INDIANAPOLIS – It’s been repeated endlessly, by many, that the Indiana Pacers were designed to dethrone the Miami Heat. The Pacers’ recent struggles against just about every other team in the NBA have been well documented, following up a 17-16 end to the regular season with a tough pair of series against the underwhelming Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards. But once the Pacers see the defending champs, things start to clear up.
That Pacers stereotype extended into the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday afternoon, as Indiana used a startlingly efficient attack to down the Heat 107-96, taking the first game of the potential seven-game tilt. All five Pacers starters scored in double figures in the win, the 14th time the teams have played in the postseason since 2012.
And despite the Heat’s relatively poor Game 1 showing, one figures the teams will likely meet another six times before an Eastern champion is decided. The Heat may not have known what hit them in Game 1, but they’ll surely have it figured out by the time these two meet again on Tuesday.
Game 1 was decidedly one-sided, though. The Heat had their moments, notching 54 points in the paint against the NBA’s best regular- and postseason defense, but the Indiana offense was the tipping point. Indiana came out with what star swingman Paul George agreed was “a great deal of energy,” scoring 30 points in the opening quarter and attacking the Heat’s small-ball lineup. Soon-to-be retiring forward Shane Battier got the start over Udonis Haslem up front, and the Heat seemed overwhelmed while attempting to close out on Pacers shooters and penetrators – something that was barely helped when Miami coach Erik Spoelstra started Haslem over Battier to begin the second half.
Pacers guard George Hill did well to penetrate early and often, in ways that weren’t always set up to call his own number, notching 11 points in the frame. It was Hill’s backcourt mate Lance Stephenson, however, that put Indiana over the top.
Charged with leading the bench corps, the fiery hybrid guard appeared on the verge of a second-quarter meltdown as a few calls didn’t go his way and after Pacers big men Ian Mahinmi and David West dropped a pair of Stephenson’s would-be assists. Lance went on to force the action himself – something that isn’t always welcomed by Pacers teammates or the squad’s coaching staff, but on this late afternoon he seemed to be reading the tea leaves, not to mention the Heat defense, quite well.
Stephenson, high-stepping and often going behind his back with dribbles, scored a needed 17 points in the win, notching eight assists and only turning the ball over twice in 41 minutes. It was a needed spark after the Pacers offense bogged down a bit following that hot start, one that Hill certainly appreciated after his open looks seemed to go away. “All the guys in this locker room know,” Hill said following the win, “that he’s one heck of a player.”
Paul George was even more succinct: “He’s learned to be a professional,” George noted, before going on to credit Lance’s abilities to initiate ball movement. “We didn’t let the ball stop.”
Players on both sides agreed as much. Quick action and ball movement has been the impetus behind Indiana’s best days all season, but it’s been months since the Pacers looked this good, and performed with the sort of alacrity needed to create the ability to execute such as this.
And it came against the Heat, which is apparently something we’re supposed to be surprised at. In one afternoon, the Pacers swiftly reminded us why we’re supposed to consider them to be championship contenders.
Though Miami’s execution was spotty at best, none of the team’s particulars or role players seemed unnerved following the spanking; and not in ways that would lead you to believe the defending champs are taking things easy or waiting to flip the proverbial switch. Spoelstra did point out that his team was “probably at our worst defensively.”
He also took time to credit Indiana, while mentioning one statistical quirk.
“If you would say coming into this game,” Spoelstra told reporters after the contest, “that we’d score 96 and have over 50 [points] in the paint, I would say we’d be in the driver’s seat for a win. If we do our normal, even anywhere close to our normal defense.”
One gets the feeling Spoelstra is very much looking forward to a tape breakdown between games, even knowing that a return viewing of Game 1 will reveal error after error as the Pacers piled up the points. LeBron James said he's looking forward to cataloging his team’s “breakdowns,” and guaranteed his team “will clean up.”
Dwyane Wade – and again, this is not coming off as flippant in any way – told reporters that a game like this would be “easy to move on from.” This is the sort of confidence you build while winning consecutive titles, making the Finals in another year and working to be four games away from a fourth straight Finals appearance this season. You know the Heat will get it together.
The same can’t be said for the other side, in spite of endless proclamations from Indiana players that they know they have to match or even exceed this sort of play in Game 2 if they want to keep home-court advantage. So few trust these Pacers, after that poor end to the regular season and dodgy playoff debut, that you couldn’t help but admire them countering the expected Miami counter with those proclamations postgame. A pre-emptive counter that Miami has probably already countered.
This is why wild cards, after 24 combined regular-season and playoff pairings since 2012, and with six more likely to line up, are so important and so pivotal.
And they don’t come much wilder than Lance Stephenson.
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