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Pacers Let 'em Off The Hook

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 21, 2014 at 1:52 a.m.

Had former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green been there to see it, he would have known exactly how to summarize it.

“They are who we thought they were! And we let 'em off the hook!”

The Pacers seemed to have their game – and their series – with Miami under control Tuesday, on the verge of taking a 2-0 lead and forcing the two-time defending champions to win four of the next five games to keep their three-peat hopes alive. Up three points with 5 ½ minutes to go, and having the ball with a chance to increase that lead, they gave up a 10-0 run that turned the game. The Heat made the kind of plays that champions make, scoring on their next eight possessions. The Pacers blinked, missing four straight shots and committing two turnovers during that dry heave.

In other words, the Heat were who the Pacers thought they were. And, yes, they let them off the hook.

Miami's 87-83 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse tied the series and stole the momentum from the Pacers, who had dominated Game 1 to such a degree that expectations were at a fever pitch. The Pacers have won playoff games in Miami each of the past two seasons, and believe they can do it again, but they knew they had let the Heat lift a valuable possession right out of their pocket.

“We were too careless with the basketball,” David West said. “We knew they were going to apply pressure, we just didn't handle it. We felt the game was in hand, but we didn't close in terms of making enough plays, particularly with the basketball. We gave them turnovers for touchdowns, which we know is deadly and we have to avoid at all costs with this team.”

Added Paul George, who took a knee to the head from Wade in the fourth quarter and finished the game with blurry vision:

“We were in control of this game for 44, 45 minutes. We just made some plays down the stretch that cost us.”

The Heat took it, too, though. LeBron James and Wade combined to score 23 of Miami's 25 points in the final quarter, including the last 20. The only field goal they didn't get, a three-pointer by Norris Cole early in the period, came off James' assist. The Pacers have the more balanced starting lineup and perhaps the better overall roster, but they don't have two obvious future Hall of Famers who can take over a game.

“I mean, I just play the game,” James said. “However the game presents itself, I just try to take advantage of it.”

Concede James and Wade their greatness, but the Pacers let 'em off the hook. After shooting just 29 percent in the second period and trailing by eight points in the final 30 seconds, they got within four at the half. Lance Stephenson finished it by leaping high and stretching out his right arm for a graceful one-handed tip off George's inbounds lob from the baseline with 0.1 on the clock.

Stephenson went on to dominate the third quarter, scoring 10 of his game-high 25 points as the Pacers built a lead that peaked at seven with two minutes left. He hit four-of-seven shots, grabbed three rebounds and passed out two assists. At one point he scored from underneath the basket on West's feed, was knocked down by Udonis Haslem, got up and tapped his forehead three times on the padding on the basket support. He missed the free throw that followed, and missed a fastbreak layup on the next possession, but hit a 28-foot three-pointer the next time down to open a six-point lead.

Stephenson all but disappeared in the fourth quarter, failing to score until just 13.4 seconds remained. Miami gave credit for that to Cole, the 6-2, 175-pound point guard who switched onto him at James' suggestion.

“He likes to dance with the ball and he likes to get herky-jerky with his dribble,” Cole said. “I feel that my strength is being an on-ball defender.”

That move allowed Wade to defend George, and James to take the Pacers' point guard, whether it was George Hill or C.J. Watson. Wade said Cole did a “phenomenal job,” although Stephenson didn't give credit.

“I felt like I was involved,” Stephenson said. “We just didn't make shots tonight.”

Nor did they defend well enough. Or take care of the ball well enough. If there was one crystallizing play, it came when James stripped the ball from Hill who was going up for a shot – probably getting away with a foul – rushed downcourt and missed a layup. Wade, though, followed to rebound it and give the Heat a five-point lead with 3:18 left. Two stars, covering for one another.

James also got two layups in the quarter on backdoor cuts.

“We should have done a better job – I should have done a better job,” said George, James' defender. “I mean, that's the only way we're going to give up points, off backcuts.”

The Pacers looked like a team that needs three days before having to play again. But they didn't sound like a team that has lost much confidence. They've won playoff games in Miami each of the past two seasons. And while they've given up homecourt advantage to the Heat, that's nothing new. They had to fight back in the first and second rounds, too, after losing Game 1 of their series with Atlanta and Washington.

“This team has handled a lot of different moments throughout the season, throughout these playoffs, particularly on the road,” West said. “Our confidence is as high as it's ever been.”

The defending champions, though, can't be let off the hook too often.

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