us down by 10 rebounds, I thought we rebounded well and we battled."
Aside from the slow start, the Pacers couldn't have produced a better script.
After Miami took a 13-pont lead midway through the second quarter, Indiana charged back to get within 47-40 at halftime.
Indiana then opened the third quarter with back-to-back baskets to close the deficit to four. The Pacers finally tied it at 55 on George Hill's 3 with 8:15 to go in the third, and Hibbert gave the Pacers' their first lead, 58-57, on a three-point play 2 minutes later. George helped keep the Heat at arm's length after finally making his first basket with 3:51 left in the third, and Miami never tied the score or regained the lead.
"Anytime you get into this kind of a slugfest with them, where you're down six to eight points, it feels like it's a 20-point lead," Bosh said. "We know they're a good team. We know what their goals are, we know what our goals are, we want to keep building to be a complete team for the spring."
NOTES: Singer Justin Timberlake, Jim Courier and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles were among the familiar faces in the crowd Tuesday night. ... David West recorded his 5,000th career rebound in the first quarter. ... Indiana had a season-high 21 turnovers. ... Miami shot just 42.9 percent from the field and was a dismal 4 of 21 from 3-point range, scoring just 54 points over the final three quarters. ... The Pacers improved to 10-2 this season when trailing at halftime.