Pacers coach Frank Vogel has won the halftime battle over Erik Spoelstra so far.
INDIANAPOLIS – Frank Vogel calls them his Vince Lombardi moments.
It's those times when the Indiana Pacers' coach claims to deliver just the right motivational message and make the most effective adjustments before he sends his team out after halftime in the perfect frame against the Miami Heat.
“I'm a genius,” Vogel sarcastically quipped. “That simple.”
How the Pacers have taken a surprising 2-1 series lead against the Heat entering Game 4 Sunday might be a bit more complicated to explain than what Vogel has let on.
But not by much.
Among the adjustments Miami hopes to make is to buck a recent trend in which the Pacers have dominated the third quarter in each of the past two games to take control of this series. For whatever reason, the Heat have been a bit sluggish coming out of the locker room after halftime. And as a result, they've been slammed to start the second half.
The Pacers have outscored the Heat 54-26 in the third quarters of the past two games, which includes holding Miami to just 12 points in the period in Game 3 on the way to a 94-75 victory on Thursday to pull ahead in the series.
Miami has shot just 31.5 percent in what has proved to be the decisive period in its matchup with Indiana. The Heat haven't fared much better overall, and are shooting only 37.6 percent through three entire games.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra admitted after Saturday's practice that his team's third quarter production – or lack thereof – has been a longstanding problem that also affected the team during the first-round series against New York. Even last season, the Heat's inconsistency in making halftime adjustments – or responding to them – was a source of criticism all the way through the loss in the Finals to Dallas after squandering a 2-1 series lead.
“That's somewhere we have to be much better at,” Spoelstra said entering Sunday's game. “That's not exclusive to this series. We had a little bit of a problem with that against New York and in the regular season. Our guys understand that we have to come out with a different mentality and force in that third quarter. No question.”
Miami typically has done its most effective work defensively in the second and fourth quarter this season, with their opponents shooting higher percentages from the field in the first and third quarters – right after coming out of the locker room. Vogel said he's noticed the trend, but hasn't had to make many adjustments to capitalize because the third has always been a breakout period for Indiana.
“Our starters have played well against just about everybody all year,” Vogel said of the Pacers, who averaged 25.1 points a game in the third this season, their most of any quarter. “That unit has played at a level the Pacers haven't seen in quite some time. When they come out strong in the third quarter, we ride them a little longer than usual. And that's what led to these third quarter leads.”
The Pacers insist they take full advantage of the opportunity to regroup during the extended break between the first and second halves. It represents a fresh start.
“It's just part of the game we feel we can come out and execute because the information is still fresh in our heads,” forward David West said. “So we try to put a lot of emphasis on that point of the game. But it's more than just five guys, the starters. The bench guys come in and up the pace, up the edge and continue to pressure the other team.”
Several factors have affected the Heat's immediate performance after halftime in this series. In Game 1, Miami was forced into a major adjustment when starter Chris Bosh left the game in the second quarter with an abdominal strain that is expected to sideline him for the rest of the series.
Ironically, the Heat won the third quarter of that game and outscored the Pacers 53-38 overall in the second half. In Game 2, Miami missed 14 of 17 shots in the third and were outscored by 14 points en route to a 78-75 win for the Pacers in Miami. In Thursday's loss, Spoelstra switched his starting lineup in the third and inserted Ronny Turiaf at center after Dexter Pittman had a horrible three-minute stint to open the game.
While the Heat have been searching for answers after the half, the Pacers have been all about stability.
“I think we've done a good job of making adjustments, picking spots where we can attack and (identifying) where we're being attacked,” Pacers forward Danny Granger said. “That third quarter … It's been pivotal for us.”