INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers weren’t the only ones with this game circled on the calendar.
The defending champion Miami Heat had to hear all summer about the Pacers’ improved depth, their internal growth, and their budding rivalry with a Miami team that knocked them out of the playoffs in 2012 and 2013. The Heat roared out of the gate in their first meeting with the Pacers since downing Indiana in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, grabbing a 30-19 first-quarter lead before Indiana used its height and defensive smarts to slowly chip away and eventually down the two-time defending champs, 90-84.
Pacers center Roy Hibbert is used to working as the game’s most important player on the defensive end, but the big man worked as his team’s go-to offensive force during Indiana’s second-half comeback. Hibbert routinely found his way to the front of the rim against the slow-to-rotate Heat defense in the second half, piling up 15 second-half points on his way to a 24-point night against the undersized Miami front line. Swingman Paul George overcame a miserable first half to finish with 17 points in the win, while the Indiana defense completely flummoxed Miami in the second half, holding them to just 37 points in the term.
It was a marked improvement upon a nervous and sluggish first quarter for the Pacers. Returning home for the team’s first game following a five-game road trip, the Pacers looked hesitant and unsure in the game’s first 12 minutes before the squad’s bench helped circle the wagons in the second quarter. George finished the first half with five turnovers, missing all four of his shots and allowing for LeBron James to alternately coast and dominate with an eight-point, five-rebound first quarter.
Those stats may seem familiar to Heat fans used to watching the reigning MVP have his way against all manner of defenders, but this Pacer team is different. Indiana is far and away the league’s top defensive team, so to see James have his way initially against the Pacers’ stellar defense was a bit off-putting, and the home crowd reacted as you’d expect.
It’s possible that James was a little gassed heading into the second half, but one also has to credit the Pacer defense for getting back to what it knows best — funneling the opposition’s best players into the long arms and moving feet of Hibbert.
James missed half of his eight attempts at the rim in this game, failing to consistently leak out in transition or score in the paint in the half court, though he still managed to finish with 17 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists alongside five turnovers. Dwyane Wade (17 points on 14 shots, six rebounds and six assists) showed springy hops in his first game back after sitting out on Sunday night, but he couldn’t help his mate, and the Pacers’ long defensive arms helped relegate Chris Bosh to afterthought status — he notched 12 points, but needed 12 shots to get there.
Meanwhile, Indiana kept finding its big man down low. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra admitted after the game that his squad did miss a few defensive rotations on Hibbert, but by and large his 24-point night came down to the 2012 All-Star hitting tough shots while helping bail out the Pacers' perimeter performers on both ends as they stared down Messrs. James and Wade. George found his groove with a 15-point second half, while the Pacer bench performers were stout enough defensively to give their team a chance against the defending champs — something that was in stark contrast to what Miami faced last May, working against a criminally thin Indiana reserve corps.
Even Miami’s attempts at playing with a small lineup, a wrinkle that most regular and postseason opponents haven’t been able to suss out over the last two seasons, didn’t work out. For long stretches in the fourth quarter, reserve Pacer big man Luis Scola was charged with chasing Ray Allen through screens, and yet the Heat couldn’t spring the NBA’s all-time leading 3-point shooter free. By the time the Heat countered with Bosh, power forward David West entered the game to put the contest away with a hook shot with 40 seconds left, giving the Pacers a seven-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Though the game was nervy at times and close throughout, the work of the individual players and eventual outcome came right out of central casting for Indiana. The team managed to limit the Miami role players and stars alike while working out a comeback win in front of a capacity crowd. The stated goal for the 2013-14 regular season — earning home-court advantage so as to enjoy a Game 7 on their home turf this summer — seems more than doable. Spotting Miami 11 points in the first quarter didn’t even seem to faze the Pacers.
Of course, there is the matter of three future regular-season contests between the two, followed by what seems like an inevitable seven-game series between these two franchises. Indiana struck first, but Miami has in upwards of ten more chances to strike back between now and June.
Ten more games between these two? If Tuesday night was any indication, that could be the highlight of the NBA’s 2013-14 season.
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