Confidence is a weird, double-edged thing. You mustn’t do too much of it, as hubris can lead to a fall, but during the stretch run of Thursday’s Game 5 against the Miami Heat, Indiana didn’t have nearly enough of it.
The Pacers entered the switch in sides up four after a concise, defensive-minded first half that saw Paul George run freely and the pace swing Indiana’s way. Just minutes into the third quarter, though, the Pacers lost their edge – the team forced shots, made poor decisions offensively, while failing to trust the aggressive touch on defense that has made this team so devastating on that end since October. Miami outscored Indiana 30-13 in the third frame, getting whatever it wanted offensively while biding its time on defense as the Pacers lost their nerve.
Miami returned to familiar half court sets in that third quarter, setting LeBron James up with a series of good looks at the elbow-extended in the triple-threat position. Able to peer over Paul George and the rest of the Indiana defense, James looked off cutters and “settled” for a series of mid-range jumpers that weren’t nearly contested well enough by George, who also did a poor job at denying James the ball when Miami set up to let LeBron take over. Miami, smartly, had taken Pacers center Roy Hibbert out of the equation.
Those smooth makes led to Indiana taking the ball out of the nets as they attempted to initiate their half court offense in the third quarter, and things quickly went pear-shaped. For one, George (who played well in the first and fourth quarter while the team was either up or well behind, finishing with 27 points and 11 rebounds) went skittish in his attempts to match James. Secondly, the Pacers’ offense struggled once lead guard George Hill went to the bench with four fouls. For some reason, Indiana let reserve D.J. Augustin (more of a spot-up shooter) initiate the offense instead of letting George work within a screen and roll attack, and the Heat pounced as the Pacers dribbled away. Literally, and figuratively.
Meanwhile, Hibbert (22 points on 8-14 shooting) and David West (17 points, eight rebounds) barely touched the ball. It was the Miami Heat’s dream quarter, pitched perfectly in a Game 5, historically the NBA’s most pivotal contest in a seven game series.
Indiana screwed up. They shrank in the face of a test on the road, and failed to work up what has been a surprisingly effective offense in the Eastern Conference finals properly. The team waited too long to dive into its sets on that end, and the wrong players were left with the burden of creating with the shot clock winding down.
With that in place … dang, the defending champs are good.
Confidence in place with space to fire, Udonis Haslem hit 8-9 shots in the win on his way toward 16 points, daggers that he probably could have hit with the proverbial blindfold on. Norris Cole emerged from a frustrating first four games of the series to hit two of three from the field, including a dagger of a three-pointer in the fourth quarter, while the team’s defense remained active and springy throughout. This was a game Indiana could have won, but this was also a win that Miami earned.
James, as you’d hope for and as we’ve come to expect, was the catalyst. The MVP made half his shots, hitting for 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists in over 44 minutes. There were no highlights on Thursday, just effective work in an area of the court that left Indiana’s defense all a-quiverin’. And with each measured, steady 17-footer that James hit, his teammates grew in confidence. While the Pacers – mindful that LeBron could do this for 58 minutes if the task called for it – just could not get over the task at hand on the other end. Miami’s suddenly active, sometimes double-teaming defense, aided in that cause.
Adjustments and brilliant execution has been the go-to focus of this wildly entertaining series. Both teams are filled with superb coaching staffs that have talented and willing players working with both perked ears and a willingness to please. The end result has been a fascinating back and forth with both teams running and succeeding with a series of offensive and defensive sets that would put 1200-page textbooks to shame with their brevity.
At some point, though, trust takes over. The Pacers were led astray on Thursday, moved out of its comfort zone in the second half by a Heat team that believed it could do no wrong. Saturday evening will give Indiana a chance to tie the series and extend the Conference finals to a Game 7, and this squad is more than capable of doing as much and moving on from there.
If the Pacers even approximate the sort of play we saw in the second half in Game 5, though, this series will be over by Game 6 and a half. No team has a chance against the defending champs unless it believes it has a chance to unsteady the crown.