MIAMI -- Will the pressures of Game 5 change everything?
Will Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Lance Stephenson recede as they move in on their dream of upsetting the defending champion Heat on their homecourt Thursday? Will the big moment bring out improved production from Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen, all of whom have disappointed in the Eastern finals? Or will the trends of this 2-2 series carry on as the pressure grows?
"We're confident," said Indiana coach Frank Vogel, "but we know we have to be great to beat this basketball team. This team is unbelievable -- how they execute, how they share the basketball, how they space you out, how they guard. It's just as complete an opponent as we'll ever face. But we are confident that we can rise to the challenge. When we're at our best we know we can compete with them, and we're going to have to play great basketball to win Game 5."
Game 5 is usually the telling game of any tight NBA series; the team that takes the 3-2 lead goes onto advance more than 80 percent of the time. Both teams have reason to be confident. The Heat alone can believe they should have swept all four games, having won the only decisive outcome (their 114-96 blowout in Game 3 at Indianapolis when they shot 62.8 percent with 1 turnover in their runaway opening half) while suffering two tight losses in the final minute. LeBron James (28 points, 7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.8 blocks) has been the best player on the floor.
But the Pacers have reason to believe they should be up 3-1, having surrendered a lead with 2.2 seconds remaining in OT of the opener here when James beat the buzzer with a winning layup. Apart from Game 3, the Pacers have been able to control the backboard and scoreboard more often than not, which is the traditional way to win in the playoffs, while playing through their big frontline of Hibbert, David West and George.
Having to deal with James is a given; he has been a point of obsession for opponents for many years now. The new variable is Hibbert, the 26-year-old center who made his All-Star debut last season and struggled for much of this year after receiving a four-year, $58 million contract. He's averaged 22.8 points and 12 rebounds in this series, while his defenders have looked small and often incapable of stopping him from cleaning up around the basket.
"We have to overcome it," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra after watching Hibbert continue to earn second chances on the offensive glass in the Pacers' Game 4 win Tuesday. "We have to do it better -- more of a collective commitment to finish our defense. We had three or four very good committed defensive possessions all the way to the contest, to the last five seconds of the clock, and we couldn't finish it for whatever reason."
The reason? The Pacers are big at every position, including small forward (George is 6-9) and shooting guard (Stephenson is 6-6). They've averaged 8 more rebounds per game than Miami.
"It's going to take a collective effort when you have bigs like that, to sometimes double?team rebounds," said Spoelstra. "Long rebounds -- we have to get all of those. They got all the loose balls and long rebounds in that fourth quarter [of Game 4]."
When Spoelstra speaks of each team seeking to play to its identity, he actually creates hope for the Pacers. Their identity is to play hard. If they react to the pressure of the moment Thursday by playing all-out, then they should give themselves a chance to defend, control the boards and win the most important game of the series.
While the Pacers have been getting excellent production from the starters, with their three big men each averaging at least 18.5 points and their guards filling in with double-figures, the Heat enter Game 5 believing they have upside. Wade (16.8) and Bosh (14) are scoring below their regular-season averages, while Allen is shooting 28.1 percent from the field on only eight attempts per game. Shane Battier is 2-for-13 from the three-point line. Any one of them could break out and make a telling difference in the second half.
Everyone who plays for Miami (apart from Chris Andersen, who has yet to miss a shot in the series) will be able to draw from the experience of having made big plays that contributed to a championship. None of the Pacers (apart from Ian Mahinmi, a backup with the 2010 champion Mavericks) will be able to draw on that strength. This is all new for them.
History says that experience is crucial in a game like this. History also says that productive size and rebounding are hard to beat. History, in short, is up for grabs.