Mar 26, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) reacts at the end of the game against the Miami Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers won 84-83. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports
The top two teams in the Eastern Conference, who both also happen to be NBA Championship contenders, faced off for the third time this season. The rivalry between the two time defending champion Miami Heat and “little brother” Indiana Pacers has quickly gotten more heated as homecourt advantage in the playoffs was on the line. Indiana has been the number one team in the Eastern Conference all season but Miami has aggressively narrowed the gap since the All Star Break, despite both teams having serious droughts in recent weeks. Why is homecourt advantage so important? This season, the home team has won every matchup in this series. It is expected that these two teams will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals and in the past two seasons, the Heat and Pacers series have gone six and seven games respectively. Combining those two aspects, it would surprise no one if their expected series went seven games again, and whoever controls homecourt in Game 7 has a distinct advantage.
That’s the big story. Of course, there were smaller subplots in focus during this game, such as Greg Oden’s play, since he was acquired specifically to deal with the size of Indiana’s frontcourt. Paul George, after starting the season red hot and beginning to enter the elite conversation, had fallen off recently and faced his toughest rival in LeBron James. Which Dwyane Wade shows up has been a flip of the coin all season. Meanwhile, LeBron James looked to close the MVP gap between him and Kevin Durant. All these substories and playoff homecourt advantage were on the line and this game did not disappoint.
Subplot #1 was on display early as Indiana had a bullseye on Greg Oden’s head. Roy Hibbert had his way in the paint, quickly amassing 13 first quarter points. He was able to get the ball in comfortable position and score in numerous ways – jump hooks, layups, and jumpers. Oden quickly picked up two fouls. This helped Indiana jump out to an early, as the Heat were unable to generate any offense or get out in transition, one of their strengths. The Heat displayed poor ball movement early, rushed shots, and culminated in a rarely seen moment in which LeBron James collided with a referee en route to a turnover. Chris Bosh’s ineffectiveness early, zero points in the first quarter, certainly didn’t help. However, the Heat were able to recover when their bigs began to set really solid screens, helping with dribble penetration.
Early in the second quarter, Dwyane Wade was heard in the huddle saying the team with the big lead in each of their last matchups against Indiana has lost the lead … which is exactly what happened to Indiana in the second quarter. Wade began to hit some big shots, while Indiana’s second unit was utterly unable to score. They were led by Lance Stephenson, who happens to be a starter. What really killed Indiana were free throws, both Miami’s surplus and their own lack of attempts. The Heat hit the bonus by six minutes left in the quarter and they camped out at the line for the rest of the second. The Pacers didn’t even attempt their second and third free throws until James sent Hibbert to the line at the 4:08 mark. The Pacers then used a run to take the first double digit lead of the game, for either side, with three and a half minutes to go in the half. Free throws kept Miami close and a Bosh three, Miami’s first of the game, off of a broken play at 1:45 narrowed the gap to one point. Miami then took a 45-44 lead into halftime, led by James’ 20 points, 10 of which came from the charity stripe. Hibbert led Indiana with 17.
The second half was much more physical and brought about a throwback playoff atmosphere. Miami’s interior D was dominant as Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen, and James applied much more pressure against Hibbert. Bosh and Andersen began sending shots like greeting cards as it seemed like Indiana couldn’t get anywhere near the rim. About halfway through the third, Wade and Stephenson were tangled up in an altercation in which a double technical was issued. The momentum shifted, and James started to hit threes … contested threes. Miami took the lead with just over two minutes left and finished the quarter up five. The momentum swung back in the Pacers’ favor after two Paul George dunks early in the fourth quarter. With just under nine minutes to play, James was called for an offensive flagrant foul in which he elbowed Hibbert in the jaw on a drive. Hibbert was woozy and had to leave the game before returning just under the seven minute mark. Miami was dealt a blow when Bosh left the game with five and a half minutes left after picking up his fifth foul. Seconds later, Stephenson pushed Indiana’s lead to four before picking up his second technical foul for taunting and getting ejected. Miami started to rally behind a Wade dunk, but Evan Turner’s late buckets and a David West three with the shot clock winding down halted Miami’s late run.
The most dramatic moments of the game came when Bosh hit a big three with 2.9 seconds to bring the Heat within one. George Hill, an 83% free throw shooter on the season, missed both of his ensuing free throw attempts. After a timeout, the Heat had one last chance to win the game on a very well drawn up play that left Bosh almost wide open, but his shot fell short.
Indiana picked up a crucial victory, made a statement heading into their final matchup against Miami on April 11, and look to secure homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
LeBron James: 38 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists
Paul George: 23 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals