With or Without Paul George, Pacers Know the Blueprint for Game 3 Victory
May 23, 2014
“Every game’s a Game 7.”
That was Pacers head coach Frank Vogel’s response when asked after practice Thursday how important it would be for Indiana to win Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday night at American Airlines Arena.
“We saw, as indicated the other night, anything can happen in a seven-game series that could take guys out for a couple games or the end of a game,” Vogel continued. “We had David West get scratched in the eye, couldn’t see for the last few minutes. Paul George gets his bell rung. Anything can happen, so we have to approach every game like it’s Game 7.”
The Pacers fly to Miami Friday looking to continue their impressive road dominance this postseason, taking a 5-1 playoff record away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse to South Florida with the series tied 1-1.
But Indiana isn’t playing the Atlanta Hawks or Washington Wizards in their respective buildings come this weekend. They’ll be taking the floor against the two-time defending champions in their home, fresh off a Game 2 outcome that seemed to give the Heat a sense that they wrestled control of their destiny back after faltering in Game 1.
“This is the playoffs, there’s a lot on the line,” Lance Stephenson said after finishing his regimen of corner 3-pointers to end practice. “They’re gonna try to go after us. We’ve just gotta be mentally sharp, prepare for the hits, and throw hits back. It’s tough. The crowd is on us. They don’t give us any breaks. We’ve just gotta mentally block them out and just play basketball.”
Though the stakes are much higher as the two Eastern Conference heavyweights each stand three victories away from the NBA Finals, the Pacers can draw from what they were able to accomplish away from home in the six road games they have played in so far this postseason.
Indiana averaged 12.3 turnovers per game in those six contests, two fewer than they averaged during the regular season (14.5). If you omit the game out of those six in which they turned the ball over 18 times (Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Wizards in Washington), they averaged 11.2 in the other five games.
Limiting turnovers will be one of the biggest keys for the Pacers if they want to be in a position to return home for Wednesday’s Game 5 with at least a 2-2 series tie. In last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, in which Indiana pushed Miami to seven games, the Pacers lost three out of the four games they played at American Airlines Arena, including the decisive Game 7. In those three losses, they averaged 19.3 turnovers.
When it comes to forcing turnovers, Miami’s defense is lethal. The Heat ranked first in the NBA during the regular season in the percentage of opponents’ possessions that resulted in a turnover (15.8). And they have the game’s best defensive player in LeBron James, who commonly caps his theft of a basketball with a vicious slam on the other end, providing explosive punctuation to how painful ball control mistakes become when playing Miami.
In the first two games of the series, the Pacers did a fairly good job of taking care of the basketball, turning it over 12 times in Game 1 and 10 times in Game 2, though those miscues combined to give Miami 28 points.
But tightening up possessions will be of paramount concern when they take the floor amid a sea of white-clad fans hungry to witness the presentation of a third consecutive NBA championship trophy next month.
Stephenson, who has been prone to accumulating turnovers at a rapid rate with his improvisational style of play, has made it a point recently to cut down on the number of times he gives the ball away. During the regular season, Stephenson’s turnover percentage (the number of turnovers per 100 plays) was 18.4, up nearly four from last season. But during the playoffs, that figure has gone down to 15.7 percent.
Stephenson said that he hasn’t been alone in that effort, and that the entire team is focused on making sure turnovers don’t lead to a premature end to their season.
“They’re gonna come out aggressive, and they’re gonna be hyped at their house,” he said of the Heat. “Right now I feel like we’re doing a good job of not turning the ball over and making smart plays. I mean, just the last three minutes of that stretch (in Game 2) they came out with big defense and made us turn the ball over.
“But I think we’re good. I think our guys know when to make the right pass, and we’re not trying to do too much. Whatever the defense gives us, we’re making that pass. I think if we keep doing that, we’ll be fine.”
Another area that hurt the Pacers in last season’s conference finals was Indiana’s poor bench play. The starters had to log heavy minutes in that series against Miami because of the second unit’s suspect performance, and it cost them in Game 7, when the first five were just too exhausted to keep up with the battle-tested Heat in what became a 99-76 rout.
In that series, the most minutes any bench player averaged was 14.1 by D.J. Augustin. But he wasn’t very effective, averaging 2.4 points and 0.6 assists as the backup point guard. No other second unit player averaged more than 10.2 minutes per game (Tyler Hansbrough), and no other bench player averaged more than 4.1 points or three rebounds (both Hansbrough).
The bench was bolstered during the offseason in the hope that things would be different in a rematch against Miami this time around. Now we’re there, and the bench has been inconsistent, just as it had been during the regular season. Through the first two games of this year’s series, the Heat bench has outscored the Pacers’ bench 46-22.
The two main additions to the roster, Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, combined to shoot 1-for-10 from the field in Game 2. Scola’s +/- was -6, and Watson’s was -13. Scola only attempted three shots in Game 1, connecting on one for two points. Watson was solid in 18 Game 1 minutes, going 3-of-4 from the floor for 11 points.
The only other bench player to score for Indiana in this series so far is Rasual Butler, who was 2-for-3 with two 3-pointers in Game 2.
“It’s behind us,” Watson said of the Game 2 bench woes. “We’re looking forward to Game 3 to get a chance to play better. We know we didn’t play good the first two games, so we’ve gotta come out and make a statement and help our starters out.”
Watson said his personal struggles in Game 2 were really a matter of missing makeable shots, not hesitancy or the wrong approach.
“I think we just missed shots,” he said. “I air-balled the first one, the next one I missed; great shots, both great looks. All the shots I took I think were great shots, they weren’t forced or anything like that. I just missed them. Sometimes you miss them, and sometimes they go in … the first game they went in, the second game they didn’t’.”
With Paul George’s status for Game 3 uncertain after he suffered a concussion upon colliding with Dwyane Wade’s knee when scrambling for a loose ball in Game 2, the quality of minutes Indiana’s second unit provides Saturday night will be even more critical.
Related: Paul George's Status Remains Uncertain For Game 3
“It’s very important,” Watson said of the bench playing well in the event George is unable to go in Game 3. “We’ll have to pick up the slack both offensively and defensively, and just try to set that kind of tempo and get some points on the board for the second unit.”
Watson wasn’t with the Pacers when they played in their epic Eastern Conference Finals battle against the Heat last year, but he knows playing in Miami will be a challenge.
“It’s gonna be hard,” he said of what awaits Saturday. “We know that we’ve gotta play defense first and foremost, and that’s what’s going to carry us out to a win, and just play solid on offense.”
Limiting turnovers. Solid bench play. Those two elements, combined with the swarming defense that the Pacers used to hold the defending champions to 87 points in Game 2 (after they averaged 102.2 during the regular season) make up the blueprint for a Game 3 victory.
The headlines leading up to the contest will be dominated by the status of one Paul George. But with or without him in the starting lineup, the Pacers know what they need to do to walk off the court Saturday night with a 2-1 series lead.
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