INDIANAPOLIS – The Miami Heat managed to release the hounds in Game 3, reminding of the defending champions the NBA had to fear throughout most of last summer and into this spring, tearing down the Indiana Pacers by a 114-96 score. Still, 24 minutes into the team’s triumph, one still got the feeling Miami hadn’t played its best basketball on both ends just yet.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made all the right moves between games to right his team’s course and put them in place to retake home court advantage in this year’s version of the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James had his way in the low post over Paul George. Udonis Haslem shook off an embarrassing 1-7 start to the series to nail six of his first seven shots in the first half. Chris Bosh spotted up to nail two three-pointers and 5-9 overall in the first half, and the team rung up 70 first half points against the league’s best defense.
Yet somehow, the Pacers were still within striking distance. Something about the Pacers’ offense, rightfully maligned all season, putting up 56 points of their own over the first two quarters. Bad news for a Heat team that wanted act the part of Goliath on both sides of the ball.
So Spoelstra’s Heat squad once again re-imagined itself, working as a defense-first outfit in the second half while holding the Pacers at arm’s length until the blowout had finished. Indiana came out of the locker room firing threes and tossing scads of defenders at LeBron James in a comeback attempt, but the halftime deficit was reestablished and even eclipsed some nine minutes into the third because Miami’s defense had decided it wanted a turn, and the Heat didn’t look back.
They got there by barely regarding the Pacers. The champs looked at what was left of themselves after splitting both contests at home, re-evaluating a team that needed a fabulous game-winner from LeBron James to take Game 1, and a squad that had to watch as a couple of James miscues tossed Game 2 away. The Heat focused on its own offense to start, establishing James straightaway in the low post against Paul George, who seemed to be gliding a bit in the wake of playing James to a hilt in Game 2. Or, at least, being told over and over again that he matched James in Game 2.
George disappeared, dishing four early assists but relegating himself to afterthought status throughout as the Heat packed the paint and dared him to try. While that was distressing, the Heat offense was Indiana’s biggest problem. They simply had no answer for … well, everyone.
Haslem was the initial beneficiary; setting up for jumper after jumper and drawing Pacer center Roy Hibbert into no-man’s land defensively with his spot-up play. From there, James took over – repeatedly taking to the low left block against George in what was obviously a priority entering the game. James didn’t even bother with countermoves against George’s defense, continually going to his left hand on his way to 18 first half points on just 11 shots.
From there, the Pacers’ defense fell apart. James started passing out of what were good looks to find Bosh’s spot-up shots, a cutting Chris Andersen (who, again, didn’t miss a single shot in four attempts), and Udonis Haslem coming through with a pair of run-ending scores (a face-up jumper, an offensive put-back) that put the Pacers’ deficit back into double-digits. Shane Battier hit his first shot of the series. Joel Anthony actually saw productive time. Mario Chalmers looked healthy. Dwyane Wade (18 points overall) improvised his way toward 10 points on seven shots.
The only member of the Heat to have a disappointing first half was Ray Allen, so Spoelstra decided to rub it in a little – drawing up a made three-pointer for the struggling former All-Star with 17.8 seconds left. It really wasn’t fair.
This is what Erik Spoelstra does, with two days to prepare and the game’s most potent player on his side. Miami had seen enough of these Pacers, a team that took three of five from Miami in the regular and postseason entering Game 3, and a squad that had its chances in regulation and overtime in a Game 1 loss for Indiana. That’s 245 minutes’ worth of game tape for Spoelstra to use, and no amount of piped-in race car noise can get in the way of a well-coached team.
Or a well-coached team with a dominant, determined LeBron James on its side.
James backed off in the second half, missing all four of his third quarter shots, content to share the wealth. As the Heat piled on and kept up with the defense, frightening hallmarks were in place even in extended garbage time. Spoelstra re-entered Battier to match up against Tyler Hansbrough, re-igniting the series-shifting mismatch that helped Miami put the Pacers away in last year’s Conference semis. James looked to feed Ray Allen in the second half, knowing full well he’d need the sharpshooter off the bench against Indiana in Game 3 and beyond. Spoelstra kept his starters around well into the blowout, understanding that every bit of practice helps, even in the face of Orlando Johnson and Gerald Green.
Even as defending champs, even with a tied series and home court shot to bits entering Game 3, this run is still working as a learning experience for Erik Spoelstra and his staff.
A chance to learn how to build around perhaps the most unique player in the NBA’s history. A chance to figure out how to counter Indiana’s NBA-orthodox frontcourt pair that features hulking defensive center in Roy Hibbert and a big-hearted power forward with skills in David West. A chance to take down the newest, youngest, kool thang – in the disappointing Paul George -- the NBA has tossed Miami’s way.
The Miami Heat’s lineup has big, big brains; and big, big skills. The team’s coaching staff, ready to pounce at any weakness it sees in its opponents with the laptops flickering away on the plane ride in, aren’t far behind.
Your move, home team.