Learning to respond from the champs
Just when it seemed like the Pacers had momentum and the Miami Heat were faced with questions, the 2012 NBA Champions responded with an emphatic 114-96 victory Sunday night.
It was about as great of performance as the Heat will play. They shot 55 percent, had all five starters in double figures, beat the Pacers at their own game in the paint (52-36) and met each run with one of their own. Emotions were kept in check, and Erik Spoelstra and his coaching staff had their guys ready.
It seems like each time the Pacers have lost, their lack of intensity or aggressiveness, especially on defense early in games, has stood out — and Sunday was no different.
“We feed off of our defense,” David West said after the loss. “And if our defensive energy is low, then usually offensively we’re going to have gaps. We feel good where we are. We have to come out and make them a little more uncomfortable.”
Miami’s offense in the first half was as good as it gets. Their spacing, ball movement and determination was all excellent. They scored 70 points in the first 24 minutes, the most points in franchise history that the Pacers have given up in the first half. That put the Pacers behind the 8-ball the rest of the way.
“Allowing 70 points in a half, against the defending champions, is just not going to cut it,” Paul George said.
The Heat made adjustments, spacing the floor and extending Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh away from the basket, thus keeping Pacers center Roy Hibbert from guarding the hoop. Then, they sent the world’s best, LeBron James, to the block to have his way with Paul George in the post. He scored five of his eight field goals that way and when he wasn’t scoring, he was creating opportunities for his teammates.
Miami has won 47 of its last 52 games, and hasn’t lost consecutive games since Jan. 8 and 10, in Indianapolis followed by Portland.
“We’re a team who just bounces back from diversity,” James explained. “We love the fact that you know they took the home court away from us, and now let’s see what we are made of.
“I feel last night was the first time in a long time we got to what we do. That’s what we did all year. That’s why we had the best record in the league, that’s why we led the league in field goal percentage. We felt like we were going to have one of those breakout games, and hopefully we can continue that tomorrow.”
Pacers coach Frank Vogel called the Heat the most difficult offense in the league to prepare for because of their versatility, variety of weapons, and experience. Indiana’s offense, meanwhile, stems from their league-leading defense. When they’re not in sync, getting stops, and not getting out in transition, they’re aiding the opponent.
“Every game is going to get tougher and tougher. We got to find different ways to strike because it won’t be the same way every game. And it’s going to get tougher strike and it’s going to be tougher to score. Everything is just going to have to get better each game and we’re going to have to learn on the fly.”
Meantime, one player that could help dictate the series for the Pacers is Lance Stephenson. Last postseason, he sat the bench, and even there he hurt the team with his choking gesture towards James. This is the 22-year-olds first year on center stage. He’s no longer able to just peak his head around the curtain and contribute in spurts.
On Sunday, he finished with only seven points (going 2-of-10 from the floor), two assists and one rebound in 34 minutes. Conversely, he had 10 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals in the Pacers’ Game 2 win. Understandably, to some extent, his offensive game has suffered in this series because James has lined up against him. What the Pacers need is Stephenson to be active, locked-in and not too high on adrenaline. That’s when he – and the Pacers – are at their best. So what can be done?
“We’ve got to keep pushing him to grow and be in the right spots defensively and continue to pound on his assertiveness, not just with the basketball but without it as well,” Vogel said. “I don’t think he’s overwhelmed, he’s going against one of the best defenders in the world.”
With their attention completely on Game 4, the Pacers can look back to Game 3 where they saw first-hand how a championship-level team responds to a loss. That’s something they’ll try to match on Tuesday, knowing that they can’t afford to return to Miami in a 3-1 series hole.
“[We're] very confident,” added Vogel. “This is the first time this postseason we’ve trailed in a series [this postseason]. We saw what Miami looked like with their backs against the wall, come in here having lost home court advantage. Now it’s our turn to come out and show what we look like with out backs against the wall.”