Pacers wake up from playoff slump, pound Heat in Game 1 of ECF
INDIANAPOLIS -- It's been almost a month since the alarm first sounded in Indy.
The persistent, sometimes deafening, buzzing has been the soundtrack to the Pacers' lethargic postseason run. With each letdown loss, the noise has only grown louder, beckoning Indiana to wake up. But the indifferent Pacers have continued to hit the snooze button, electing to roll over and sleepwalk through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
On Sunday, Indiana finally got out of bed.
Some days, you don't need the alarm. Some days are filled with so much anticipation, so much excitement and so much promise you find yourself wide-eyed staring at the alarm before the buzzer can even sound.
Game 1 was one of those days for the Pacers. Indiana had been looking forward to this opportunity ever since it was eliminated in Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference final. A shot at redemption had finally arrived -- and the Pacers weren't going to oversleep through this one.
The Pacers had lost Games 1 to the Hawks and Wizards in the previous two rounds, but there would be no opening disappointment at home this time around. Indiana jumped out to a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sustained a level of intensity that never waned Sunday, bum-rushing the Heat for a 107-96 victory.
Let's get the obvious question out of the way. Where has this Indiana Pacers team been the last four weeks?
Apparently in hibernation, saving its energy and focus for a long-awaited rematch with the Heat. No one in Indiana's locker room would ever admit this, but the Pacers' season up to this point had pretty much been a 95-game tuneup.
All along, the focus has been on the Heat. All along, the focus has been on avenging last year's conference final defeat and advancing to the team's first NBA Finals since 2000.
There was a familiar lethargic look on the floor of Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday. Only this time, it wasn't the team dressed in blue and gold that looked absent-minded.
After suffering just one loss in the first two rounds, the Heat got a heaping helping of humility in Game 1 of the third, allowing the Pacers to score their most points in regulation in almost three months.
"That's probably us at our worst defensively," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "You have to give them credit. They played well and we never got into a rhythm where we couldn't defend without fouling."
The fouls were just one of the issues. Indiana shot 37 free throws to Miami's 15, taking advantage of a defense that was caught out of position all too often. There were even defensive lapses from LeBron James, who could be seen mistakenly gambling and overhedging on one Indiana basket after another.
"Our pick-and-roll coverage had a lot of breakdowns, including myself," James said after the game. "I broke down a few times defensively, and we allowed them to get into the paint ... And that's what resulted in us losing."
The maestro of Indiana's pick-and-roll onslaught was Lance Stephenson, who vowed to run Dwyane Wade ragged in this series and delivered as promised. Miami, aware of Stephenson's intentions, switched Wade off Stephenson in the second half, but the adjustment was for naught. With his emotions in check and his skills on full display, Stephenson toyed with the Heat, picking them apart for an efficient 17 points (8-of-12 shooting) and eight assists.
It was Stephenson at his best -- and it was no coincidence it came against Wade.
"I would hope so," Wade said of his rival's inspired Game 1 effort. "That would mean I've done something right with my career."
Wade, to his credit, finished with 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting, keeping Miami in the game while everyone not named LeBron struggled. But Wade had no answer for Stephenson defensively, and his teammates didn't have much luck with their assignments either.
Indiana dominated Miami inside, outrebounding the Heat 38-29 and seeing Roy Hibbert (19 points, nine rebounds) and David West (19 points, seven rebounds) have their way with Miami's undersized frontline. Spoelstra elected to start Shane Battier in Game 1 and trot out a starting lineup which had played just three minutes combined in last season's Eastern Conference final.
Maybe there was a reason they only played three minutes.
For most of Sunday, Miami simply looked overmatched, a precarious position for the two-time defending champions to be in against a team that has been skewered for weeks. Indiana put forth its most balanced effort of the postseason, seeing all five starters score at least 15 points and the team shoot 51.5 percent from the field and 8-of-19 from deep.
Two weeks ago, we (semi-)joked the Pacers benefitted from The Curse of Andrew Bynum being lifted. Just hours after parting with the oft-injured center, Indiana's starting (and much-maligned) center exploded for 28 points after registering goose eggs in three of his previous four games.
On Sunday, Indiana was without its other big midseason addition, Evan Turner (strep throat), and the results were just as impressive, resulting in the team's most complete game in months.
Is it a coincidence the Pacers have played their best basketball when liberated of the additions-turned-distractions? Or is there something to it? Indiana is 3-0 this postseason when Turner doesn't play. And if that sample size isn't large enough for you, the Pacers are 45-13 this season without Turner and 20-18 with him. Seems like more than just a coincidence.
Vogel said he expects Turner back for Game 2 and the Pacers said they expect the two-time defending champions to be back to their dominant selves on Tuesday as well.
There were two uncharacteristic performances in Game 1. One came from the Pacers, who flourished after floundering for weeks. The other from the Heat, who showed their first real signs of vulnerability after looking impenetrable for the first two rounds.
As tempting as it might be to read too much into one game, remember this is a matchup which went seven games last season and had split its last 14 games coming into Sunday.
The Eastern Conference finals are just getting under way. On Tuesday, we'll see how the Heat respond to their first dose of adversity in their quest for a three-peat. After all, the Heat have won seven games in a row after falling behind in a playoff series. In the Big Three era, Miami has lost Game 1 four times and gone on to win all four series by going a combined 16-3 in subsequent games.
"We know we're playing against the champions," Paul George said. "The two-time defending champions. They're going to come out and make adjustments. It's not going to be nowhere close to Game 1 and we expect that."
It took Indiana four weeks to wake up. The Heat have only 48 hours to do the same.