Just how did the Pacers go from prosperity to panic?
From being in control of this series, ahead 2-1 a few days ago and pounding their collective chests, to retreating to Indiana a battered team facing the brink of playoff elimination?
“We struggled, they jumped on us,” George said after the Heat's 115-83 Game 5 victory gave Miami a 3-2 series lead. “It happens. This is going to be a battle. It's not going to be easy. The same way we won two games and talked about us closing them, they got two wins and now [there's] talk about them closing us.”
That's an understatement.
A few days ago, Miami was the team hampered by injuries. Chris Bosh was out with a strained abdomen sustained in Game 1, and Dwyane Wade turned in the worst playoff performance of his career in a Game 3 loss a day after he had his troublesome left knee drained of excess fluid.
Now the Pacers are the team limping into games after Tuesday's slugfest. Indiana was forced to finish the game without two of its best players, as Danny Granger sprained his left ankle and David West sprained his left knee in the third quarter. Both players will be re-evaluated in Indianapolis on Wednesday and are considered “day-to-day” by the team. West, Indiana's second-leading rebounder, said he expected to play Thursday and anticipated Granger, the Pacers' leading scorer on the season, to also be available.
All of a sudden, a Pacers team that prided itself on physical play and never backing down is the squad wondering just what hit it Tuesday amid a slew of blows that could warrant disciplinary action from the league before Game 6. The Heat and Pacers traded message-sending hard fouls throughout a game that ended with seldom-used Miami center Dexter Pittman extending an elbow and lunging violently into Indiana forward Lance Stephenson with 19 seconds left.
It was the third and final flagrant foul of the game, a shot that knocked both players off their feet and eventually sent Stephenson into the Heat's X-ray room with what turned out to be a bruised collarbone.
“There's no room for dirty play in our game, period,” LeBron James said. “We're all one group. At the end of the day, you don't want to see any player injured.”
But James also acknowledged that the rough play between the teams has been fueled by excessive tough talk between the games.
It started before Game 1, when Pacers coach Frank Vogel was fined $15,000 for his comments, including his accusation that the Heat flopped the most among NBA teams. Granger and West were among the Indiana players who then repeatedly vowed to stand up to the Heat under any circumstances. After Tuesday's shootaround, hours before Game 5, James said the Pacers' tough talk was “stupid.”
Through five games, the Pacers and Heat have combined for 234 personal fouls, including four flagrant-1 penalties in addition to five individual technical fouls.
“I go into a game with a physical mindset anyway,” James said. “Any time I drive into the lane, I feel like I'm going to get hit hard. So I brace myself. I think it's both; the [trash] talk has fueled physical play and the physical play has fueled the talk. We knew coming into this series it was going to be a physical series.”
The Pacers deny that they're now seeing the Heat beat them at their own game. They also refuse to believe Miami is now in control heading into the first elimination game. But even Pacers president Larry Bird is questioning his team's toughness in light of Tuesday's performance.
“I can't believe my team went soft,” Bird told the Indianapolis Star after the game. “S-O-F-T. I'm disappointed. I never thought it would have happened.”
After the last two games, Indiana appears to be reeling while Miami has regrouped after regaining its stride. The advantage in depth the Pacers seemed to have at the start of the series is now being countered by the Heat's role players finally stepping up with confidence. After season-long slumps and sluggish starts to the series, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem provided boosts in the past two games, while Mario Chalmers has neutralized Indiana point guards George Hill and Darren Collison in Games 3, 4 and 5.
“What we've talked about is 'Help us win,'” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of his message to Miami's role players in support of James and Wade. “It doesn't necessarily have to be scoring. We have a lot of guys that can impact winning even if that ball isn't going in [the basket].”
The Heat are now one victory away from advancing to the Eastern Conference finals for the second consecutive season. The Pacers need a win to force Game 7 in Miami on Saturday. Just a few days ago, Miami was the team soul-searching and struggling, while the Pacers were storming into a commanding position. Now the roles have changed over two games.
But Indiana insists it'll respond Thursday.
“We're going to go down fighting, and keep playing the way we're playing,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. “That's our identity. And if they want to hit us with cheap shots, that's fine. It's two aggressive teams playing. We let them get going and they kept on. We have to make some sort of adjustment, because I don't want to go fishing right now.”