INDIANAPOLIS -- An uncomfortable sense of familiarity was settling in for both Indiana and Miami as they approached Game 3 Sunday in the Eastern conference finals. The Heat found themselves in trouble again, channeling memories of the second round last year, when they surrendered homecourt advantage and then lost Game 3 here to trail by 2-1 in that series overall.
The Pacers' recollections are even less encouraging: Having outplayed the defending champs while splitting the first two games in Miami, they must now be reminded of how badly they squandered a similar advantage one year ago, when the Heat swept the last three games to finish off Indiana emphatically.
"It feels like deja vu a little bit," said Pacers point guard George Hill, who had 18 points in Indiana's Game 2 win and will be a crucial player for the remainder of the series. "We're in the same situation where we were last year, where we gave away Game 1 and came back and won Game 2. We tell everybody: Don't focus on that. Put that in the past. We know each game means a lot. We can't focus on Game 4 and 5. We have to focus on the next game."
The Heat enter this year's crisis in better shape than a year ago, when Chris Bosh was sidelined. They arrive here with Bosh, Ray Allen and altogether more confidence in themselves based on their championship experience. The midseason addition of backup center Chris Andersen (shooting 9 for 9 in this series and 31 for 37 in the playoffs overall) helped negate the size advantages of Indiana in the opener. But the stubborn Pacers had their way Friday by playing through 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert and 6-9 David West more than ever, as they combined to go 18 for 20 from the free-throw line while putting Miami's front line in early foul trouble.
Miami had similar problems in the paint last year, but they were able to change the dynamic by pressuring Hill and the other guards to make it harder for the Pacers to enter the ball into the post. This year, however, the Pacers have developed a secondary ballhandler in 6-9 small forward Paul George, who has provided 49 points and 11 assists in the two games.
"He's a third-year player," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel of George. "His third year in the NBA and he's going against the best player in the world in LeBron, and he's guarding LeBron the entire night, and carrying an offensive scoring load and just making confidence-building plays on the offensive end. He makes the extra pass always, finishes at the rim, and he's giving us a huge, huge lift."
Each team has lost because of a mistake by its most talented player down the stretch: George failed to cut off James' driving lane to the basket at the end of OT in Game 1, and James passed for two turnovers that were deflected by West in the final 43 seconds of Game 2.
"We're just two guys trying to do what it takes to help our team win," said James of his emerging duel with George. "He's really good. He's going to be a great one. His maturity and his game has definitely risen in just one year because of the opportunity Frank Vogel has given him. I love competition -- I try to step up to the challenge and try to be there for my team as well."
While James has grown used to these kinds of postseason pressures, George is making his playoff debut as a team leader. The demands on George are going to increase as the series progresses and Miami tightens its title-worthy defense. And yet the Heat are also feeling vulnerable, as exemplified by the elbow to Lance Stephenson's head that was thrown in frustration by Dwyane Wade down the stretch of Game 2.
Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Norris Cole are shooting a miserable 4 for 20 from the three-point line in the two games. "The outside shot isn't there for the guys who have been hitting all year for a couple of reasons," said James. "The rhythm -- we have to figure out a way to get our shooters into the game more instead of trying to get them the ball and make them make a tough one late in the game for Ray or from Rio or from Shane. We have to figure out how to get them some shots early in the game, where they feel like they're part of the offense. That has to come from me, come from D Wade, come from CB. We're the three guys that have the ball in our hands a lot. Try to get our shooters in the game early. Having them a part of the flow offensively, they'll feel like they're part of the offense -- they'll be there late for us."
As much as Indiana controlled the play through the two games in Miami, Game 3 is going to be crucial for the Pacers. For the benefit of the doubt still resides with the champions. Indiana needs to win this game in order to maintain pressure on Miami.