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Sunday, May 18, 2014
Heat can't stop Indy's opening approach

By Michael Wallace

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Pacers carry a 1-0 series lead into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday largely because they played a dynamic brand of offense, the likes of which even their most loyal followers forgot they were capable of playing.

They passed their way to 23 assists, which matched their highest total of the playoffs.

They attacked the rim and drew fouls, which resulted in the 22-point advantage at the free throw line and registered as the second-largest discrepancy in franchise history.

And one of the most anemic offenses in the league drilled 3-pointers and cracked the 100-point mark in a playoff game for what felt like the first time since Reggie Miller was popping shots through the nets.

Roy Hibbert wasn’t necessarily the version of Roy Abdul-Jabbar he has known to be at times against this Miami Heat team he gets up for like no other. But he also didn’t hit rock bottom at the other end of the spectrum and turn into Roy Olowokandi or Roy Kwame Brown, either.

So no -- other than possibly petitioning the league to start Game 2 immediately after the Game 1 matinee ended -- the Pacers couldn’t ask for anything more under the circumstances from their 107-96 victory against the Miami Heat on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Miami, on the other hand, lost Game 1 as much with its spirit as with its suspect approach and play at times on both ends of the court. The Heat arrived in Indiana with a spirit of concession. To know their history since LeBron James landed in Miami four years ago is to realize that a postseason series is hardly done just because they fumbled away Game 1.

But that doesn’t dismiss the notion that this spirit of giving that haunted the Heat on Sunday and left them calmly and casually looking forward to Tuesday when the series really gets started has been months in the making with this team.

The Heat conceded about a dozen or so games in the regular season to better their chances of entering the playoffs healthy. They essentially gave away the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage in the final days of the regular season despite snatching it away from the Pacers with a week to go.

The outcome of Sunday’s game came as no surprise when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra conceded size, bulk and a sturdier defensive presence by starting Shane Battier instead of Udonis Haslem and also leaving Greg Oden on the inactive list. The Heat surrendered 30 points in the first quarter, trailed by 10 at the half and fell down by as many as 19 in the third quarter before any sense of resistance was revealed.

Naturally, when it came time for Spoelstra to defend his choices and his team’s play, he deferred on an opening statement after the game and conceded to the media.

“Questions?” Spoelstra beckoned after only the Heat’s second loss of these playoffs.

Then came the give and take. Almost fittingly, this was when the Heat found some level of comfort as they explained away what went wrong and what needed to be fixed by Tuesday. It was easy reach the conclusion after making just 26 percent of their 3-pointers but finishing 51.3 percent overall from the floor that offense wasn’t the major problem in a game that saw LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combine for 52 points on 23-of-36 shooting.

“I mean, that’s probably us at our worst defensively,” Spoelstra said.

The Heat are down 1-0 in the best-of-7 series because they didn’t take one thing away from Indiana.

They failed to defend the 3-point line, where the Pacers set the tone from the outset after George Hill sank a wide-open look from the corner for the first points of the game. Indiana made eight of 19 3-point shots.
LeBron James
LeBron James and the Heat find themselves down 1-0, which is not unusual.

The Heat didn’t keep Hibbert and David West out of the paint, and that tandem combined for 38 points, 16 rebounds and 17 free throw attempts. Miami certainly couldn’t keep Indiana off the foul line, and there wasn’t even an answer for Lance Stephenson’s shenanigans.

You would have thought the Pacers had a played called “Rucker,” considering the way Stephenson, the former New York City prep legend, repeatedly went playground with his dribbling, dipping and dodging for long stretches of the shot clock before dropping buckets.

“It was a lot of mistakes, and they took advantage,” James said. “It was a little bit of everything. We had a lot of breakdowns. But as a veteran team, we’ll watch film, break it down and be better prepared in Game 2. We’ll be more mentally prepared for their actions.”

Spoelstra put his team in a tough spot by going small against the bigger and more rugged Pacers. And the Heat didn’t do enough during the game to bail Spoelstra out of that costly gamble. By the time he made the lineup switch to start Haslem in the second half for Battier, the Pacers were already in a rhythm.

Going small also meant playing James extensively at power forward against West. There are many opponents the Heat can get away with this against, and Spoelstra often praises James’ for being a “1-through-5” defender for his ability to take on any assignment.

But asking James to do that against these Pacers, and then running the offense at the other end, is the one time the Heat might get burned for requiring the four-time MVP to do too much. James didn’t complain about the assignment or suggest it might be prudent to reconsider the task. He’s too much of a competitor for that, and there is the pride factor.

But there was this: “Obviously, it’s a very physical front line,” James said of the Pacers. “It’s going to have to be a collective group. We all have to get down there and help one another out.”

That’s about as far as James will go in raising his hand for help.

The Heat can still lose some aspects of the game, yet win the series.

They just can’t extend the Pacers a buffet of options on which to feast. Add a bad performance from Mario Chalmers and mix in a disappearing act from Chris Bosh, and it equates to a recipe for disaster.

That said, it would be foolish to question the Heat’s hunger in these situations. They simply tend to gradually build an appetite. Three years ago, they lost Game 1 of the conference finals on the road to Chicago and rallied to win the next four to get to the NBA Finals.

Two years ago, the exact same script played out in the NBA Finals against Oklahoma City.

And last year, Miami gave away Game 1 at home to the Spurs and rallied from a 3-2 series deficit to secure their second consecutive championship.

“It’s easy to move on from it, because we’re a team that understands where we lost the game,” Wade said Sunday when asked about the Heat’s track record of responding to Game 1 defeats. “We’re a team that owns up to the things we need to do better. This is the first game, and they drew first blood. And we’ve got to come [back] and figure it out. We’re a confident team.”

Based on their tendencies, this is all part of the Heat’s postseason give and take.

Consider it par for the course. Miami got its routine Game 1 mulligan out of the way.

Conceding anything else in this series might prove too costly.