MIAMI (AP) — Chris Bosh stood up in a relatively quiet Miami Heat locker room and offered a concise, blunt and accurate assessment of where things stand so far in the Eastern Conference finals.
“Our backs are against the wall,” Bosh said.
He’s absolutely correct. Advantage, Indiana.
Over the first two games of these Eastern Conference finals in Miami, it was Indiana that primarily had control, never allowing the reigning NBA champions to hold anything more than a five-point lead. The Pacers got a split for their efforts, and now head home to Indianapolis for Game 3 on Sunday night, surely aware that they’ve already taken a huge step toward pulling off what would undoubtedly be called a huge upset.
“It’s even. It’s 1-1,” Pacers star Paul George said. “They have the possibility of a split as well and taking home-court advantage back. So it’s even. We don’t feel like they’ve got the upper hand on us. We don’t feel like we’ve got the upper hand on them.”
If they were inclined, the Pacers could be justified to feel otherwise.
Other than letting Game 1 slip away when LeBron James was allowed basically unfettered access to the rim for an easy score on the final play of overtime, Indiana couldn’t have asked for more out of its few days in South Florida. The Pacers handed the Heat what became their fourth loss in 50 games. They grabbed home-court advantage. They had the Heat juggling rotations more than at any point so far in this postseason.
Maybe most importantly, they get a sports rarity: A do-over.
A year ago, the Pacers split two games in Miami, took the series back to Indianapolis and couldn’t ultimately finish the job. Losing to the Heat last season has haunted the Pacers to some extent ever since, so perhaps it’s fitting that a year later — albeit one round deeper into the playoffs — the same scenario has presented itself again.
“This whole team is showing great desire and great heart and great belief,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “And that’s the only way to put what these guys are doing right now, is they believe we can win this series, and they’re giving it all their might. All their might. And they’re playing with confidence and they are rising to the challenge. I’m very, very proud of them. We still have a lot of work to do. We all understand that.”
So far in this postseason, work has seemed easy for the Pacers in Indianapolis.
Indiana is 6-0 at home in these playoffs, winning by an average of 14 points. The Heat are 4-0 on the road this postseason, also winning those games by an average of 14 points.
Welcome to the “something’s got to give” scenario.
“We just stay even-keeled,” James said. “We don’t get too high, we don’t get too low in the series. We know we’re going to go into a hostile environment against a very good team, and we look forward to the challenge.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if James spent the 45 hours spanning the end of Game 2 to the start of Game 3 replaying two passes in his mind, over and over again.
With the Heat down two, James twice tried to get passes to Ray Allen in the final 45 seconds. Both were broken up by West for turnovers that doomed Miami’s comeback hopes, and it was just the second time in James’ last 442 games where he was charged with two turnovers in the final minute of a fourth quarter, according to STATS.
Indiana’s defensive brilliance in this series goes beyond making passing lanes disappear late in Game 2.
The Pacers defended the 3-pointer better than anyone in the league during the regular season, while Miami had the second-best percentage from beyond the arc. That matchup has been all Indiana so far, with the Pacers keeping the Heat to a 30 percent clip. Ray Allen, the most prolific 3-point shooter in league history, is 1 for 6 from that distance. Shane Battier is 0 for 6. Norris Cole, who came up big in the Chicago series, is 1 for 4.
“We’re a growing and evolving team,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. “I think our defense really won us the game for us. … A lot of times teams just start buckling, and we’ve been through the wringer before. We’re young guys, but we know what we’re doing.”
Hibbert — a matchup nightmare for Miami — has made 19 of 33 shots in the series, averaging 24 points and 9.5 rebounds. George has scored 49 points in the two games. West has scored 39, got to the foul line more than anyone else in the first two games, and made the two huge defensive plays late in Game 2 while being asked to guard a sharpshooter like Allen, no less.
“Take nothing away from their ‘Big Three’ and what they have going,” George said, referring to James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh. “But we’ll take a ‘Big Five’ any day. And that’s what we have. We have a ‘Big Five’ where we have guys who can make plays and we don’t lean on one guy. It’s a team contribution and that’s how we play the game.”
James has scored 66 points in the series, one less than what Wade and Bosh have combined for against the Pacers. He also leads the Heat in free throws made and attempted, offensive rebounds, total rebounds and assists in the series.
Even the Pacers’ George Hill compared James to God after Game 2. And it was James who, with a brilliant effort in Indianapolis last year, found a way to save Miami in that series. He sounds eager to try and make it happen again.
“I am very disappointed in my judgment and my plays down the stretch,” James said. “But I’ll make up for them.”