Can Indiana beat Miami when it matters?

PacersAndy Lyons/Getty Images

Can the Pacers pull even with the Heat?INDIANAPOLIS -- Every year we are reminded of the reductive nature of the NBA playoffs. The fizz of the regular season just blows right off when teams are put to the test repeatedly against top competition.

It’s been one year full of roster moves, player development, strategy changes, dozens of practices and about 90 preseason, regular-season and playoff games. Through all that, it’s back to the exact same question of a year ago: Can the Indiana Pacers beat the Miami Heat when it really matters?

Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals will provide a simple yes or no. All that time, money and work comes down to it.

If the Heat win, it’s 3-1 going back to Miami and it’s probably curtains for the Pacers as everyone can set their schedules for a Heat-San Antonio Spurs Finals to start in Miami on June 6.

If the Pacers win, the circumstances shift significantly and it morphs into a three-game series in which each team has proved it can win on the other’s court.

Furthermore, the Pacers would have proved they can beat the Heat under duress, something they were unable to do last season. They couldn’t handle it when the Heat went chest-to-chest with them after they achieved a 2-1 series lead.

The indications after Sunday night weren’t great for Indiana. The Heat clearly went into the game playing at their highest level, as they did last season for Games 4-6, when they knocked the Pacers to their heels, and it was the same result. The Pacers had no answer for the rotating punches of the Heat’s waves of talent, and Indiana’s once-strong spirits took a beating.

The Pacers' entire season will pretty much come down to whether they can respond with this second chance in roughly the same predicament they were in last year. That’s an unfriendly reality, but that’s what it is.

“They’re a great team, there’s a reason they won all those games,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re going to have to play our best game to beat them, but I have confidence we can do that.”

The Pacers were a little shell-shocked in the wake of Game 3. They came home with the series 1-1 convinced they had closed the gap with the Heat. But when Miami’s offense -- which statistically was one of the best the league has seen in the past decade during the regular season -- finally kicked into gear, the Pacers staggered.

It wasn’t exactly a lack of respect or a classic rope-a-dope, but the effect was the same. The Heat snapped to attention and deployed their weapons, and the Pacers went from giddy to sober to sullen. LeBron James was killing it in the post, Dwyane Wade was killing it in the pick-and-roll and the Heat’s legion of shooters collectively ended a recent slump.

“We have our work cut out for us,” said Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who had led the team’s optimism wagon after the first two games of the series. “It’s very hard to win when they play like that.”

The Pacers had a long workday on Memorial Day. Vogel hinted at making some defensive changes to deal with the challenges Miami has presented them. He said he went over them with his assistant coaches in a brainstorming session.

Then the team held an extended film session -- the Heat held their film session and wrapped their brief practice before the Pacers were even out of their locker room -- followed by a long practice.

“It's probably the most difficult offense to prepare for in the NBA today,” Vogel said. “That's a challenge we have ahead of us.”

The Pacers were the No. 1-ranked defensive team in the regular season and shut down the New York Knicks’ strong offense in the previous round. But through three games in this series, the Heat are averaging 103 points and shooting 50 percent from the field.

They are giving the Pacers looks and plays they are not used to, such as starting sets with all five players beyond the 3-point line and using atypical pick-and-roll combinations. It has taken the Pacers out of their comfort zone defensively, which has been Miami’s highly effective strategy all season.

“We’ve got to stay the course and rely on our abilities and what got us here,” Pacers forward David West said. “We can’t overreact. We’ve got to believe our defense will hold.”

This is the first series in which the Pacers have trailed this postseason, and it was evident in their mood. Technically, their season is not yet on the brink, but there was no mistaking they were going to look at Game 4 like it was an elimination game.

“We saw what Miami looked like with their backs against the wall in coming here, having lost home-court advantage,” Vogel said. “Now it's our turn to come out and show what we look like with our backs against the wall.”