PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference semifinals; series tied 2-2.
Suddenly in unfamiliar territory, the Indiana Pacers must be pretty happy to get back to friendly surroundings.
Facing a difficult predicament for possibly the first time all season, the top-seeded Pacers return home hoping to avoid being pushed to the brink of elimination as they face a Miami Heat squad enjoying a newfound boost of confidence.
That’s because Miami truly had Indiana rattled in Wednesday’s Game 4, won 100-88 by the Heat to make this best-of-seven semifinal series tied at 2-2.
“I’m convinced now that they’re one of the toughest teams in the NBA,” Artest said.
Indiana rolled to the No. 1 seed in the East and the league’s best record during the regular season, then set an NBA playoff record by winning its first six postseason games by double digits. That streak included the first two games of this series, but the run came to an abrupt end with two losses in Miami against a Heat team which had lost 11 straight to the Pacers.
“Is it time to panic? No, but right now is the time for us collectively to understand the mistakes we’ve been making. And we’ve made them throughout this series,” Indiana’s Reggie Miller said. “We’re lucky to be 2-2. You can almost chalk the first two games up to them coming off a Game 7.
“The pressure is back on us now. … Our goal was to win one (in Miami) and we didn’t. It’s not a crisis, but we’re facing adversity right now.”
While the Heat—a team that was 10 games under .500 as recently as early March—pulling even with the Pacers was somewhat surprising, winning Game 5 at Indianapolis for a chance to go home to wrap up the series would be particularly shocking.
Indiana has not lost three consecutive games since April 2003, and Miami has lost its last seven games at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Pacers have won 12 in a row there overall, including a 4-0 mark in the playoffs.
Miami is 0-5 on the road during this postseason and has lost eight straight road playoff games.
“A lot of people think we can’t win on the road, but a lot of people didn’t think we could tie the series up, either,” Heat forward Caron Butler said.
Miami tied things up thanks to good shooting, hard work and a balanced offense, led by Wade and Lamar Odom. The Heat had the rebounding edge against a bigger Indiana team in both matchups at Miami and shot a combined 49.3 percent from the field. Five players scored in double figures in Game 3, and six did in Game 4.
Wade, who finished third in Rookie of the Year balloting, totaled 45 points and 13 assists in the last two games and is averaging a team-high 20.5 points in the series. After struggling in Game 1, Odom has contributed 19 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while hitting 59 percent from the floor.
“Everybody told us what we couldn’t do. Not big enough, not talented enough,” Odom said. “We’re giving the best team in the NBA a run for their money. I think we have a lot to be proud of.”
Indiana needs help offensively from sources besides Jermaine O’Neal and Artest if it’s going to reclaim the series lead.
O’Neal set a playoff career high with 37 points and Artest added 28 in Game 4, but the rest of the Pacers combined to shoot 7-of-27 from the field and none of them had more than seven points. Miller went 1-of-7 from the field and scored a combined seven points in the last two games.
“This is the first challenge we’ve had in two rounds,” O’Neal said. “This is a new situation for us. We just need to play our game. I know the coaches are frustrated because they’ve done all they can do.”
One of these teams will have the chance to close out this series in Game 6 on Monday at Miami, where the Heat have won 18 in a row.
“They have won two at home, and we have won two at home. So it is 2-2, and we have a three-game series just like we did against New Orleans (in the first round),” Heat coach Stan Van Gundy said. “The difference is we cannot win this series without winning on the road, and we know that, but that is not going to be an easy thing to do.”
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Heat - Wade, 17.6 ppg and 5.5 apg; Butler and Grant, 8.7 rpg. Pacers - O’Neal, 21.8 ppg and 8.1 rpg; Tinsley, 6.0 apg.