Heading into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat had impressed during the 2014 postseason without really looking like a two-time defending champion. While the team's star power and capacity for game-changing runs had marked them as the favorite to represent the East in the NBA Finals, they have not played with the offensive consistency or defensive excellence associated with their title runs.
The Heat's 99-87 win over the Indiana Pacers in Saturday night's Game 3 was not the complete performance many might have wanted, but a dominant performance after halftime likely ranks as the squad's finest half of this postseason. After a slow start that found the Pacers up double-digits early, the Heat bounced back with a mixture of a great performance from superstar LeBron James, sharp shooting from several players and characteristically active defense to hold on to homecourt advantage and serve notice that they are peaking at just the right time to capture a third-straight title.
For the first several minutes of the game, however, it looked as if Miami was ready to fritter away the advantage they won after Tuesday's Game 2 win in Indianapolis. After an Udonis Haslem layup with 7:50 on the clock made the score 6-4 in favor of the visitors, the Heat failed to score for nearly five minutes to allow the Pacers to open up an early 17-4 lead. Such margins are far from insurmountable for the Heat, but that score suggests how poor they came out of the gate. The Pacers deserve a fair amount of credit for playing the sort of defense that helped them finish with the best points-allowed-per-possession stats in the NBA this regular season, but the Heat also just looked far from stellar. Chris Bosh, in particular, continued to play far below expectations, missing two jumpers and earning two fouls to become one of Miami's first subbed-out players. Things got better for the Heat in the final few minutes of the first quarter — it ended with a score of 21-14 — but the Pacers looked like the superior team by a wide margin.
That state of affairs continued for the first portion of the second quarter, as well, with the Pacers pushing their lead back up to 37-22 with 6:22 left in the half. Frankly, Indiana was not so good as to appear in total control. The East's top seed shot 53.3 percent from the floor in the first half (though only 1 of 8 from 3-point range), getting useful performances from expected leaders like Roy Hibbert and David West and eight straight second-quarter points from erratic veteran Luis Scola. On the other hand, the Pacers also turned it over 13 times in the first 24 minutes, which indicates a lack of elite precision. They were well in front without really looking in control.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, teams in similar positions have found that it's difficult to keep the Heat down for long. James and Dwyane Wade finally began to make their presences known by scoring 14 of Miami's last 18 points of the half. Reserve guard Norris Cole also played his part with five points in the quarter. The Pacers, after leading by 15, headed into the locker room with a 42-28 advantage. Miami didn't look stellar, but had woken up, and that suggested a superior second half was on its way.
That suggestion proved accurate. The Pacers actually topped their twin 21-point quarters of the first half with 22 in the third, but that slight improvement came at the expense of losing their preferred pace and style. When Bosh drew his fourth foul three minutes into the second half, head coach Erik Spoelstra turned to Rashard Lewis to form a smaller, more perimeter-oriented lineup. The Heat were able to get out in transition without sacrificing much defense. In part, that's because Bosh has been unimpressive, but Lewis unexpectedly caused problems for Pacers power forward David West. With Lewis and James at the forward spots and Chris Andersen at center, the Heat saw an uptick in defensive activity and turned that boost into better play at the offensive end, as well.
It helped, of course, that LeBron found his superstar form after a middling first half. LeBron scored 12 of his game-high 26 points in the period. This dunk at the 7:36 mark gave Miami its first lead of the game:
The fourth quarter found the Heat in greater control, although in a slightly different way. After closing out the third with a three to grab a 71-64 lead, Wade started the fourth with another triple to signal that Miami would not give up control easily. In fact, the star of the show was Ray Allen, record-holder for most career threes in both the regular season and playoffs, who nailed all four of his attempts for 13 of his 16 points on the night. Take a look at his quarter of long-range shots below:
Allen's onslaught occurred in part because the Pacers had no answer for Miami's smaller lineups. West attempted to guard Allen for long stretches of the fourth quarter but looked woefully (and unsurprisingly) unable to do so, falling behind in both transition and on halfcourt close-outs to help Allen get open looks. In his postgame news conference, head coach Frank Vogel said the Pacers need to "do better" in such situations, but the reality is West, a very smart and experienced player, should not be guarding Allen under any circumstances. A mismatch usually can't be solved by simple adjustments — the team needs different matchups entirely.
Even after this second half, observers can be forgiven for thinking the Heat are still lagging behind other contenders — OK, maybe just the San Antonio Spurs — in the pursuit of a third-consecutive championship. As ever, Miami looks content to flip a switch when a game is in danger, less concerned with taking control early than solidifying the win as late as possible. Yet that disappointment often disregards not only that the Heat's peak is better than that of any other team, but that they have a stunning awareness of the right moments to turn it on. Such a strategy arguably won't work against superior competition, but we've seen it before from past champions, including the Heat themselves. At this point of the postseason, a minimum requirement can still be pretty darn impressive.
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