INDIANAPOLIS -- All season long, Frank Vogel has hammered home a message, one simple, easy to understand: We're good.
Not two years from now, when this crop of 20somethings has a little more seasoning. Today, now.
When Miami pulverized the Pacers twice early in the season? Bleep it, we're good.
When third-seeded Indiana entered the playoffs behind the Heat and Bulls in the standings and the Celtics and Knicks in the minds of many? We're good.
When talking heads predicted Miami would roll through Indiana in the second round? We're good.
For some, it was easy to believe. George Hill went to the playoffs his first three seasons with San Antonio; David West played in a conference semifinal with New Orleans. But for Darren Collison and Tyler Hansbrough, for Roy Hibbert and Paul George, they needed to hear it. You're heavyweights, you're the big dogs, Vogel told them. And they needed to believe.
Guess what? They do.
There was a cool, confident team on the Bankers Life Field House floor in their 94-75 Game 3 rout of the Heat on Thursday, and it wasn't the defending conference champs. After mucking it up with Miami in the first half, Indiana pulled away with a 51-32 second-half surge that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called "a good old-fashioned butt-kicking." The Pacers did it their way, controlling the defensive glass (36-25), pounding the ball into the post and raining down three-pointers at a scorching clip (57.1 percent). The defense contained LeBron James (22 points) and shut down Dwyane Wade (five). The Pacers played their game, and they were good.
Up 2-1, this is Indiana's series to lose now. Chris Bosh is gone, and the Heat have begun to come unspooled. They got nothing from Wade, who looked disconnected from the game, right up until he got into it with Spoelstra during a timeout in the third quarter. Spoelstra downplayed the incident ("Anyone who [has not] been a coach or a player has no idea of how often those things happen") but hinted that, perhaps, there was something Wade was dealing with.
"He will never make excuses and we won't do that as well," Spoelstra said. "At this point in the season, no one is 100 percent."
Miami is adrift, making up lineups (Dexter Pittman, who played 301 minutes in the regular season, got the start at center in Game 2) and offense on the fly. Missed jumpers, missed runners, missed layups. Miss after miss after miss, and the Heat kept looking over at the bench, as if Spoelstra wasn't just supposed to design the play, but shoot the ball for them. James and Wade are trying to will the team to wins ("You can see it in their eyes," said Hibbert) but against a confident and complete opponent like Indiana, that strategy just isn't going to get it done.
The Heat have two days to make adjustments, but poking holes into Indiana's game plan won't be easy. The Pacers aren't reinventing the wheel. They have an elite defender in Paul George to blanket Wade and waves of others to throw at James. When LeBron slides over to the power forward spot, West made sure he feels it, banging James with elbows to the back. When the Heat match Shane Battier with West, he camps out in the paint and simply waits for spots to outmuscle him. Hibbert lingers nearby, waiting for second-chance opportunities, waiting to utilize his 7-foot-2 frame against a team with no option for him. Miami could counter with more Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf, but it would be adding two non-scorers to an offense already struggling to put up points.
"We will not back down or take anything from any team," West said. "We are not going to be pushed around."
And there is this: Indiana can still play better. Hibbert put up a monster stat line in Game 3 (19 points, 18 rebounds, five blocks), but feeding him in the post has become a blooper reel. Miami fronts everyone, and its speed on the weak side with James and Wade disrupts virtually every entry pass. Hibbert has had a few moments, but his ability to control the glass, to make Miami a "one-and-done team" has been his biggest contribution.
"I've embraced that role," Hibbert said. "I let the offense come to me and try to be an anchor of the paint and make things difficult for the other team."
Miami is being pushed to the brink by a Pacers team that believes this is how it was supposed to play out. When Vogel offered them the day off on Friday, West, speaking for the team, turned it down. We're all coming in for a film session, West said. We've got a good thing going. Let's keep it up.
Yes, the Pacers are good. Finally, it seems, they know it.