Posted May 20 2012 10:06PM
INDIANAPOLIS -- If the Miami Heat were to lose at this point, two rounds in, they would be mocked and ridiculed. They would spend their offseason not so much living near South Beach as dwelling in a world of grief. The questions, criticism, rumors and "nyah, nyah's" would be endless, and they know it.
If the Indiana Pacers were to lose at this point, two rounds in, they would be dismissed and forgotten. Some folks would pat them on their heads, figuratively, and congratulate them on a fine season. Others might try to console them with reminders that it's not really the Pacers' time yet and how next year things will be different. They would slip back into the pack in the Eastern Conference, disappointing so few because so little was expected.
And they know that.
More than one team has its reputation on the line in this East semifinals series. On the brink of making a name for themselves, the Pacers might have made a mess of things.
Indiana had so much stacked in its favor Sunday for Game 4: Homecourt edge. Dwyane Wade off his game and distracted after a miserable Game 3. Chris Bosh still out. A chance to go up 3-1 in the best-of-seven and bring the wrath of the basketball world crashing down on the Heat, while animating the self-doubts Miami's players and coaches keep trying to tamp down.
Even Danny Granger aligned with that view after his team's 101-93 loss at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "Obviously I would agree that the pressure is on them," the Indiana forward said. "They have a lot of expectations nationally, form the media, ever since they assembled that team to win multiple championships. So definitely, in this series, the pressure is on them."
Not anymore. Maybe the Pacers will need all of the 48 hours or so between this one and Game 5 for it to sink in. Maybe it won't sink in until they're down in the series or, worse, dispatched from the series. But no sooner had they grabbed the rest of the league's attention, and opened some eyes among casual NBA fans to their depth and youth and talent -- along with the marvels of Larry Bird's team-building and Frank Vogel's coaching -- then the Pacers served up an "Aw, never mind" performance.
Are they for real or are they still wannabes? Indiana is the bigger team, yet it got outrebounded 47-38 (and by 10 in the fourth quarter). It has the deeper roster, yet it got beat by a team of two: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who scored 38 consecutive points during a stretch in the second half and outscored all 10 Pacers who played 43-39 in the second half.
James and Wade hit Indiana so hard after halftime, and so had them scrambling, that it bought Miami time for someone else, finally, to chip in. So even if we bump that two-man team label to 2 1/4 -- relief valve forward Udonis Haslem's eight points in the fourth quarter were more than any Pacers player -- that still shouldn't have been enough.
But Indiana shrunk to the task before it. It picked this one to give up 101 points overall and 30 in the third quarter, both highs in this postseason. It allowed Wade to find his rhythm and restore his status as one of the NBA's best -- look, the Miami shooting guard had something to say about that, but Wade defender Paul George was kicking himself for allowing "a lot of easy ones." It shelved the Michael Jordan-Magic Johnson debate about James for a day by making him look most of all like Hakeem Olajuwon (40 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists).
The Pacers ran up a 9-0 lead in the first four minutes and pushed that to 10 later in the period, but the 25-18 lead they took into the second quarter actually seemed ominous: they missed 14 shots, many of them open looks, and could have been in front by double that margin.
Defensively, they leaned too much on their big man, Roy Hibbert, as if he could clean up all the penetration. He couldn't, not without fouling, and so the 7-foot-2 center sat out (11:07) nearly as much as he played (12:53) in the second half. Power forward David West was over there for almost nine minutes in the half and let the Heat off the hook too, with his eight points and six rebounds. Then there was Vogel, admitting he got too cautious when they each got to four fouls and saying he should have run the two bigs back into the game.
"That's on us," West said. "On me, on Roy. We have to do a better job of staying on the floor. I picked up two early ones and really couldn't get in a rhythm. Same thing for him."
Then there was the sight of James and Wade, in Miami's "unleash the hounds!" comeback, all but emasculating the Indiana defense. It's a heckuva thing, knowing exactly what to expect against an opponent -- all-LBJ, all-Dwyane, all afternoon -- and still not being able to do anything about it.
"Their aggression, the way they were intent on attacking, put us on our heels," West said. "They're too good of a basketball team to play when you're on your heels or you're in retreat mode.
"We didn't make them uncomfortable enough. They're too great. Both their production was way too high, just in terms of scoring but then in getting other guys involved with some dump-off passes. We've got to regroup. Made a lot of mistakes."
Make a few more and so much of what Indiana has achieved to this point will slip away. Remember, if the Heat get eliminated two rounds shy of The Finals, they will hear about it all summer, into next season, pretty much for a 12-month championship cycle. If the Pacers get ousted now, they mostly will get ignored. Weren't ready. No stars. Wait till next year.
"With all due respect, we don't feel that way," said point guard Darren Collison, pushing back. "We feel like this is a one-opportunity thing. There's no saying we're going to be back in the same position again next year. You never know what's going to happen -- injuries, whatever."
The Pacers do have contract decisions looming with Hibbert, guard George Hill, West in a year. They might not bring back the same group, factoring in free agency or the $27 million owed to Granger (trade possibility?) over the next two years. When is it their time? When they can actually do something about it, which is now.
"In a sense, we kind of feel the same way they feel," Collison said. "We don't feel like we're going to get ridiculed but at the same time, this is a one-time opportunity and we've got to milk it. And this is one we let slip."
On Tuesday, the Pacers will get to feel the way the Heat felt: Desperate.
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