The questions raised after the Indiana Pacers fell to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade weren't so much whether they could play with the Miami Heat, but whether or not they could get the production down the stretch from, well, anybody. It was a superb coming out party for the Pacers in the first and second quarters, but the tides changed and it was everything they could to do to now get swallowed up.
The Pacers took the fight to Miami, but came away with only a whole lot of fouls to show for it. But fouls are one of the many things on the checklist of expectations heading into the series, footnoted by Frank Vogel taking a $15,000 hit for his comments regarding the officiating. It's not as if he was proved wrong, but to put the blame on the referees is certainly not indicative of the entire game. The Pacers did bring the fight, but Miami punched back in another way, and the Heat's lack of physical play really put Indiana at a disadvantage when trying to stay out of foul trouble.
The Heat put themselves into the penalty in under six minutes in all four quarters, all totaling up to 38 free throw attempts on 31 Pacers fouls. It was a tough matchup for how the Pacers were playing, but Indiana themselves got to the charity stripe 28 times, but 8 timely misses (including five in the fourth quarter), really hindered their chances at turning a late deficit into a lead. Actually, you could almost see the exact parallels between today's effort and Indiana's first real postseason test last year against the Chicago Bulls.
Indiana showed no fear. For that, they really changed a lot of perception for a team a great deal of the audience watching had never seen or heard of before today. The Pacers used George Hill and David West to jump out to a 13-4 lead, a lead built on great shooting, but more important, a smothering, trapping defense that was giving up nothing, allowing the Pacers to pounce on Miami in a big way.
Chris Bosh and Roy Hibbert separated themselves on the offensive end when the two went at each other on both sides of the floor, but quickly and early, foul trouble began to mount itself, forcing the blue and gold to adjust quickly. The Heat stormed back, but Tyler Hansbrough and Darren Collison played high quality ball as it was the bench who continued to play physical on the defensive end while maintaining a two or three possession lead on Miami.
With each push the Heat had, the Pacers responded immediately, cutting off runs and limiting fast break opportunities, but poor fast break execution by the Pacers (which isn't anything new), as well as a pure job on the part of Mike Miller drawing a charge on Leandro Barbosa as the Pacers went into the half up six instead of up eight or nine. Chris Bosh left the game just before halftime and was diagnosed with an abdominal strain. Him not returning may have been a huge factor in how the second half played out.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were kept relatively quiet in the first half, as was Danny Granger and Paul George. It was interesting how little to no production from Granger or George is a great sign when the team is winning, but positively detriment when the team does need their output. In the second half, the difference was shown with the top scorers as it no longer became a Miami Heat game on the offensive end, simply a LeBron James and Dwyane Wade show.
Of course, saying that does diminish the offensive rebounding efforts of the Heat, who kept every possession alive by crashing the boards. Indiana snubbed Miami from the three point line, but gave up 15 offensive rebounds. The Pacers kept their composure despite mounting foul troubles (such as George Hill foolishly picking up his fifth foul early in the third quarter) and multiple free throw trips from Wade and James. It was an admirable effort from the Pacers, who did all they could to keep Miami at bay, heading into the fourth quarter knotted at 70.
Once there, Wade and James built the lead to 8 before a Pacers comeback contributed by Hill, West, Hibbert, and Granger had the game back at 1 with under five minutes to go. The unfortunate thing was that the Pacers from there began to fall apart, execute poorly, and could only muster up a single point the rest of the game. That's where the parallels to last year's first round series against the Bulls comes into play, as every game, the Pacers clawed, fought, and battled their way to a great position late in the fourth quarter, just to have everything come crashing down thanks to tense and unfocused play in the game's final minutes.
In the end, Wade and James accounted for 42 of the Heat's 53 second quarter points while the Pacers as a team could only get to 38. This is where the superstar mentality comes into play regarding team building. Today's conclusion is why many experts believe you're better off being the New York Knicks, with a dysfunctional, revolving door roster and a perennial playoff loser as your go to guy because he get you points late in games. He gives you that chance. And after watching the Pacers squander those same chances, it's certainly hard to argue that after watching Indiana's poor execution late.
What the superstar mentality doesn't take into account is that it doesn't matter who takes the shots. There's plenty made about whether it has to be Wade or James or that you need a Carmelo Anthony so you can avoid first round sweeps, but for the Pacers and other teams built in the same fashion, it doesn't matter who takes the shots. It only matters that someone does. Today, the Pacers looked far too much like their old 2010-11 selves, and not enough like the team that had gotten into a groove and closed out strong against the Magic.
There's no singular go to guy on this Pacers team, and sometimes that's a good thing, but in games like this one, it's not. Given the sexiness of superstars in today's NBA coverage, no one will ever admit the times when the team dynamic works and the superstar mentality fails because basketball is one of the few sports that can be swung by one singular player. Today, the Pacers were done in by two players. They simply didn't have someone who was composed enough to respond in kind. But given Anthony did little in his own quest against Miami, it won't be entirely fair to listen to the analysis be so focused on the Pacers losing because of who they don't have, when in fact they lost because who they do have didn't come up when needed as they have at so many points this season.
Danny Granger had 7 points, Paul George had 5. The two were a combined 2-15 shooting. Foul trouble plays it parts. Every Pacer except Tyler Hansbrough had 2 fouls tonight. But Roy Hibbert had a big first half against Chris Bosh before he was hampered in the third with foul trouble. George Hill played up and down tonight, his own foul trouble limiting his effectiveness though he had some good ball. Darren Collison played well with 10 points and 6 assists, but committed 3 turnovers.
It really felt like the foul trouble disrupted a lot of rhythm in this game. David West was up and down like just about every player for the Pacers. As they move forward, they'll have to figure out a way to combat the foul trouble because the fouls aren't going away. James and Wade's ability to get at the line any time they want is not going away. On the bright side, the team's poor free throw shooting (20-28) and failure to box out (15 OREBs) are problems that can be fixed. Maybe not so much the latter, which has been one of the team's primary weaknesses, but it can be fixed.
The Pacers will have to regroup and go at it again Tuesday night in Miami. An 0-1 hole is not a series death wish, but at the same time, Miami is not Orlando. The good news is if there's going to be one constant, it's that the Pacers will not roll over and bow out for Game 2. They will bring the same game winning energy they brought tonight. But at some point, energy and hustle turns into execution, and if the Pacers can't begin to compose themselves and execute in late game situations, they won't win a game. If they can? Well, then this might turn into a real series.