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Pacers Take It In Stride

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 18, 2014

They led from start to finish, put five starters in double figures, broke their nasty habit of losing a series-opener on their home court, and looked like the better team.

Perhaps the Pacers' most impressive feat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, though, was their somber tone in the postgame locker room. Had someone skipped the game and just showed up for the conversations afterward, he wouldn't have known they had just completed a 107-96 victory in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Finals series with Miami. There wasn't a single whoop or a holler to be heard, nary a slap of a palm or a back, not even a smile.

It was just stone-faced guys wrapped in ice, soberly dissecting a game that appeared to signal the end of the late-season soap opera that had captured the attention of the nation. Even in their private moments before reporters arrived, they were reminding one another to stay focused for Game 2 on Tuesday.

“We've already talked about it,” David West said. “(The Heat) are too good of a team to let your guard down. They're too well-coached, and their system is so strong. Any mistake or any edge you give them, they're going to fully exploit. We can't be comfortable. We can't relax. Obviously it's just one game.”

Just one game. Out of seven, potentially. Against the two-time defending champs. Who have the game's best player, LeBron James, who is capable of stuffing his team into a backpack and carrying them to a victory.

Fans know how the Pacers can be when life gets good. Give them a comfort zone, they look for a recliner. They finished the regular season well and lost Game 1 to Atlanta on their homecourt. They finished off the Hawks in seven games and lost Game 1 to Washington on their homecourt. They took a 3-1 lead on the Wizards and were embarrassed in Game 5, getting outrebounded by 39, on their homecourt.

So now they're up 1-0 for the first time in this postseason, but, seemingly, fully aware that they lost home playoff games to the the Heat each of the past two seasons. What you saw as you circulated through the locker room was guys sitting in front of their locker space, talking calmly. What you heard were comments such as:

“Tonight was a good night,” Roy Hibbert said. “We'll see tomorrow.”

“There's nothing to celebrate,” George Hill said. “It's not like we won a championship. It's one game. Yes, it's good but if we come out and lay an egg on Tuesday, this game doesn't mean anything.”

“We haven't done anything,” West said.

Those are words. Cliches, in fact. Their actions spoke louder. Or, should we say, non-actions? Their oncourt demeanor was as good as it's been all season, particularly coming from one Lance Stephenson. He was outscored by his match-up, future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade, 27-17, but not outplayed. Stephenson hit 8-of-12 shots, took only one bad one, passed out eight assists, grabbed four rebounds, had just two turnovers in a game-high 41 minutes, and kept his cool throughout.

Contrast that to the most recent regular season meeting between the two teams, on March 26, when he was ejected with 5:01 left after picking up his second technical foul, for staring down Wade after scoring on him.

His self-analysis: “I was very poised, I made the right play, I didn't over-react when I scored, I just played the right way and tried to get my teammates involved.”

How did this transformation come about?

Stephenson said he's learned from Wade, who maintains his poise and doesn't get caught up in personal skirmishes amid the bigger battle. And, he's learned from watching himself and not enjoying the view.

“I watch myself sometimes on film and saw that I was doing too much sometimes,” he said. “I just tried to play poised and when I make something happen I keep the same face the whole game and don't show my expressions.”

Stone-faced and dedicated to poise, the Pacers move on to Game 2. It will be the most revealing game of their season, and perhaps the biggest.

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