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Pacers Win a Playoff Primer

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

March 27, 2014 | 2:30 a.m.

None of the usual handshakes and hugs and other pre-game pleasantries. A flagrant foul that nearly caused a concussion. Several hard fouls. An ejection.

Oh, and plenty of basketball drama, too.

What the Pacers and Miami delivered on Wednesday had all the markings of a playoff game. It wasn't, but it was at least the biggest game the Pacers have played in this regular season, and going back several more as well. Their 84-83 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse gave them a three-game lead over the Heat in the Eastern Conference, and moved them a large step closer to securing the top seed in the playoffs.

Equally important: the Pacers competed. From a team that had been strangely passive in most games over the past several weeks, that was at least temporary relief for the fans who had been wondering where the team of the season's first two months had gone.

“Tonight was fun,” Paul George said, after throwing 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and just one turnover on the pile of contributions. “That's what (Miami) brings out of us. They're the champions and they know how to bring toughness.”

The Pacers were tough enough, although just barely. Tough enough to overcome Lance Stephenson's ejection, George Hill's two missed free throws, their overall spotty field goal shooting and LeBron James' 38 points. Whether they're tough enough to make this victory become a springboard rather than an exception to its recent play remains to be seen, but for one night, at least, the recent ills were forgotten and hope was revived.

In a game that took on the look of a heavyweight fight, with both sides trading body blows and jabs to the head – literally, sometimes – two plays stood out.

David West hit his fourth three-pointer of the season with 50.2 seconds left for a four-point lead, improvising an inbounds play following a timeout.

“We were pretty much stuck,” said West, who hit just 3-of-11 shots in the game. “It felt like the best opportunity was for me to step out. The play was for me to roll toward the rim. Just shot it with confidence. And it went in.”

Before that, George had blown by James and finished with a two-handed dunk that brought the Pacers within a point early in the fourth quarter, after the Heat had built a seven-point lead in the third. Up to that point of the second half, Miami had been the clear aggressor, playing with the force and swagger of a defending champion sending a reminder to a younger brother. George's play, which forced a Miami timeout, changed the game's complexion and momentum.

“I just had to finish,” George said. “Against LeBron, you just have to attack him. He's a great defender. I knew once I attacked and got around him, I had to finish at the rim.”

For some, it was reminiscent of George's dunk in a conference finals game last season in Miami, when he beat James off the dribble and threw down a one-handed slam.

George saw no comparison, however.

“No, this was nowhere close,” he said.

What was close to last season's playoff success was the Pacers' winning approach. By now it should be obvious to all concerned that they need balance to beat the best. They aren't the type of team that can be carried by one or two players, they need the majority of their starters sharing the load. Last Friday, all five scored in double figures when they beat Chicago, This time, four of them scored between 13 and 23.

George took 19 shots, the same as James, but didn't force many when the shot clock wasn't expiring. It was a lesson re-learned. The less he tries to play a starring role on offense, the more his teammates step from the shadows and the better the production turns out.

“We don't want Paul working too hard,” West said. “The last few games he's been trying to do too much on his own, in terms of creating off the dribble. We want to make sure we get him shots in rhythm. He's keeping the defense honest, not letting them figure out what he's going to do every single play.”

Hill was the lone starter missing from most of the offensive action Wednesday, and threatened to undo the work of the others. Chris Bosh's three-pointer brought Miami within a point with 2.9 seconds left, and Hill was fouled with 2.3 remaining. An 83 percent shooter this season, he missed both. Miami called timeout with 2 seconds left to set up a play for a shot to win the game, but Bosh ended the game with an air ball.

Hill later returned to the court with a ballboy while fans were filing out and hit two foul shots at the same basket, to erase some of the pain. He could afford to smile about it afterward, which was more than Stephenson could do about his gaffe.

Stephenson played well, scoring 15 points to match Dwyane Wade's production, but let his emotions get the best of him after hitting a left-handed layup in traffic with 5:02 left. Hopping up quickly to get back on defense, he paused as he passed by Wade and said something in his face. Wade seemed amused by it all, but the referee standing nearby did not and whistled Stephenson for a technical foul. It was his second of the game, the first coming as part of a double-technical with Wade in the first quarter, after Stephenson had engaged Mario Chalmers in some extracurricular activity in front of the Miami bench.

Fortunately for George, Evan Turner subbed in and scored on consecutive driving layups to take the Pacers from a three-point deficit to a one-point lead, setting up West's three-pointer.

With a Pacers media department official standing nearby and taking notes, Stephenson was contrite afterward.

“I just try to get my teammates hyped and the crowd involved,” he said. “I let my teammates down by doing that. I'm wrong.”

Stephenson said he watched West's three-pointer on television in the locker room, then headed for the shower.

“I didn't want to see nothing else,” he said. “I'm just happy we got the W.”

Stephenson's ejection was a quick topic of conversation in the postgame locker room, from coaches and players alike.

“We addressed it after the game,” West said. “He's got to mature. We're better when he's on the floor. And he's got to grow. He's got to let some of the things he does, his antics, they've got to be eliminated. Particularly at this stage. He got that tech and they hit a three (on their next possession). It could have cost us the game.”

The worst pain of all, however, belonged to Roy Hibbert, who scored 13 of his 21 points in the first quarter and forced former Indiana Mr. Basketball Greg Oden out of the game with two quick fouls, never to return. Hibbert's jaw caught the brunt of James' right elbow on a driving shot with 8:47 left in the game. Hibbert lay on the court for a couple of minutes while the referees reviewed the play, and called a Flagrant 1 penalty on James.

The preliminary postgame check revealed no concussion, but Hibbert was still fuzzy-headed as he talked with reporters.

“I don't remember how he hit me,” Hibbert said, rubbing his left jaw. “I was going straight up and the next thing I knew I was on the floor.”

The important thing for the Pacers was that James didn't score on the play. He did manage to drive on Hibbert a couple of times, but his success was limited. He settled mostly for jump shots, and hit enough to keep the Heat in the game nearly by himself. But he also had six turnovers.

“He's a terrific player, but how consistently can a player go through my body and hit a shot?” Hibbert said of James. “I think he was two-for-four against me.”

Last Friday, the Pacers handled Chicago in a game that seemed to put them back on their proper course. That turned out to be a false impression, as they followed with poor performances in losses at Memphis and Chicago. Will this win set them straight for their next games at Washington on Friday and Cleveland on Monday?

They made no promises.

“From inside the locker room, the sky's never been falling around here,” West said. “We've just sort of maintained who we are. This is just another good win. We're glad we beat a quality team. We did some good things.”

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