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Pacers Can't Close Door on Heat

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 22, 2013, 3:39 PM

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MIAMI – In a game that defied logic, in more ways than the Pacers want to count, the challenge becomes this: Totally elude the odds and find a way to overcome one of the most disheartening losses in franchise history.

Their 103-102 overtime loss to Miami at American Airlines Arena on Wednesday can be questioned and agonized over forever, but they only have two days to reconcile the fact they squandered an opportunity to steal a game on the home court of the best team in the NBA and assume control of the Eastern Conference finals. That might be a good thing, come to think of it.

Coach Frank Vogel has taken his team to heights not experienced by a Pacers team since 2004 by injecting hope and optimism at every opportunity, and managed to do so again after this one. “Our spirit is very high and (we're) very confident,” he said. “And we know we can play with this basketball team.”

The Pacers did indeed do that, despite an erratic, pock-marked performance. They led at the end of the second and third quarters, miraculously forced an overtime with 0.7 seconds left in regulation and then appeared to have the crazy thing won with 2.2 seconds remaining.

LeBron James, however, scored on two layups in the final 10.8 seconds left against a mysterious and deficient Pacers defense to save the Heat from a body blow in front of their whited-out fans, who likely didn't expect such a difficult time from the yellow-clad Pacers.

We'll pick up the story from there, before we get to Paul George's improbable heroics. With the game tied at 99, following a timeout, James picked up George Hill for a defender on a switch on the perimeter and got to the basket for a layup with 10 seconds left. Then, after George hit three foul shots off a debatable foul call with 2.2 left, and after another timeout, James took a pass near the foul line and darted past George to the basket for a left-handed layup at the buzzer.

Hill and George played James too closely, Vogel acknowledged afterward, allowing him to use his superior quickness to get a layup rather than settling for a jump shot. More than that, however, Roy Hibbert, one of the NBA's best rim-protectors, was not in the game either time, pulled from the lineup in favor of forward Sam Young.

Vogel's thinking was to have a smaller, more agile lineup that could stay in front of Miami's ballhandlers, but nobody came close to staying in front of James – or getting in his way, for that matter.

He said the Heat presented a dilemma with Chris Bosh in the game at center, fearful that James could get into the foul lane and find an open teammate for an easy shot. It was hardly an indefensible strategy, since James finished the game with 10 assists by doing just that.

In retrospect, however, it would have been nice to have Hibbert in the game to defend those layups. Would Vogel apply the same strategy if the same situation comes up again?

“I don't know,” he said. “We'll have to evaluate and see what we'll do the next time. I would say we'll probably have (Hibbert) in next time.”

Hibbert, who has established himself as one of the league's best rim defenders in the league during the playoffs, was left to sit in front of his locker and answer waves of questions about having to watch those layups. He tried to be diplomatic, but he couldn't help but be honest.

“It was tough to watch,” said Hibbert, who finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. “I see why Coach took me out. Things could have been different if I was in. I might have gone to block the shot and LeBron could have passed it to Chris Bosh for a jumper. If I was in there and the same play went down I think I could have blocked it. You never know. But we win as a team and we lose as a team. I take a lot of responsibility for how things went down toward the end of the game.

“Paul put us in position to win. Somebody should have been there to contest (James' last layup). You can't just let the best player in the league just roll right to the basket.”

Somebody like Roy Hibbert?

“You can say that,” Hibbert said, pausing to allow himself a slight laugh. “But this one hurts.”

Did Hibbert ask Vogel why he wasn't in the game for the final lethal Heat possessions?

“As I get older I may have to do that,” he said. “But I completely trust Coach's decisions. It could have gone a totally different way if I was in there. Somebody else could have scored. It's how the game goes.”

George would have liked to see Hibbert in the game as well.

“Yeah, I think we all would,” he said. “He does an amazing job of protecting the rim. I'm 100 percent sure he would have been there (to defend the layups).”

If not for the final defensive lapses, the game would have been remembered as a testament to George's emerging greatness. He had just nine points after three quarters, but came alive down the stretch. The Heat appeared to have the game in control after George missed an awkward turnaround jumper and then threw the ball out of bounds off the offensive rebound, when Miami led by two. Ray Allen, however, one of the league's all-time great shooters, left the door open for a miracle by missing one of two foul shots with 17.7 seconds remaining, and George obliged by hitting a slightly off-balance 32-foot three-pointer with seven-tenths of a second remaining. Allen's forced three from the left corner at the final buzzer had no chance, and the game went to overtime.

Vogel, by the way, pulled Hibbert from the game on that final possession, going smaller to defend the perimeter.

George's hit a driving, falling layup and drew a foul from James in the overtime to give the Pacers a three-point lead with 2:10 left, but Miami tied the game on Bosh's three-point play off a tip-in that drew a foul from George. David West, who finished with 26 points, missed a 17-footer off a bad possession, setting up James' first layup that gave the Heat a two-point lead.

And then, following successive turnovers, George did it again on a fluke play. His inbounds pass to George Hill was off-target, bouncing off Hill's leg. Hill dove and recovered it, and flipped the ball to George, whose three-point attempt drew a questionable foul call from Dwyane Wade. Calmly, cooly, he hit all three foul shots to give the Pacers a 102-101 lead with 2.2 left.

Setting up James' final layup.

“At this point, every possession counts,” said George, who finished with 27 points, but six of the Pacers' 20 turnovers. “And that's what we've got to understand. Myself included.”

Every possession, indeed. Especially the last one.