Smothering Heat defense ignites fast breaks, blowout of Pacers
In a game that will be remembered mostly for three flagrant fouls, including one blatant cheap shot by Miami deep reserve Dexter Pittman, the Heat reclaimed control of this chippy conference semifinal behind a swarming defense that produced the sort of chaos fast-break points on which Miami thrives.
Dwyane Wade and LeBron James combined for 58 points, the Heat shot 61 percent from the floor -- the best mark for any playoff team since the Orlando Magic in Game 3 of the 2009 Finals -- and Miami piled up a 22-2 edge in fast-break points during a 115-83 blitzkrieg of the Pacers. Miami now leads the series 3-2 with a chance to close it out Thursday in Indiana.
But first, the teams must sort out the losses suffered tonight. Udonis Haslem, the Heat's only reliable two-way big man in the absence of Chris Bosh, might face a suspension after whacking Tyler Hansbrough in the neck and shoulder area on a second-quarter flagrant. The referees should have ejected Haslem, but settled on the less severe flagrant-one ruling. The NBA has an interesting call to make amid rising concern over head injuries. Haslem missed connecting flush with Hansbrough's face, but he didn't miss by much, and the play was dangerous -- dripping with intent after a Hansbrough flagrant foul on Wade earlier in the game.
The league has no choice but to suspend Pittman for playing the role of Miami's designated goon with a late-game forearm to the neck of Lance Stephenson. This was clearly planned "punishment" for Stephenson making the admittedly childish "choke" gesture at LeBron James in Game 3 as James attempted a foul shot.
Thankfully, Pittman will have no impact on this series either way.
Things are a bit dicier on the Pacers' side, where both Danny Granger (ankle) and David West (knee sprain) left during the second half with injuries. The Pacers need to be at full strength to win this series; Granger's absence means more time at small forward for the inconsistent Paul George and more time, period, for Dahntay Jones. West has probably been Indiana's best all-around player since midseason, and the drop-off from the West/Roy Hibbert pairing to their primary backups -- Hansbrough and Lou Amundson -- has been a giant chasm all season.
Back to the game: Things began to unravel for Indiana late in the second quarter, and if one play sums up the game, it happened with about 30 seconds left in the first half. George Hill and West ran a pick-and-roll on the left side of the floor, and as Miami generally likes to do, the Heat had West's defender (Shane Battier, providing gritty defense and nine very big first-quarter points) trap Hill on the perimeter. West rolled into open space on the left wing, and Hill threaded a bounce pass his way. West caught the pass and found himself in the moment Indiana must win more often than not in order to take this series: He turned to survey a scrambling, outnumbered defense, with three Miami players trying to guard four Pacers.
And as he turned to face the basket, this is what West saw: Joel Anthony sprinting right at him while Dwyane Wade crashed into the paint to take Anthony's man (Roy Hibbert). If West even had time to look to Leandro Barbosa and Jones behind the three-point line, he'd have seen James playing free safety between them, ready to pounce on any soft skip pass.
West, paralyzed, held the ball as Battier recovered to trap him along with Anthony. West then threw a meek pass (almost rolled it really) to Barbosa, leading to an easy steal for James and a highlight dunk that put Miami up 47-40.
That was really the story of the game, on both sides. Miami's half-court offense wasn't humming with the backdoor cuts and general synergy Wade and James displayed in a landmark Game 4 performance, but on nights like this Miami can win despite some stagnancy in the half-court. The Pacers just weren't crisp enough to figure out Miami's aggressive defense. It's a defense that leaves gaps as Miami players trap and scoot around the court, but the Heat close those gaps more quickly than any other team. To beat Miami, an opponent has to make quick and accurate reads, throw precise passes and make a fair number shots. Waiting a beat can be fatal, and Indiana was caught too often waiting that extra beat.
The Heat took advantage with steals, and, just as important, rebounds off bad Indiana misses. Mario Chalmers somehow snagged 11 rebounds, and he was diligent about turning and pushing -- most memorably on a highlight play with 7:50 left in the third quarter, when Chalmers tossed a long outlet to James, who caught it with one hand while falling out of bounds on the left sideline, and in one motion, threw a laser to Wade for a streaking dunk to put Miami up 16.
James and Wade were also opportunistic in pushing off rebounds, leading to a bundle of points in transition and delayed transition. Three of Battier's crucial three-pointers came when he trailed fast breaks, taking advantage of an unsettled Indiana defense. Those threes kept Miami ahead early, when Indiana was staying in the game behind some hot early outside shooting from Granger and others. The Pacers made five of their first seven threes; they finished 6-of-21 from deep, and they could not make up for their poor shooting by getting to the line (just 23 attempts) or grabbing offensive rebounds (just 13 despite a whopping 59 misses, and six of those boards came in the fourth quarter, when the game was out of hand). Indiana has excelled all season at getting to the stripe and snagging offensive rebounds, and they need to hit on at least one of those areas in order to win games against a very good opponent.
They'll also likely need more from West, who is 8-of-21 with just 10 rebounds over the last two games and just hasn't been able to figure out a way to consistently abuse Battier down low. Hibbert grabbed 12 rebounds and did his usual good work protecting the paint, but the Pacers need more than eight points from him, especially given the general inconsistency of their wing players. Miami bothered Hibbert tonight by having Anthony front him in the post, and as the Heat's lead ballooned, Miami perimeter defenders got bolder in leaving their men to lurk just behind Hibbert on the baseline, deterring potential lob passes. Hibbert struggled on the pick-and-roll and with his finishing at the rim; Indiana overall shot a dreadful 10-of-30 from the lower half of the painted area, according to NBA.com, and that just won't do against a Miami team primed to turn misses into easy points.
This is one of those nights when the Heat just look unbeatable, even without Bosh. It won't always be quite this easy. The Pacers might make faster, crisper decisions with the ball in Game 6, and they'll almost certainly make more shots. The Heat's defense will always create a certain amount of chaos, but the Pacers, if they are healthy and primed, can force Miami to win this series in the half-court. We'll see if they can do it on Thursday.