At the end of the first three quarters, the Indiana Pacers had effectively coughed up a lung in each quarters' waning seconds, the Miami Heat outscoring the blue and gold 15-3 while forcing 4 turnovers in the last minute. Indiana's two point lead heading into the final quarter was a grain of salt from what remained when the Pacers led by 13 as the first half wound down. The Pacers overcame a media story about how Game 1 would be too devastating for them to rebound from out of the gate, but it was the second half where the game was made, it was the fourth quarter where the Pacers showed just how far they have come in such a short amount of time.
The Pacers, having struggled to close the first three quarters, came up huge, George Hill exorcising his poor free throw start with four ice cold free throws, while David West forced two LeBron James turnovers. A two point Heat lead with under four minutes to go was closed out on an 8-2 run. The Pacers came through when it mattered most to win one of, if not the biggest game in this current team's growth. But it wasn't just the Pacers making plays at the end. It was a setup from a series of events that showcased the emerging Paul George on the league's second biggest stage, matching James blow for blow in the second half.
The third quarter was where George's arrival was made most imminent, scoring nine of his 22 points in the quarter, throwing getting a lob dunk from Lance Stephenson and throwing down on Chris Andersen for a huge three point play. George had some early foul issues, but quickly played through them to go pound for pound with an electric LeBron James. George's emergence this season has been well documented, but he truly took another step tonight, going on the road, scoring 22 on 9-16 shooting, and gaining enough respect from James that James had to acknowledge his play at the end of the third quarter.
With George coming to play and playing like one of the top players in the league (at just 23, remember!), it gives the Pacers the one weapon they lacked in last year's postseason run. It gave them someone who could go toe to toe with the best player in the league when the best player in the league is at his absolute best. Following his Game 1 winner, James was the Miami Heat tonight, scoring a game high 36 on 14-20 shooting, stuffing Roy Hibbert who was in the midst of his own career game, and relishing in his battle with George in the second half.
This postseason path has been perfect for George to get where he was in tonight's game. From taking it to Kyle Korver and learning how to guard a big, physical Josh Smith to challenging lethal, albeit inefficient scorers like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, George is one defensive lapse at the end of Game 1 away from playing as well as you could possibly hope to play against the best player in his prime, on both sides of the floor. If you are a Pacers fan and weren't in awe at George's facial dunk on Andersen, fresh off of blowing past James, check your pulse. The Pacers are only growing stronger as this postseason marches on and Paul George is the reason why.
It's pretty remarkable the impact George had on the game where the team's leading scorer and rebounder (and Game 1 talking point), Roy HIbbert takes a backseat with another ultra effective night, landing a 29 & 10 double double. Hibbert was 10-15 from the floor, and a potent 9-10 from the line. If George's growing ability to at least limit James becomes the series' x-factor, it's Hibbert's play that needs to be Indiana's backbone. Not only can no one on Miami match up against Hibbert, Hibbert himself is finally playing like he can exploit it. Hibbert came up with six offensive boards, helping create eight points off of those rebounds.
Hibbert's partner up front, David West, wasn't the automatic West from the floor, shooting just 2-9 from the floor, but as opposed to Game 1, West game up with his second field goal when it mattered most. West was tremendous in Game 1, but his missed free throws and missed shots late really left a bit of a bruise on his overall performance, yet the complete reversal; missed field goals until the one that mattered most and a focused 9-10 from the line almost seem more preferable? His two deflections on James late was the exact kind of winning plays that have and will likely continue to separate the rest of the games in this series.
The Pacers' back court was a big no show in Game 1, but offered big redemption points (at least mostly) in Game 2, especially in the case of George Hill, who went 6-8 from the field, icing the game at the free throw line, making his last four after missing his last four. Hill scored 18, keeping alive the Pacers' postseason winning streak when Hill reaches 14 points. Hill has had better all around games this postseason, but really lifted the Pacers on his back. Even in one of the game's final possessions, a shot clock violation, was salvaged by enough tipping to force the shot clock violation as opposed to a free reign layup for the Heat that would've tied the game at 95.
Lance Stephenson also had a...game, scoring 10 points, grabbing eight boards, dishing five assists, and seeming to miss the rim on everything he shot tonight, misses and makes. Stephenson was 4-12 from the floor, but found a pair of big, timely three pointers to go with a couple of dazzling moves at the basket, and one of the biggest offensive boards of the night (that ended up doing nothing but wasting clock). Meanwhile, Stephenson was wildly erratic, registering just one turnover, but throwing up enough bad shots and enough poor decisions to account for about 10 more. While Stephenson hasn't always been a positive impact, he's rarely hurt the team this year, and he was a complete wash tonight, saving the Pacers when they needed a hand and nearly throwing it all away seconds later.
The Pacers weren't able to dominate the glass any more in Game 2 and didn't clean up their turnovers much either, got taken behind the shed in the third quarter by Miami's points in the paint, but their resiliency put them over the top tonight. Indiana played calm and collected, even as their double digit lead evaporated and a deep LeBron James buzzer beater completely wiped away George's third quarter dunk. It's part of the reason why the rest of this series will be so interesting: the past two years, it was the team's inability to execute down the stretch that has doomed them, but even with that execution down the stretch being a total mess for three quarters, they made the plays in the final minutes, and grabbed the pivotal Game 2 victory.
It's easy to look at the series being 1-1 and be upset given Indiana being one single play from going home up 2-0, but had Indiana won Game 1, who knows how this game would've looked. Sure, James was likely going to have a phenomenal game either way, but his lack of help tonight from anyone not named Chris Bosh (kinda) and Chris Andersen (for a little bit anyway) may have been a little more aware with Miami seeing a greater sense of urgency. Either way, the series is where Indiana wants it to be after as bad a way to end the opening game of a series as possible: 1-1 and stealing home court advantage.
From here is where the series starts picking up. The Pacers will be home for three of the next five games, having grabbed home court, outplaying the defending NBA Champions on their floor in both games. Indiana now sits at the same place they were last year with 1-1 and the home court in their favor. The growth of the Indiana Pacers will be on full display in these next two home games, Game 3 tipping off Sunday night on Indianapolis's biggest day, as Pacers playoff basketball finally returns to Race Day.