The Indiana Pacers knew during Friday’s Game 2 that LeBron James would probably be the reason for any close defeat. What they probably didn’t guess is that LeBron James beating himself would end up being the reason for the change in tone and outlook of this Eastern Conference final.
For most of Game 2, there was absolutely nothing the Indiana Pacers could do about James. The team guarded him smartly, with tough and athletic All-Star Paul George ignoring foul trouble and an embarrassing end to Game 1 to stick with James throughout. Indiana’s league-best defense funneled him to uncomfortable spots on the wing and minded him expertly in transition. By the time the end of the fourth quarter hit, James (who finished with 36 points while hitting 70 percent of his shots) had dragged his Heat to what seemed like was going to be a 2-0 series lead.
Instead of the full drag, though, James played the goat. Two last minute passes were deflected by Pacer forward David West, giving Indiana the extra possessions it needed to pull out an inspired 97-93 win. The Pacers did not doubt themselves in the wake of what could have been a mood-altering overtime loss in Game 1, rallying behind coach Frank Vogel on the way to a tough win over a team that they now have downed in three out of five regular and postseason contests.
And although the headlines will center on some flashy dunks or James’ late game gaffes, the Pacers won because of the dominant play of big man Roy Hibbert. Yes, “dominant.”
Hibbert was his typical self in altering shot after shot, a presence that won’t show up in the box score, nor on any highlight shows. Better for Indiana, he was able to stay on the court for over 39 minutes, easing the Pacers’ collective mindset while George sat with early foul trouble, and West struggled after hitting his first shot of the game – going nearly the length of the game before hitting his second field goal. Roy’s defense on James was killer – four of LeBron’s five turnovers in the game came on drives with Hibbert in the paint, and when Dwyane Wade (14 points on 14 shots) attempted to go to the rim with Hibbert looming, Roy eased that All-Star into misses as well.
That’s just the defensive end. Hibbert finished with 26 points, a playoff career high, adapting adeptly to Miami’s fronting of the post and general quickness. With West struggling from the field and the Pacers often taking far too long to ease into their offensive sets, Hibbert was a bailout machine – making 10 of his 15 from the floor while never seeming to wear down the stretch in spite of his all out play on both sides, and heavy minutes.
Though some contributors faltered – Tyler Hansbrough did not replicate his good play on the glass and in the scoring column from Game 1, Lance Stephenson came through with some strange plays down the stretch, Sam Young is not a player for this level and D.J. Augustin offered next to nothing – this was the Pacers at their best. Miami was behind for most of the game, but they also tossed what should have been several killer knockout blows in Game 2, only to see the Pacers (usually George or Hibbert) respond with a much needed score on the other end, and a stop to quell any major run.
This is why this was always going to be a series. These two teams have just about played each other to a draw over 101 combined minutes thus far, The Pacers have taken three of five on the season, and these two first games were played in Miami. James’ late two turnovers were the turning point, we don’t mind pointing to the obvious, but they were also created because a smart defender in West was ready to help, and his final miscue was created because of Hibbert’s ability to cut off passing angles, snuff out a shot from Chris Bosh, while still helping on James.
LeBron tossed it all away, but Indiana earned this. Frank Vogel’s team put itself in a position to succeed.
Now they’ll have to earn both games in Indiana, working against a Heat team that is often at its best while playing from behind, with Vogel and crew wondering all over again just how in the heck they’ll be able to get up to 90 points again. The tied series is nice, but the turnaround is swift, and the Pacers could be a few clanged jumpers or turnovers of their own on the way to a 2-1 series deficit after Game 3 ends on Sunday evening. Game 1’s near miss and Game 2’s conquest won’t mean anything when the ball goes up in the air in Indiana.
It’ll still serve to make the flight home an enjoyable one, though. All while, in the same airspace, LeBron James seethes his way to Indianapolis.