INDIANAPOLIS – David West playing through a frighteningly-high fever may be the story of the game, and Paul George’s 28 points and eight rebounds may win him plaudits as the star of the game. On the flipside, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh’s inability to contribute may leave them as the goats of this particular contest, while LeBron James may take in scorn for earning a late game technical foul.
Focusing attention on these aspects would be missing the point. The Indiana Pacers won Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday night because the team’s defense, rightfully lauded throughout the year as the NBA’s best, set the tone. Miami shot just 36 percent in the 91-77 loss, completely fading down the stretch against a Pacers team that just would not allow good looks in the lane, while keeping the Heat off the free throw line throughout.
George led the team in points and Roy Hibbert contributed 22 of his own in the win, but those combined points paled in comparison to the pitch-perfect defense the two Pacer stalwarts provided throughout the gutty win. The Heat found Hibbert inescapable in the paint when they attempted to drive in Game 6, as Roy once again used his length to not only contest initial attempts at a shot, but also recover in time to contest dump-off passes while securing good enough position to grab six defensive rebounds and 11 caroms overall.
Meanwhile, the Pacer backcourt sprung back to life after a disappointing Game 5 in Miami. Lance Stephenson couldn’t buy a bucket for most of the contest (nailing a dunk in the game’s final minute after missing his first three attempts from the field), but he was all over the place defensively both on Dwyane Wade (who missed eight of 11 attempts from the field), while helping Hibbert and West on the glass (Lance managed 12 rebounds on the night, his sixth double-figure rebound game of the postseason) as they swung to close out on Heat penetrators. Meanwhile, George Hill returned to his springy self, minding the Heat in transition while contributing 16 points and six assists of his own.
Hibbert, though, was the anchor. LeBron James was Miami’s only consistent scoring option in the loss, and yet James continues to be at a loss when it comes to scoring in the paint against Indiana’s monstrous defensive-minded center. Hibbert recorded just one block in over 41 minutes of play, but he changed so many more over the course of a contest. All while once again working as the most active player on the Pacers on both ends of the court. It was a phenomenal performance that even his stellar 24-point, 11-rebounds line won’t reflect.
And the Heat, despite attempting to for short stretches, simply could not cobble together the sort of help it needed around James to and the series in six games.
Miami tried, at the outset of both the first and third quarters, to establish Dwyane Wade as a decision-maker (allowing him the chance to either dish or score off the dribble), and Chris Bosh as a finisher. Bosh showed absolutely no confidence in his offensive game throughout the loss, though. He accurately and quickly nailed a three-pointer to start the contest, but the rest of his seven field goal attempts (all misses) were either paired with a hitch or hesitation or both. Sometimes it isn’t fair that a player like Bosh has to live off of extra passes and scraps in the LeBron-heavy Heat offense, but Bosh completely failed his teammates tonight on the offensive end.
Meanwhile, Wade still looks to be a shell of his former self. The Heat guard missed eight of 11 shots on the night despite a series of relatively (this is Indiana, after all) makeable looks, and six games into this series Wade still seems at a loss as to how to attack this Pacer defense. Monday’s Game 7 will be the 20th time these teams have played over the last 17 months, so it’s not as if Wade hasn’t made enough reps against Indiana at this point.
This is what Indiana does, though. The team draws the opposition out of its offense, it makes a point not to foul (Miami shot just five free throws over the first 35 minutes and 48 seconds of this contest), and before the opposing team knows it the “priorities” it started the contest with have yet to take double-figure shots, and role players aren’t exactly ready to step up in the absence of the secondary stars. Even Miami’s well-intentioned adjustments (sticking Mike Miller into the big forward slot that Shane Battier used to fill, unleashing Norris Cole on a Pacer defense that was obsessed with the stars, emphasizing the three-point line early in the contest) weren’t enough.
The Pacer defense is that long, and that athletic. And 99 games into its season, it’s spent too much time on the court with each other to be stuck on the wrong page. The Pacers talk, they trust, and they get all up in that if you want to attempt to enter the lane.
None of this may matter on Monday. The Heat will regain its confidence at home, they’ll feel like taking more chances despite the pressure of the Game 7 setting, and they have the best player in the world on their side, ready to suit up for a potential 48 minutes’ worth of play.
The Pacers can counter with Roy Hibbert for 42 minutes of his own, though. At some point, we’re going to have to question whether or not this has become a star player stalemate, six games in.