It wouldn't have been a stretch to call this a must win for the Indiana Pacers, who needed every advantage in their arsenal to come out ahead against the Miami Heat in a best of seven series, but despite the Heat being carried entirely by Dwyane Wade and LeBron James for a majority of the second half, the Pacers didn't do themselves any favors by stepping away from their game and slipping into the style of play Miami wanted.
The Pacers opened the game stuffing the Heat, jumping out a 9-0 lead that gave them all the momentum. Underneath the success, the Pacers were still missing some key opportunities on fast breaks. Indiana spent much of the first half settling for wide open three pointers the Heat defense appeared willing to give the Pacers, forcing them away from the inside game.
The Heat responded by hitting their first three three-pointers, as James led the way for the Heat while Wade continued to struggle. Tyler Hansbrough gave some quality minutes early to help push the game into double figures, but the second unit struggled to give any help as the Heat starters continued to push, giving them a lead early in the second quarter.
Darren Collison exploded immediately after, leading the way for the blue and gold who ran off a 21-8 run to put them back up double figures. Dwyane Wade found some rhythm when he drilled a tough three pointer, and from there, he found a stride that he hadn't had the entire series. No longer was everyone making excuses for Wade, who with James, scored 48 of Miami's next 50 points. It's incredible the abilities of these two players to score the basketball, but as the Heat came back in the third quarter, they did so behind baskets in the paint and getting to the free throw line.
Indiana didn't respond well to the Heat opening the game up, a clear advantage for them, but credit has to go to the Heat front line for holding strong defensively to not allow Roy Hibbert or David West to get involved before the two were eventually scrapped with foul trouble. Hansbrough did work early, but was a disaster in terms of fouls and turnovers in the second half, and while paired up with Lou Amundson, well, it's not the front court that had torched Miami through the two wins.
James and Wade dominated the Pacers in the third quarter as Indiana suffered through one and outs, poor defensive rotations, and some light foul trouble, but for really the first time in the series, Miami appeared to be the aggressors, not only on the offensive side, but the defensive side. Before you could blink, the 8-point halftime lead turned into a 10-point deficit, Miami's first double digit lead in the series as Miami Pacer'd the Pacers in the third quarter to win 30-16.
Despite the struggles, Indiana still had plenty of opportunities in the fourth quarter, but the defense simply wouldn't hold up. With Leandro Barbosa on the floor, the Pacers were really hampered defensively, but even when it wasn't Barbosa letting up a basket, it was an offensive rebound to allow a second chance. As the fourth quarter wore on and the Pacers responded positively to Miami runs, it was always about the stops they couldn't get. When the starters returned, turnovers had been an issue to the point where they couldn't get enough shots, and when they did get shots, they were one and done on every possession.
Danny Granger and Paul George had solid games defensively for how many points Wade and James had, but with the two dominating the ball so much, each crease in their defensive was exploited far more. The game was ultimately decided when West was rotated over to help double team James, leaving Udonis Haslem, who came back from the dead to hit the jumpers Chris Bosh was automatic with. In the end, it was Haslem's open looks that decided the game for the Heat, who came out ahead to tie the series at 2 games apiece.
It's hard to take on a loss like this and look at things positively, but the little plays Indiana were making in the first half were the exact plays they weren't making in the second half. Miami got some friendly rolls, Indiana seemed discombobulated. At some point, it's assumed experience will come into play in this series, but watching the Pacers force themselves into turnovers, step off defensively while James and Wade were getting everything in the paint, and not instill their will in the front court, these are things the Pacers have won doing.
Even a stop or two down the stretch could've helped turn this game back in Indiana's favor, who lived and died to a degree on the three point arc. Not a bad strategy if you aren't 7-22 anyway. The early looks Miami was giving Indiana helped fuel them, but also, they missed a ton of open looks. In the end, Miami shot 48%, won the rebounding battle, and for the first time in the series, got big plays in transition, which is the one clear advantage they have over any team in the league.
- Darren Collison led the way for the Pacers today offensively. Danny Granger ended up with more points, but the way Collison attacked the basket and took advantage of his speed with the second unit was huge. The case could easily be made that the attacking Collison didn't get enough minutes while George Hill continued to lead the charge for the Pacers. Certainly, Collison seemed to go in and exit at points that were predetermined rather than risking letting Collison run out of gas. Regardless, Hill still needs to play better. He's been on and off this entire postseason, and the PG position still needs to be a clear cut advantage for the Pacers.
- Danny Granger played well. He didn't shoot the ball particularly well, but still ended up with 20 points, hitting four three pointers. Danny fell too much in love with the three as he's prone to doing, but at the same time, Miami was a step slow on perimeter defense all night, making it hard to fault Danny too much. He continued to play solid defense on LeBron James, but James simply had a spectacular showing. Defense can only get you so far against great offense.
- Paul George has more of the same claims. He did great on Dwyane Wade early, but once Wade got it going, it became an impossible task to keep him down. The way the two stars for the Heat attacked made it hard for the two wings to keep up, but George himself played a solid game as well. A quiet 13, 6 boards, 5 assists, and 3 steals, George made some wonderful defensive plays and had some timely buckets.
- The front line of David West and Roy Hibbert were limited in tonight's game. A lot had to do with how well the Miami bigs played defensively, but foul trouble hampered the impact the two could make. It's no excuse given how Games 2 & 3 went, but combined with Miami's perimeter defense, the Pacers simply didn't go to the big men enough. The second unit behind Collison was more focused with attacking the paint and finding bigs, but the problem with that is that Collison was dishing to Lou Amundson and Tyler Hansbrough, not West and Hibbert. While the PG position should be an advantage for the Pacers, the big men have to be advantages for the Pacers. Indiana can't let Miami take these two guys out of the game. Both combined for 18 and 15, which is less than what Hibbert alone had in Game 3. Not a trend you want to see continue.
- The second unit continued its maddening play, with some good stretches here and some dismal play there. The Pacers, who struggled defensively and with turnovers in the second half were spearheaded by Leandro Barbosa and Tyler Hansbrough on those fronts. Hansbrough played well early, but getting stuck with stupid fouls and inexcusable traveling turnovers, the Pacers lost possession after possession while Barbosa's defense on Wade and James is far from what will win you games ever.
This isn't the position the Pacers wanted to be in, but Miami played more desperate and came out ahead. The good news, if there is any, is that Indiana fell in the same way they did in Game 1, by losing their focus and stepping away from what got them wins in Games 2 & 3. Indiana is a team that's built in a way no one needs to step up and score points the way James and Wade have to, but they are a team that needs guys to step up more than they did tonight. Eight Pacers had eight or more points, a great stat if more than half of them would've reached double figures, and if more than two scored over 15 points.
That doesn't mean guys need to drop 25, but they do need guys to get into the 15 point range. James and Wade will have to score about 70 points a night to beat the Pacers. It's not wise to bet against them to do it though. The Pacers didn't give themselves any favors by losing the rebounding battle and the points in the paint battle. As mentioned, however, these are mistakes that are avoidable so long as the Pacers can get back to their focus on the defensive end and play with more purpose in the paint.
Heading into the series, it was about holding home court and stealing one in Miami. Now it shifts to having to win two in Miami, a tall order, but Indiana's 19-14 record on the road was fourth best in the league, meaning they're more than capable of going into Miami and stealing another one. Game 5 will be Tuesday, a tall order for the blue and gold as they aim to keep their advantage in the series.