Not even the Heat were happy with the quality of play in their dramatic opening win in the Eastern finals. The goal for Game 2 Friday will be to maintain the same result while taking greater pride in the journey.
"We have to push to get to another level," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra insisted. "We're trying to push to another level that we think we can get to and we'll need to in this series."
The Heat spent this season threatening the longest winning streak of all time, running away with the best record in the league and then sweeping the Bucks in the opening round without concern. In recent weeks, however, they have not fulfilled their own high expectations and it's beginning to concern Spoelstra after watching them struggle against the depleted Bulls in the previous round. Will the 103-102 OT loss demoralize the Pacers -- or will it inspire them? Spoelstra wants to knock the hope out of them.
"We have to continue to push forward and evolve," he said. "We improved a little bit in the last series, but we're still pushing for the next level or two that we feel we can get to. We haven't gotten there yet, and we're going to need to."
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The opener was blasé for the first three quarters because neither team appeared to be in the mood to punish the other. These are two of the NBA's most defensively demanding teams and yet David West was able to accrue 18 points by halftime, while Paul George went for 25 in the second half and overtime.
"Defensively, the activity level was there. The discipline and the focus is not where it needed to be," Spoelstra said. "Offensively we got to our game, but we were throwing the ball all over the building. A lot of it was just a lack of fundamentals or concentration. We can take care of the ball and be more efficient than we were."
Spoelstra was quick to point out the Pacers were probably experiencing the same frustrations. Both teams want to throw the first punch. Both want to make the opponent feel miserable. "We didn't play a great basketball game," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. "We played a good basketball game, but I believe that we'll do much better in keeping them out of the paint, which we didn't do a good job of [Wednesday] night."
The failure of the bigger Pacers to protect the paint -- Miami went 30-for-44 inside while outscoring Indiana 60-to-48 in the lane -- probably helped guide Vogel's controversial decision to keep 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert on the bench for the final two defensive plays of overtime, each of which ended with scoring drives by LeBron James . It wasn't as if Hibbert had shut down the Heat during less crucial possessions throughout the game. With 2:27 left in OT, Dwyane Wade tied the score by driving straight at Hibbert and finishing a layup around him.
The real key to the losing play was George's failure to stay between James and the basket on an inbound with 2.2 seconds left and a one-point Indiana lead to protect. George himself was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Indiana's favored defender against the world's best player. Had he forced James to settle for a jumper -- which was George's priority, by his own admission -- then the issue of Hibbert's presence would have been moot. "I made a bonehead mistake of pressuring up on LeBron," George said.
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Hibbert reiterated he will speak up if he believes he should be on the court going forward. "Me growing as a player, I need to do that more and have a bigger voice," he said. "But coach is willing to listen. Do it in a respectful way and not cause a commotion. I do need to grow as a player and be able to do that."
It will be fascinating to see whether Vogel changes direction and deploys Hibbert to protect the rim if the score is tight at the end of Game 2.
"You always evaluate your decisions and what you would do next time," Vogel said. "All I will say is it was a sound plan. When you have five three?point shooters on the court, to have a switching lineup out there with five guys that are great ball containers and ask your team to try to force the jumpshot, that's a sound plan."
What will he do next time?
"Stay tuned," Vogel said.