Even though it was one of 82 games, there's no doubt the Indiana Pacers came through with a big time performance in the face of adversity against the Miami Heat to really help along their goals of being the Eastern Conference's #1 seed. With the Pacers' lead at two games and them sitting on a woeful two game losing streak, a return home proved to be just what Indiana needed in an instant classic against Miami.
The Pacers opened up tonight with a purpose, jumping ahead early 14-8 and pushing their lead to nine points at 21-12 in the first quarter. The Heat, strapped with turnovers, and the Pacers, led by Roy Hibbert, who had 13 first quarter points, gave Indiana plenty of life as they pieced together a tremendous opening quarter. Miami closed the first on a 5-2 run to make it 23-17 heading into the second, where they cut it to four.
Lance Stephenson hit a pair of three pointers to push the lead back to nine as a Heat responded with a 6-0 run. Stephenson's third three of the half gave Indiana a 36-28 advantage with Roy Hibbert eventually pushing Indiana's lead into double figures at 40-30. LeBron James would go on to live at the free throw line to close the half, fueling a 15-4 close for Miami with James shooting six of his 10 first half free throws in the final 2:57 of the half.
The Heat took a 45-44 advantage into the break, shooting 18 first half free throws to Indiana's seven. The officiating in the first half was, at best, bizarre, but much credit deserves to go the officials for continuing their bizarre whistles into the second half. Indiana used an 8-2 run to take a 54-49 advantage early in the third quarter, with a double technical setting up Stephenson and Dwyane Wade with a tech each, though it seemed a stretch to include Stephenson in with Wade's shoving of Stephenson.
Indiana would push their lead to six at 59-53, but a big night from James allowed him to push Miami into another strong close to a quarter, with the Heat rallying behind a 15-2 run to take a commanding 68-61 advantage before Paul George threw in a dunk to cut it to five after three. The Pacers, despite strong play in the second and third quarters, really faltered late in each quarter as Miami outscored Indiana 51-40 in the middle two quarters, putting them in a tough hole heading into the fourth.
George's dunk to end the third opened up two more as part of an 8-2 run that cut the Miami lead to one. George's dunk to make it a 70-69 game was a thing of beauty, with George blowing by James and throwing it down on him as he trailed defensively. James would hit a pair of free throws to make it a 72-69 game, a rescinded flagrant on Luis Scola setting up another James drive towards the basket on the next possession where his elbow caught Hibbert's jaw, sending the big fella to the floor, with him struggling to get up.
Upon review, the officials decided the James foul was flagrant, with Hibbert returning from the locker room to split a pair of free throws as he left the floor again. It was the third such case in the game where a flagrant was reviewed, with Scola's foul on James and Ian Mahinmi wrapping up James both being declared common fouls (no review was issued when Wade wrapped up Hibbert earlier in the game, however).
The game slowed down tremendously, with both teams going on lengthy field goal droughts. Stephenson would break Indiana's 3:31 drought with his first of two fourth quarter field goals as he would follow with a huge layup to cap a 7-0 run by the Pacers. It proved costly as Stephenson turned and jawed with Wade, as Wade's smirk led to Stephenson's ejection on a second technical foul.
Evan Turner entered the game and Miami ran off an 8-0 run, with a James three pointer snapping a nearly seven minute scoring drought. The Heat led 80-76 as Turner stuck the ball in his hands, struggled to move the offense, but came up with a big steal on James as he put in a layup on the other end for Indiana's only two fast break points on the night. Wade came up limping as he attempted to thwart the fast break, forcing him out of action the remainder of the game.
Turner scored a layup on another Miami turnover to put Indiana ahead 81-80 and with 50 seconds remaining, David West stepped into a three point attempt that sunk in, putting the Pacers up 84-80. The Heat opted not to foul after Chris Bosh missed a three, running the clock down to 13 seconds before the Heat would regain possession as Bosh hit a three pointer to make it a one point game with 2.9 seconds remaining.
Miami fouled George Hill, who stepped up to the line and missed both free throws, leaving the game very much in doubt as James found Bosh for a long two that Hibbert contested well, his attempt falling short and the Pacers holding on for an 84-83 win. The Pacers finally closed a quarter strong and it proved to be the difference in the game, with Indiana using an 8-0 run in just over two minutes to turn a four point deficit into a four point advantage.
The Pacers came away with an impressive win that puts them three games up on the Miami Heat with 10 to play. With Indiana holding a healthy advantage in conference record, they will also hold the end of season tiebreaker with Miami, pushing the advantage to an invisible four games. The Pacers came through on a night when the offense still wasn't much to speak of, though far better ball movement (including 18 assists on 30 shots) set up Indiana's success in a way that the point totals don't speak to.
Indiana shot just 37% and while Miami finished at 45.9% on the night, they came down from nearly 50% in the fourth as the Pacers held Miami to just 15 fourth quarter points. The real advantage for Indiana came in the turnover game. Indiana forced 19 turnovers, including six apiece from Wade and James, which they turned into 26 points as part of 20 extra shot attempts with 11 offensive rebounds leading to 13 second chance points.
To put it simply, Indiana came out swinging and never backed down from Miami's pushes. The free throw disparity tightened up in the second half with the Pacers shooting three more in the second half as part of a 17-21 night, Hill's two misses at the end dropping Indiana's overall free throw percentage to 81%. The officiating played a big part in tonight's game, with both sides dealing with woeful calls and no calls that shaped the overall flow of the game.
From Stephenson's first (and second) technical to Wade's out of bounds call when he was clearly in bounds and West's travel on his dagger three pointer, it was a bizarre game from an officiating standpoint that still managed to clean itself up just enough that neither team came up short in terms of whistles though the Heat had no short of issues with the officiating in their post game comments.
Indiana was able to make it the game they did because of Roy Hibbert, who had 21 points on 7-15 shooting. Hibbert had 13 in the first quarter, abusing Greg Oden every time he touched the ball. The Heat wisely went away from Oden, turning to Udonis Haslem, who held Hibbert scoreless from the floor in the second half, though his trips to the line put him over 20. His elbow to the chin was a scary moment and while he managed to return to action, he never really looked entirely with it, so it'll be worth keeping an eye on him tomorrow.
Paul George was excellent as well, leading the Pacers with a team high 23 on 8-19 shooting. It was the time in a long time that George looked like he was playing towards his early season form. While the shooting numbers weren't great, he was vastly improved in terms of looks and shot selection, attacking the rim for the points, not the whistles, coming up with eight rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Lance Stephenson's night was huge in the first half (with three threes) and huge in the fourth quarter (to guide Indiana back into the lead), but his technical fouls really put his team into a tough position. Stephenson has done a tremendous job piling up the technical whistles, and his ejection, warranted or not, was absolutely something he can't get caught up in as a detriment to his team.
While it allowed Indiana to throw Evan Turner into the deep end, it wasn't really a situation that Indiana would prefer to be in, especially with Stephenson really changing the flow of the game before his ejection. Turner had an up and down night and that continued when he came into the game, his point guard duties often allowing the ball to get stuck in his hands as he fought through bad looks for a pair of huge shots to give Indiana their lead.
Turner's time in Indiana has been determined from game to game, but tonight, it was absolutely possession to possession down the stretch, but it was his pass to David West for the three pointer that helped cap off a tremendous win. As a whole, the bench was less than stellar with Turner leading the way with eight of 10 bench points, Luis Scola going scoreless on 0-5 shooting.
West really struggled shooting the ball at just 3-11, but came through when the game mattered the most. He made his presence felt elsewhere, leading the team in rebounds and assists with nine and five respectively. Second in assists with George Hill, who had four, his best asset in an otherwise lackluster two point showing. The two free throws missed by Hill weren't surprising given Hill's spotty record in these situations from the line, but had those misses decided the game, it would be impossible to not lend the blame entirely on Hill.
LeBron James on the other hand was the Miami Heat, scoring 38 of their 83 points, getting there on 11-19 shooting and 14-15 from the line. James was in excellent form through the night despite his gaudy six turnover night, but he was simply left out to dry with Dwyane Wade's 15 the only other player in double figures, with Chris Bosh (3-11) and Mario Chalmers (2-10) struggling all night offensively.
The Pacers wrapped up another low scoring game, coming out ahead this time and clinching the Central Division in the meantime (Miami as well clinched the Southeast Division even in a loss). It's Indiana's second straight Central Division title and they'll move forward to the nation's capital to face the Washington Wizards. Tonight was a tremendous statement, a gutsy, physical, grind it out win for the Pacers, but it's also Indiana's third such win recent weeks. They haven't performed especially well responding to those wins and it'll be a huge test for Indiana on the road against a soon-to-be playoff bound Washington squad as the two teams tip off Friday night.