INDIANAPOLIS -- The Heat appreciate the occasional threat because it focuses their attention, but this might be pushing it too far. A series-equalizing 99-92 loss in Game 4 Tuesday has turned this Eastern finals into a best-of-three, and both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh appear to be hurting as they return home for a crucial Game 5.
Neither was especially intimidating after LeBron James (game-highs of 24 points and three blocks with five assists) fouled out with 56 seconds left while moving to set a screen in front of the suddenly dynamic Lance Stephenson. It was the second time in 128 career postseason games that he had been disqualified, and after he took the long walk across the court like a pitcher jeered while leaving the visitor's mound, his teammates didn't know what to do without him. Trailing by a manageable 96-92, they were able to force a turnover from Paul George with 36.7 remaining, but then Wade replied in kind by traveling at the three-point line.
Bosh was 1 for 6 (seven points, three rebounds in 30 minutes overall) when he wasn't in the locker room being treated for a right ankle injured while trying to prevent 285-pound Roy Hibbert from deepening his position in the paint; his efforts were in vain as Hibbert dominated with 23 points (10 for 16) and 12 rebounds while making the key play of the game. "I'm fine,'' said Bosh, who returned for the final 8:42 and promised to play Thursday. Wade, who continues to deal with a troublesome knee, went 5 for 15 for his 16 points. Afterward somebody asked him whether he needed to give his team more production. "The whole team got to do more," he said.
The Heat were within reach of sweeping both games here to seize a 3-1 lead and shut this series down -- even after they'd invited the Pacers to regain confidence with a 5-for-5 start and a crowd-inciting 11-0 lead. Indiana controlled the scoreboard for much of the night but was never in control. A slow-boiling run enabled the Heat to close within 48-47 at halftime, and a trio of defensive stands -- including an unwise save out of bounds by George that turned into an outlet pass for Mario Chalmers (20 points) -- launched Miami to a six-point lead midway through the third. And then a majestic block by James threatened to change the game once more near the end of the quarter.
George Hill (19 points and six assists) was breaking away when he appeared to slow down to time his layup. James was timing it as well, and he appeared like a whale launching out of the water to block the shot cleanly off Hill's right shoulder. In the ensuing scrum for the loose ball, George picked up his fourth foul and was headed back to the bench even as Pacers coach Frank Vogel was earning a technical foul for complaining.
Throughout this wild game the Pacers had to absorb other threatening events -- they trailed by a basket entering the final five minutes -- but each time they surprised the Heat, and often the one doing the surprising was Hibbert or Lance Stephenson (20 points, five rebounds). It should be noted that David West (14 points, 12 rebounds) was an instigator as well with his physical play against James, whose foul problems grew when the injury to Bosh and the unusual ineffectiveness of Chris Andersen forced him to play out of position. With two seconds to go in the third quarter James threw an unnecessary elbow at West for his fourth personal, which left enough time for Hill to inbound a long crosscourt pass to Stephenson for a catch-and-shoot three from the far corner that he delivered with a higher arc over the closeout of Wade to give Indiana a 77-70 lead entering the fourth.
"When he's bad, we typically struggle," said Vogel of Stephenson, his 22-year-old shooting guard. "But when he's good, we're pretty darn good."
They needed him desperately because foul trouble helped limit George to 12 points and five turnovers in 33 disappointing minutes. After the game Vogel credited Stephenson with asking to guard James in George's absence; later Vogel tried to pull back. "Let's not make a bigger story than that is," he said, because the last thing Stephenson needs entering Game 5 at Miami is to feel more anxious.
Down the stretch he looked occasionally frantic, shake-and-bake dribbling to waste away one possession -- and then next time down channeling his nerves to knock down a pull-up jumper that evened things at 89-89 with 3:28 left. During the ensuing timeout Vogel appeared to be telling Stephenson to slow down. And yet with 61 seconds remaining there he was again with a leaning runner, bouncing around the rim before dropping to give Indiana its 96-92 lead. Moments later Stephenson was chasing Wade when James tried to screen him illegally, which was the last this game saw of him.
The biggest play of all was a wild three-pointer Stephenson never should have attempted with 90 seconds to go. It clanged wide left to West, setting up Hibbert for a jump hook that he was unable to finish over Bosh. The defensive rebound was within reach of the 6-2 Chalmers, who tapped the ball out -- to Hibbert. He bulled in for a layup and a complementary free throw to give Indiana a 94-89 advantage after Miami had come up with two big defensive stops. "We've got to do a better job as guards of coming down, trying to dig and make him see extra bodies," said Wade of Hibbert. "And when they do miss, we got to get the rebounds."
The Heat were outscored 50-32 in the paint and 19-12 on second chances. Indiana held a 49-30 advantage on the boards and shot 50 percent from the field. 'We had three or four very good, committed defensive possessions all the way ... to the last five seconds of the clock, and we couldn't finish it for whatever reason," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "We just couldn't finish our defense."
Last year in this round the big threat to Miami was Rondo, a 6-1 point guard who put Miami in a 3-2 hole. This year it's Hibbert, the 7-2 center whose confidence has been swelling in this series. After James received enormous credit for posting up in Game 3, Hibbert was showing earlier to dissuade him from similar effectiveness. When George airballed a three hard off the glass, Hibbert put it back to put his team in front 91-89 for good. As ugly as his team has looked at times, Hibbert has been there to clean up the messes.
After Allen turned a loose ball picked up around his ankles into a falling-away three from the corner to give his team a three-point lead, the Heat were able to score only three more points over the final 5:14. "I thought we got some great looks," said James. "C.B. had a great look by their bench, a three?pointer. I thought D?Wade was going to get a good look on my offensive foul (when James DQ'd). You give some credit to them for sure, for holding us to only three points, but some of the shots that we had just didn't go down."
So now Miami leaves here with homecourt advantage reclaimed and an understanding that it is far more comfortable with the upcoming pressures than the young Pacers. After all, this loss was only the Heat's fifth in the last 52 games. However, two of the last three have come against the Pacers and Hibbert, who isn't likely to shrink between now and Thursday night.