INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Pacers have the length, athleticism and defensive pedigree to create a rough night for even the most prolific of scorers, but nobody could have expected this. The Pacers capably defended their home court in Thursday night's 94-75 Game 3 victory over the Miami Heat, holding Dwyane Wade to a horrific 2-for-13 night and LeBron James to a 3-for-9 mark from the floor in the second half. Miami's frustration was typified by a third-quarter jawing match between Wade and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, fueled by both Wade's sluggish play and a 52-29 run that helped the Pacers pull away in the second and third quarters.
The Game 3 performance was a low point for Wade, who has missed 40 of his 58 shots in the series. Worse, the 2006 Finals MVP looked both hesitant and frustrated, seemingly trying to shoot himself out of the slump. And his Miami-styled brand of insouciance was less than appealing. Wade said afterward he "was not trying to force it out there," but we disagree. He finished with five points in what was obviously the worst playoff game of his eight-year career.
Indiana put Wade in this bad place. Not only do the Pacers feature a litany of long wing defenders bent on chasing him around his various screens, but the presence of All-Star center Roy Hibbert loomed large in the win. Hibbert scored 19 points for Indiana, taking advantage of that limited Miami front line, but his biggest impact came on the defensive end as his length helped chase Wade and James into mid-range looks that they could not connect on. Hibbert added 18 rebounds and five blocks, and his individual defense in one significant fourth-quarter stretch almost singularly quelled Miami's last chance at a comeback.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel was pleased, calling Hibbert's performance the "best game I've ever seen him play," while still refusing to fully credit his team for shutting down Wade. "Paul George," Vogel said, "is one of the top five most versatile defenders in the NBA. But you can't give Paul all the credit. Wade had an off night."
Did he ever. Not only did Wade's frustrations take the Heat out of their offense, as he attempted to fire his way back into his typical box-score prominence, but his failure to get back on defense and (at times) go over the top on Indiana's screens drew Spoelstra's ire.
Not that their third-quarter "conversation" was troubling the Heat coach.
"That happens," Spoelstra said. "You have no idea how often things like that happen. That was during a very emotional part of the game when we were getting our butt kicked.
"Dwyane and I," Spoelstra reminded, "have been together a very long time. Very long time."
Spoelstra also refused to blame Wade's woes on any possible injury, and pointed to the fact that just about every active NBA player is banged up as they work through the second round of the playoffs. LeBron James conceded Wade "wasn't himself," but refused to point to any possible injury to Wade beyond "what we all have," referring to the typical "bumps and bruises" that teams have to work through in mid-May. Wade, as you'd expect -- "He'll never make excuses," Spoelstra said -- declined to admit to any nagging injury and passed on discussing his third-quarter tiff with Spoelstra. Every other member of the Heat's rotation (which apparently does not include Udonis Haslem, who didn't play in the second half) followed that company line. Wade's not hurt, and whatever pain he has, isn't affecting him.
Which is probably correct. The Pacers are the reason for Wade's play, because with the "major component" that Spoelstra referred to (Chris Bosh) missing, the Pacers were allowed to overplay Miami's pick-and-rolls and ignore Bosh's replacements in the middle. Hibbert admitted as much postgame, pointing out that Bosh's ability to create off broken plays provides a wrinkle that often forces Hibbert's mind to be elsewhere. With the big center allowed to solely focus on keeping the Heat drivers out of the paint, 75-point games will result.
Freed from Bosh's triple-threats, Hibbert was able to dominate. And he, presumably, earned a plaudit in a postgame text from San Antonio's Tim Duncan, who worked out with Hibbert during the offseason -- a mentor who Roy says, "texts me after every game."
While it's hard to imagine the graybeard Duncan busting out a smartphone, it's not as tough to see the Pacers possibly running away with this series. The Heat still have the best two players on the court at any time, but Indiana can guard those best two with their best three or even four, leaving centers wide open and forcing Mario Chalmers, who was excellent with 25 points and zero turnovers before injuring his left wrist just before the final buzzer, and Shane Battier, who was not, missing all seven of his attempts from the field, to beat them. All of this can change with a few tweaks from Spoelstra in Sunday's Game 4, and the Heat could take back home-court advantage in a flash. But that would also have to involve the Pacers backing off a bit.
Don't expect them to. With Bosh hurting -- and just a couple of wins removed from the conference finals they visited six times between 1994-2004 -- these Pacers have an upset in their sights.
After Thursday's performance, though, could it really be termed an upset? Especially when the Pacers looked so good at making Dwyane Wade … well, upset?
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