by Kent Sterling
The Indiana Pacers better make sure their mouthguards fit correctly as the Game Seven they earned tonight is going to bring a response on Monday at 8:30p. The Heat aren’t going to surrender their crown without a fight the likes of which these Pacers have never faced.
Tonight, everything that went right for the Heat in the magical third quarter when the incredible effort from LeBron James would have snuffed the life out of most teams and effectively ended the series went totally haywire tonight.
People will reflexively talk about the similarities between games five and six, with the home teams asserting themselves in the third quarter, but there is a big difference. The Pacers played well all night tonight, while the Heat played well in only the third on Thursday.
The supporting cast, minus the oddly effective and formerly AWOL Mike Miller, was invisible. Hard to ignore the effort of Joel Anthony, who was forced into the rotation by the suspension of Chris Anderson, but the best he had in 29 minutes yielded two points and eight boards.
David West missed the shootaround this morning with an upper respiratory infection, but showed up big time in the second half as he suddenly figured out where the center of the hoop is. After missing all seven first half shots, West got busy hitting 5-7 in the second for 11 points to go along with his 14 rebounds.
The Pacers had three starters with double digit rebounds – Lance Stephenson’s 12 and Roy Hibbert’s 11 helped the Pacers to a dominant 53-33 advantage on the glass.
The execution for the Pacers wasn’t much to write home (or anywhere else) about in the first half, but the effort was excellent from the opening tip to the final horn. Tyler Hansbrough’s rebound of his own missed free throw with :24 seconds left typified the night for both the Pacers and the Heat.
Again and again, the Pacers scrapped while the Heat waited for LeBron to be the splendid version of himself that made the Pacers pay for their lackluster effort in Game Five.
The Pacers doubled the Heat in points in the point 44-22, and that was the difference in the game.
While the total team turnovers for the Pacers were a difficult to overcome 21, the Heat only converted 17 points from them. While the Heat turned it over 14 times, the Pacers cashed at a much higher rate for 19 points.
George Hill, who would like to forget Game Five was ever played, washed that performance from the brains of Pacers fans with 16 points with six assists in 43 minutes.
Oh yeah, Paul George scored 28, pulled down eight board, and dropped five dimes. He is so consistently good that sometimes I forget about him. He’s playing like a much older and wiser player, and despite his penchant for turning the ball over – he had six tonight – he’s the kind of guy who just might win this franchise its first NBA Championship.
Coach Frank Vogel forced the starters to play deep minutes. All but the infirmed West played more 40 minutes or better.
Conversely, the Heat were a mess. Something must be wrong physically with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, or James should chase them both around the team plane and beat them senseless for being useless throughout the series, but tonight in particular. They combined for 15 points, six boards, and one measly assist. That combination of points and their four field goals were the lowest since the Big Three came together three seasons ago.
Udonis Haslem, who shot the Pacers out of the game on Thursday, did absolutely nothing tonight with zero points, two rebounds, and four fouls.
The Heat starters, minus James who shows up every night and plays like a champion, combined to go 7-29 from the field.
So it comes down to one 48-minute game for a trip to the NBA Finals. Game Sevens are a battle of nerves and will, and the team with the five players showing greater resolve is going to win.
The Miami Heat won a remarkable 46-of-49 games after their Game One win in this series, are a very ordinary 4-5 against the Pacers this season. The talking heads outside Indianapolis will see Game Seven as a fait accompli, because they are mesmerized by James’ star power. They might be right, but if the other Heat players can’t muster a better effort in Game Seven, the Pacers will make their first trip to the NBA Finals since that glorious group that continues to define the franchise finally punched their ticket in 2000.
My lingering memory of a Game Seven is from the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals between the Pacers and the Chicago Bulls, when the Pacers had a four-point edge with 5:00 to go in the game. Michael Jordan dug deep, and that roster of Pacers, including coach Larry Bird, scattered to the wind. They were an older team that knew how to win.
This group is very young – only one player (West) on the active roster is older than 27 – and these guys don’t know that they should defer and lose to the reigning champions.
Monday night is going to be a fascinating exercise for the Pacers. Whether they are able to assert their will for the first time in this type of win or die dance will be a stiff test.
The Pacers have earned this chance to grit their teeth, look the demon in the eye, scowl, and send them home. Forty-eight minutes of clear eyes, full heart, and laser focus stands between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat.
Can’t wait for Monday.