MIAMI -- The first time was surprising enough. LeBron James windmilled a pass and David West raised his arms to deflect the ball and steal it like a pass-rushing defensive end with a backfield interception. Then it happened the second time.
James stood in his huddle afterward, hands on knees, looking down. He looked like he was the younger player dealing with his blunders.
"I made two mistakes tonight," said James after the Heat's 97-93 loss to the Pacers in Game 2 Friday had evened their Eastern finals at 1-1. "That hurt our team, and that hurt more than anything. Let my teammates down. They expect me to make plays down the stretch, and I had the ball with the opportunity to make a couple of plays. And I came up short. That burns."
The Pacers won this game at practice on Thursday, the day after coach Frank Vogel had absorbed newfound criticism and his young team had blown what could have been their best chance at stealing home court in the series. They talked about the 30 plays they left on the floor in their Game 1 loss in overtime, plays they should have made. Roy Hibbert talked about getting off to a stronger start, and point guard George Hill spoke of playing better overall.
The young Pacers went through stages of surprise, frustration and anger. It was not just about getting over a loss at the buzzer inflicted by the world's greatest player. They had two days to come up with their response, they were going to have one chance to get it right, and when that chance arrived they took the ball away from the star who had beaten them two nights earlier.
"That was a major point of emphasis in yesterday's film session after the difficult loss in Game 1," said Vogel after his Pacers replied with a series-tying win. "Just the guts to respond time and time and time again after they keep giving us their best punch. And we're going to have to withstand that this whole series."
How can they possibly overcome their huge deficit of postseason experience against the defending champions and their four likely Hall of Famers? This is where West comes in. The example he sets has transformed this team since he was signed as a free agent before last season. He is famous for taking responsibility, for accepting blame and considering how he can improve before he will tell any teammate what he needs to do. As West behaves, so behave his teammates.
And so Hibbert made good on his promise by helping the Pacers get off to a 9-for-10 start from the field that let them and their opposition know that they weren't discouraged by their performance in Game 1 so much as they were inspired by it. They had played without focus and yet believed they should have won anyway. "We felt like we controlled most of that first game," said associate head coach Brian Shaw. "It didn't set any doubt in any of us."
Hibbert had 29 points (on an efficient 15 shots) and 10 rebounds while creating early foul trouble for Chris Bosh (17 points, five rebounds) and Chris Andersen (seven points, three rebounds). "Every time we made a run, he was able to make some big shots," said James. "Especially in the fourth quarter."
Hill had gone 2-for-9 in Game 1, but two nights later the former Spur was converting 6-for-8 for his 18 points. The Heat pick-and-rolls that had confounded the Pacers in the opener -- in which the guard screened for James -- was clamped off two days later. When the officials threatened to ruin what was going to become a terrific game with an abundance of whistling in the second quarter, the Pacers absorbed the punishment.
"I got a tech for saying nothing to LeBron," said backup forward Sam Young to his coaches on his way out of the locker room.
One of the coaches spoke optimistically of having the call rescinded.
"I said nothing," said Young. "I just stared at him."
In the meantime, Shaw stood up for Young. He saw Young and James merely glaring at each other after a minor skirmish and responded to Young's technical foul by earning one on his own. "I promise I won't get any more techs," he said to Vogel in the locker room afterward with the slightest grin.
When Dwyane Wade (14 points) leaped to blindside Lance Stephenson with a hard and cheap elbow to the head at midcourt -- a play that went unnoticed by the referees but will surely be reviewed by the NBA before Game 3 -- the Pacers let it pass. It was actually an encouraging sign that they were creating the frustration rather than experiencing it for themselves. "We're not paying attention to any of that stuff," said Vogel. "We're going to get hit. It's going to be physical."
A young team might feel as if the assignment of winning four games against the defending champs is hopeless. They could assume that the calls are going to go James' way; but then they outscored Miami 26-18 at the foul line while earning 32 free throws, mainly through Hibbert and West, who were each 9-of-10 from the line. They could also behave like victims who believe that James is destined to beat them at the end of every game just as he did to steal Game 1 with two drives to the basket.
But then there was West, turning his good examples into reality. He raised his arms to almost blindly steal the first of James' passes in the final 43 seconds as Indiana clung to a two-point lead. The Pacers let the ensuing possession go to waste without attempting a shot. But when James drove to the post this time he found Hibbert waiting under the basket for him, unlike at the end of Game 1. James pulled up at the right block, saw Ray Allen at the elbow of the three-point line and threw another crosscourt pass. It was deflected again. By West. Again.
"The right way to describe David West's performance tonight and most of the time in Indiana is will," said Vogel. "He has incredible, incredible will to do whatever it takes to win a basketball game."
The defending champion, two-time gold medalist and four-time MVP had two chances to force overtime or win outright. But now the Pacers leave here with home-court advantage because those two possessions turned into winning opportunities for them instead of for James.
"It's near impossible," said Vogel of the chances of robbing him twice. "It's near impossible. I'm not really sure how we did it, other than just exhibiting great will."
The Pacers were in this same position last postseason on their way to taking a 2-1 lead before losing the final three games against the Heat. The result may turn out to be the same as last year. But the Pacers are acting like a different team this time -- less in awe and more resilient.
"I have another opportunity to get better in Game 3," said James. "And if I'm put in that position again, to be able to learn from it."
For this one night the roles were reversed. It was James who was walking off the court with something to learn.