The Indiana Pacers offseason began earlier than hoped, but later than expected as the blue and gold fell to the Miami Heat tonight 105-93 to lose their best of seven series 4 games to 2. It seems like an eternity ago the Pacers held a 2-1 series lead, but since then, the Heat, who clearly didn't respect the Pacers when the series began, turned it on and showed that two stars, well...at least these two stars, can beat a basketball team.
Respect certainly deserves to go to Dwyane Wade and LeBron James for their play, especially tonight when Wade was just unstoppable, but this shouldn't be a nail on the "team dynamic" coffin. The Pacers played hard and played well this entire series (or at least five of the games), but when Wade and James are in the zone, there isn't much you can do to stop them.
The Pacers, like in the entire series, opened up on a tear, riding their front court and dominating interior play to a 19-8 lead. David West was tremendous, Danny Granger wasn't using his ankle as an excuse, and Roy Hibbert played some of his best ball in the series. While Indiana maintained an onslaught from Wade, the Pacers saw numerous possessions slip away thanks to turnovers, a theme that would dominate the entire night.
Miami took a 10-0 run into the second quarter, fueled by Wade, but aided by Mike Miller, who finally played at a high enough level that he was able to make a big enough difference. The lead disappeared and the Pacers found themselves in a back and forth battle dominated by Wade, who led the Heat with 26 first half points. The Pacers fell behind six in the second before a 10-0 run of their own put them back in control as West and Hill finished the quarter strong.
The good news for the Pacers was that Wade was killing the Pacers, but his play wasn't enough to get the Heat into the lead, but despite dominating the boards, turnovers plagued Indiana all night. While the Heat defense played a part, most of it just came from bone headed decision making. Indiana needed a strong third quarter to keep their season alive, but Wade, James, and Mario Chalmers helped the game remain tight as timely three point shooting kept the Pacers in the game.
The game shifted in the wrong direction with a minute to go in the third quarter when West was whistled for a technical foul on a bad tap on Shane Battier's head. The momentum had swung in Indiana's favor following Paul George's three pointer, but Miami scored three points on their next three possessions (aided by two Indiana turnovers) to put the game into double figures heading into the fourth.
Smart ball was going to be the deciding factor in the Pacers turning the game around. They had little issue scoring on the Heat, but turnovers continued to mount and it didn't change as the fourth opened. Indiana closed the gap to five before giving it right back, putting them in a tough position as Wade simply refused to miss at any point tonight. Every push the Pacers made resulted in a Wade circus shot of some kind, adding frustration to the turnover and poor offensive play.
A late 5 point run gave Indiana one final push for a chance to grab a win, but when you've got closers the caliber of Wade and James who are hitting shots they have no business hitting, it's impossible to mount a comeback of any kind to be honest. The result would be Indiana's third straight loss in the series, ending it in six, a sad conclusion to a great season.
Turnovers played such a big role in tonight's game, lingering at every turn. The Pacers had 22 turnovers, which resulted in 26 Miami points. The Heat won points off turnover 26-13, painful in a contest that wrapped up at 12 points. The team that had won the rebounding edge had won the game, but despite crushing the Heat on the boards all night (even limiting them to just 3 in the first quarter), Indiana's turnovers created far too many opportunities for the Heat.
In the end, a number of solid efforts were cut short due to the mental lapses the Pacers showcased throughout the game. If Larry Bird called his team S-O-F-T soft after Game 5, he wouldn't be out of line to call them D-U-M-B dumb following Game 6. It was just frustrating to watch Indiana be so careless with the ball so often. One thing Indiana didn't learn this postseason was that each possession is much more important than in the regular season.
Another big blow for the Pacers was in their non-existent bench play. Leandro Barbosa was awful, Tyler Hansbrough, Dahntay Jones, and Lou Amundson were invisible, Darren Collison couldn't get a spark to light. When the supposedly deeper Pacers lose the bench point battle to the Miami Heat, they are things that can't be ignored. To reiterate, the Pacers lost to a team that late through the third quarter had only four players even add to the scoreboard, outscored as a bench by Mike Miller alone.
David West was big early and often in tonight's game as he led the Pacers in scoring with 24. Roy Hibbert was fed at stretches, but still only managed to get eight field goal attempts. When the Pacers got the ball into Hibbert, it was obvious the Heat had no answer for him, but Miami continued to rotate and make the pass to Hibbert impossible.
Danny Granger and George Hill each had solid stretches, but neither was able to take over when the team needed a go to to match wits with Wade and James, as they each settled for a number of poor three pointers that resulted in empty possessions that may as well have been turnovers. Paul George played one of his finer games of the series, hitting timely shots, but more importantly, showing growth on the defensive end by not biting on every pump fake and staying on his feet. He was torched by Wade, but the kind of shots Wade was hitting, it's impossible to fault much of it on any defensive shortcomings.
Be proud of your Indiana Pacers. They made tremendous strides this season in restoring relevancy to one of the Eastern Conference's premier franchises. They had a better season than almost any fan expected. Even this offseason looming, there won't be a lockout to weigh down excitement and better yet, Indiana will still have oodles of cap issues to help the kind of strides the Pacers can take moving forward. If the Pacers can retain Larry Bird, hold onto Brian Shaw, and get smart deals done for Roy Hibbert and George Hill, they won't lose a single beat, putting them right back in the thick of things next season, likely as the favorites in the Central Division.
Can it be November yet?