INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The Indiana Pacers entered the Eastern Conference semifinals refusing the underdog role because they fully believed they could beat the mighty Miami Heat.
Not in a game, mind you, but the series.
Maybe now the rest of the sporting world will awaken to that possibility.
Sticking to their script — offensive balance, defensive intensity and a strong physical presence at both ends of the floor — the Pacers blew out the Heat 94-75 in Game 3 on Thursday to take a 2-1 lead before a rowdy sellout crowd of 18,165 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“This is who we’ve been all year,” coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re a balanced team. We have depth on the bench, but our starting five is very balanced. It’s not one or two guys trying to create, it’s a different guy every night, a different guy every possession.
“When ball movement is your best friend and you let ball movement and defense dictate who gets the shots and nobody cares who’s getting the shots, then it can be somebody different every single time.”
This time it was Roy Hibbert, who had 19 points (a playoff career-high) and 18 rebounds (his most ever) to go with five blocked shots. But it also was George Hill, who scored 20; Danny Granger, who chipped in 17 with seven rebounds; and as usual David West, who had 14 points and nine boards.
Indiana seized homecourt advantage with a 78-75 Game 2 victory in Miami on Tuesday and protected it with its best performance of the series in Game 3. They have the advantage, but understand they will not have command unless they take care of business in Game 4 on Sunday.
“In any playoff series, momentum shifts dramatically every single game. So, as much as you want to enjoy the victory you can’t enjoy the victory in the playoffs,” Vogel said. “You have to get ready for the next game and understand it’s a different series if we don’t get Game 4.
“We definitely feel like we can win this series. We felt that coming into the series, and obviously with them being undermanned with (Chris) Bosh out we feel even stronger about it. But how we feel is irrelevant. We have to get the job done between the lines.”
After Miami’s Game 1 victory, the national storyline was LeBron James and Dwyane Wade taking over in the absence of Chris Bosh.
After the Pacers won Game 2, the national storyline was what the Heat did to lose the game, not what Indiana did to win.
Whether this unheralded little team from a flyover market will begin to get any credit after winning Game 3 remains to be seen, but the players insist the only belief that matters is internal.
“Who knows? There’s always doubters,” said Hill. “We don’t focus on that. Even with the win in Game 2 it was because of this or because of that — no credit. But we don’t need the media’s credit to know what we can do. As long as everybody in this locker room believes one thing — that we can win — and as long as we stay on the same page, that’s all that matters.”
The fact of the matter was Indiana did not play particularly well in either game in Miami, but had chances to win both. In Game 3, the Pacers more closely resembled the team that finished the regular season on a roll to earn the third seed in the East.
Even so, they were simply regarded as the best of the rest in a two-horse race between the Bulls and Heat. But the frailty of teams built around superstars has been manifest. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose and their first-round matchup with Philadelphia. The Heat lost Bosh in Game 1 and haven’t won since.
“We weren’t looking at this thing like we were just coming in to put up a good fight and make it look good,” West said. “Our intent was to come in, compete, play our game and try to win the series. That’s been our mindset from the jump.”
It even has taken the Pacers longer than they thought to make believers in their own city. They sold out just six regular season home games and ranked 29th in the league in attendance. But Thursday was the fourth straight sellout of the postseason.
“I think we’re making a few believers,” Granger said. “People probably still don’t believe a lot, but with the way we’re playing, how hard we’re playing, the intensity we’re playing with, they’re going to have to believe at some point.”