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Harsh Reality for Pacers, George

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 27, 2013, 2:45 AM

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And then there are the times you're reminded that Miami is the defending champion, and it did close out the regular season by winning 45 of its final 48 games. And you remember, too, that the Pacers are a young team with nobody on the roster except a backup center who has played in the conference finals.

All of the harsh realities of the Eastern Conference Finals came crashing down on the Pacers Sunday, as Miami reversed the entire personality of the series with a 114-96 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It can be changed again, but the options for doing that are going to be limited when LeBron James plays as he did, and Udonis Freaking Haslem hits 8-of-9 shots.

This was the third time the Pacers have played a postseason game on the same day as the Indianapolis 500. It makes for the most unique doubleheader a city can put on, but it hasn't worked out well for the Pacers. They've lost on all three of these occasions – to New York in 1999, to Detroit in 2004 and now to the Heat, who had a superior setup and better turbochargers.

Those who want to explain this outcome as a simple matter of the Pacers not showing up sell Miami short. James, too. The Pacers admittedly were lacking at times defensively, but their best might not have been enough this time. Miami made adjustments, and they worked. The biggest one was to post up James more often, and let him dare the Pacers to stop him. The result was crisp ball movement that produced 60 percent shooting by the starters and the kind of balance the Pacers have displayed in their best moments this season, with everyone scoring between 14 and 22 points. The Heat also committed just five turnovers, and outscored the Pacers in the paint, 52-36.

So, Miami has regained homecourt advantage and has a 2-1 lead heading into Game 4 at the Fieldhouse on Tuesday. The Pacers' victory in Miami on Friday now looks less like a bold statement and more like a tug on Superman's cape.

“We love the fact that … they took home court away from us, and now let's see what we're made of,” James said. “I think we know what we're made of as well.”

The Pacers had the self-inflicted wound of 14 missed free throws, and cited their own defensive lapses, but had to admit they had experienced some Heat prostration as well.

“If you're not guarding them, they'll do what they did to us tonight,” coach Frank Vogel said. “Sometimes when you are perfect with your coverages, they still find a way to make baskets.”

The Pacers' narrow margin of error became obvious in the first quarter. They hit 10 of their first 18 shots, had committed just two turnovers and were tied at 30 heading into the final minute of the period. James, however, got two foul shots off a foul on Paul George, and then a breakway dunk off of George's passing error to give Miami a 34-30 lead. That was the intro to a second quarter in which the Heat scored 36 points on 63 percent shooting. The Heat's 70 points at halftime were a record high for a Pacers' playoff opponent. To put it in perspective, the Pacers have played four NBA playoff games in which opponents scored 70 or fewer points.

The game amounted to a wake-up call for George. He was riding high coming off that Game 2 victory on Friday, in which he threw down perhaps the most memorable dunk in franchise history, a photograph of which graced the cover of Sunday's game program. He also was featured in a story in last week's Sports Illustrated, and was the subject of several stories on national websites.

But he is 23. And he's not LeBron James. He's five years younger and 35 pounds lighter, a point which James reminded him of as frequently as possible.

James scored four of his eight field goals on postups against George, who looked like a kid playing his older brother while trying to keep James from bullying his way to the basket. James made just one field goal in the second half to finish with 22 points, but hardly looked to score. He controlled the game as if playing it with a joystick, moving the ball and finding teammates for open shots. The fact he had just three assists said more about his teammates' untimely misses than anything else.

The Pacers take pride in not double-teaming anyone, and have been rewarded for it most of the season. It allows them to protect the paint and defend the three-point line, two things they did better than any team in the league during the season. George isn't asking for help, but it's going to be difficult for him to do this alone.

“It's just me having to learn to guard the post,” George said. “It's different for me. I just have to make sure I can use my weapons to guard guys down there.”

If he can find a weapon to contain James, the rest of the NBA will be eager to learn about it.