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Pacers Guards Hold the Key

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 31, 2013, 2:18 AM

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Five games into the Eastern Conference finals, the tipping point for the Pacers is clear. It lies in the backcourt, where George Hill and Lance Stephenson have outscored Miami's guards twice and been outscored three times. Not at all coincidentally, the Pacers now stand 2-3 in the series against the Heat.

Hill and Stephenson combined to score five points on 2-of-11 shooting, grab three rebounds and offer as many turnovers as assists (six) against Miami on Thursday. Heat guards Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers weren't dominant, but scored 22 points on 8-of-20 shooting. That was enough to make LeBron James' third-quarter explosion hold up in a 90-79 victory at American Airlines Arena.

So now it's back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday for Game 6, where the Pacers hope to avoid the dishonor of being closed out on their home court, as they were last year by the Heat in Game 6. The Heat have not lost consecutive games since Jan. 8 and 10, when they lost to the Pacers and Portland, but the Pacers now have to do that if they are to pull off the upset of the No. 1-seeded Heat.

If trends hold true, the Pacers' frontline will outplay Miami's again on Saturday, regardless of whatever brilliance James throws at them, and the outcome will be determined by the guard play. In the three Heat victories, Chalmers and Wade have outscored Hill and Stephenson, 83-43. In the two Pacers victories, Hill and Stephenson have a 67-56 edge.

Excuses can be made for Stephenson, a 22-year-old experiencing his first season as a starter. Hill, however, allowed himself none. Sitting glumly in front of his locker, head in hands, he faced the waves of reporters without flinching. He had taken just four shots in his 36 minutes, 50 seconds, and missed all four. His only point came on a free throw off a technical foul. He had four assists and three turnovers. “I let the team down; I have to play better,” he said. “I felt I wasn't aggressive tonight. Pretty passive. I just need to be in attack mode more.”

Hill wasn't alone in his self-critique, which raised an obvious question: how could anyone, in a game as gargantuan as Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, not be in an aggressive mindset?

“There's a lot of parts that can play into that,” Hill said. “The way I played tonight, I'm very ashamed of myself.”

The major part, according to both Hill and Stephenson, was foul trouble. While the Pacers trailed only once in the first half (4-2) and led by as many as seven points, trouble signs were brewing. Roy Hibbert and Paul George combined to score the team's first 29 points, but Stephenson was long gone by then, having picked up his second foul 2 ½ minutes into the game. The first was intentional, a midcourt grab of James, who had stole Hibbert's soft pass out of a double-team and was barreling downcourt after just 36 seconds of play. The second came while guarding Wade, whose head snapped back while cutting off a screen. Given all the focus on flopping in the series it was difficult to tell the degree of Stephenson's contact, but he didn't complain afterward.

Stephenson played 28 minutes before fouling out. He hit 2-of-7 shots and scored all four of his points in the fourth quarter after the outcome was virtually certain.

“I just got out of rhythm,” he said. “Those first two fouls threw me off the whole first quarter. I never really got my rhythm back. I know it's the playoffs and there's no excuses … I just have to watch film and see what I did wrong and get ready for next game.”

The Pacers have proven they need all five starters playing well for them to win playoff games. Preferably, all five starters scoring in double figures. That was the case when they closed out the Knicks in the second round, and was the case in each of their two wins in this series. Five points from the backcourt isn't going to get it done against Miami, especially when James decides to take matters in to his own hands.

James outscored the Pacers all by himself in the third quarter, 16-13. He hit 7-of-10 shots, including 2-of-4 three-pointers, and added four rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot. That's a good game for most mortals, but 12 minutes of work for a motivated James. The Pacers, meanwhile, wilted offensively, hitting 3-of-14 shots and committing five turnovers in the quarter. Hill had to leave the quarter midway through after picking up his fourth foul.

James scored 11 of Miami's 14 points during one stretch, and assisted Chalmer's three-pointer on the only basket he didn't score. He also helped resurrect Udonis Haslem during the quarter as well, drawing the attention of the Pacers' defense so well that Haslem was left open to hit three consecutive baseline jumpers. Haslem hit 8-of-9 shots for the game, just as he had done in Miami's Game 3 win.

Yes, Udonis Haslem. The man with the robotic-looking jumper who averaged 3.9 points during the regular season. He's usually guarded by Roy Hibbert in this series, and has feasted whenever Hibbert has to give help elsewhere.

“For 10 years I made my living on the baseline,” Haslem said. “I'm just back to that spot because of the way they are guarding us this series and the way Hibbert is playing defense this series. I'm getting back to the spot I've made my living at.”

James also took time to deliver messages to Stephenson, who guarded him most of the quarter. Stephenson had chirped in James' ear toward the end of the Pacers' Game 4 victory, and James did not forget.

“As a competitor you love challenges, and Lance is one of those guys who likes to talk some,” said James, who finished with 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists. “And I'm for it, too. I really don't start it, but if it gets started, then I love to do it.

“I think it's great. It shows a competitive spirit between two individuals, between two teams to go out there and just try to figure out ways to help their team win.”

Stephenson would be well-advised not to engage James in conversation. in Game 6. He has nothing to brag about now. And James, when riled, has a history of making bold statements and having the last word.