By Ben Golliver
The Pacers handily defeated the Heat 87-77 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday night, improving to 21-14 on the season.
• It doesn't require any stretching whatsoever to term this the "best win" of Indiana's season. For one, there simply hasn't been much quality competition: the Pacers entered Tuesday ranked No. 30 out of 30 when it comes to opponent's average winning percentage. For two, only three teams in the league have a better winning percentage than the Heat -- the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs -- and the Pacers are a combined 0-3 against the trio (two losses to San Antonio and one to Oklahoma City with a 13.3 average margin of defeat).
Not playing anyone, relatively speaking, is one issue, but how Indiana has fared to date against quality competition is another. Run down a list of Indiana's 20 wins prior to beating the Heat and it's cupcake city: just four of Indiana's 20 wins entering Tuesday came against teams currently in the playoff picture. Eight of the 16 wins against non-playoff teams came against teams that are currently in their division's basement: Toronto, Washington (twice), New Orleans (twice), Cleveland (twice) and Phoenix. Indiana's losses made their wins look even more cream puffy by contrast. Eleven of Indiana's 14 losses came to teams currently projected to make the playoffs. Stacking wins against weaker teams and piling up losses to quality competition is a good recipe to hover around .500.
After making the playoffs last season, the Pacers eye bigger prizes than merely finishing .500, even after Danny Granger was lost to a knee injury earlier this season. Paul George's ascending star and the decision to offer coach Frank Vogel a new contract represent signs of hope for the future and trust in the current process, respectively. After beating the Heat, the Pacers currently sit atop the Central Division, but their clean, sometimes dominant, performance on Tuesday night gave Indiana something more than just a half-game edge over the Bulls. Indiana not only beat the Heat, the team that sent them packing in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals, they did it gimmick-free. Indiana won the rebounding battle by 19, benefited from a 29-point, 11-rebound effort from George and held the Heat, the NBA's No. 3 team in offensive efficiency, to just 41.2 percent shooting as a team. The Pacers entered Tuesday seeking confirmation of their standing among the East's best teams; they left with what would be called a signature win in college football parlance.
• Part of the glow from this victory for Indiana comes from the bitter taste left by last year's chippy playoffs series loss. Not only did Indiana watch helpless as the Heat flipped a switch to win three straight games after trailing two games to one, they had to watch it unfold after they got a little bit ahead of themselves in the trash talking and gamesmanship categories. Lance Stephenson's "choking" sign to LeBron James was the most memorable single scene, but the Pacers and Heat went back and forth on a series of hard fouls that helped James and Dwyane Wade enter "takeover" mode.
Before Tuesday's game, the Palm Beach Post reported that James had heard some of Indiana's saltiness after the series.
“But they’ve been talking a lot,” James said. “I read a lot of clips that they’ve had before the season that said they were better than us, and they should have beat us, so we’ll be ready.”
Does James ever find that amusing? “Well, I mean, I’m not one to talk much,” James said. “I just do it on the court. I let my game do the talking. But it is amusing, you see teams talk, and they didn’t beat you.”
Carryover effects could be seen on Tuesday. Stephenson, a productive starter now and not an end of the bench reserve, finished with 13 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals, taking every available opportunity to attack the hoop. Wade finished with 30 points on nine-for-16 shooting, the most points he's had since a Dec. 1 win over the Nets, and 23 of those points came in a first half that saw him unveil more of his offensive arsenal than we've seen in awhile.
Even in the moments where the intensity picked up, Indiana kept its collective wits and kept a stranglehold on the game. It surely helped that none of Miami's bench players showed up and Chris Bosh never made much of an impact, but the Pacers' poise and their commitment to rebounding on both ends prevented a re-run of the caving that defined last May's playoff series.
• It was George who had the most to prove and who proved the most. In last year's playoffs against the Heat, George averaged just 10.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 36.5 percent from the field. He never hit more than four shots in a game during the series and never scored more than 13 points. In May, he was still untapped potential and a few notches below his current standing near the very top of the Pacers' Granger-free offensive totem pole.
George has been a different player, a blooming potential All-Star, this season and he played that part with confidence on Tuesday. He launched a career-high 27 shot attempts without unnecessarily disrupting Indiana's overall offensive rhythm and his 22 second-half points pushed Indiana to a lead and then kept Miami at bay. He trusted both his handle in traffic and his range. Praised recently by Vogel as one of the league's best perimeter defensive players, George did well against James, at least as well as can be expected. The 2012 MVP attempted to mount a few late-game flourishes only to have George hold them off with his own scoring on the other end.
"I was just coming out here to give him a tough time," George said of James during a televised post-game interview. "This was a chance for me to see where I'm at offensively and defensively. Last year I struggled against these guys. I wanted to be aggressive, attack them, luckily my shots were going down. I was trying to pick and choose my shots. Fortunately they went down. It feels good." Indeed, it was a personal litmus test game for George just as it was needed confirmation for the Pacers. Vogel told the Indianapolis Star last week that his small forward deserves All-Star consideration and this game definitely goes to the top of George's resume, right alongside his Eastern Conference Player of the Month award for December. Here, on both ends, George made the case that he should be in the discussion for the title "third-best small forward in the East" behind perennial All-Star starters, James and Carmelo Anthony. The Celtics' Paul Pierce and the Bulls' Luol Deng have been the incumbents in that discussion but George sure appears to be rapidly gaining ground on the veterans.