Pacers yield home-court advantage
INDIANAPOLIS -- A lethal combination of speed, power, aggression and sheer dominance in the final stages of Tuesday's Eastern Conference finals playoff game made LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seem like a collective blur to many who watched.
They actually were a blur to Paul George.
"I ... blacked out," George said. "Felt like I was a little bit dazed for the last five minutes of the game."
George literally never saw what hit him late Tuesday night. A collision with Wade during a scramble for a loose ball midway through the fourth quarter left the Indiana Pacers All-Star forward face down on the court and slow to get up after he took a shot to the back of the head.
Two minutes later, Indiana forward David West wobbled directly toward the locker room after taking a hit in the eye, but would later return. By the time the Pacers regained their senses enough to comprehend what hit them, the damage was already inflicted.
For 82 games during the regular season, Indiana made it an absolute priority to secure home-court advantage for this moment against this annual nemesis. And all it took was one night, two games into this series and furious fourth-quarter flurry from the Heat to snatch it away with a 87-83 victory in Game 2.
At a time when James and Wade were combining to score 22 of Miami's 25 points in the fourth quarter, the Pacers were slowly falling apart. Instead of extending a four-point lead midway through the quarter, holding serve at home and carrying a 2-0 series lead to Miami for the next two games, Indiana was cut down, shoved aside and stranded with the series now tied.
The Pacers had a real chance to push Miami to what would have felt like the edge of the abyss.
The two-time defending champions would have been in a 2-0 series hole that 94 percent of teams in that position have never overcome. James and Wade, already facing questions about how much longer this core might remain intact, would have had three days to stew and listen to the criticism, doubt and speculation as to whether they would opt out of their contracts to become free agents.
And all of this would have just happened fresh off those pingpong lottery balls delivering the No. 1 pick for the most anticipated draft in years to the Cleveland Cavaliers. That little development was -- and likely still is -- certain to ignite talk about LeBron possibly returning to make things right with the home state team he departed as a free agent in 2010.
The Pacers will never fully comprehend the kind of pressure they could have put the Heat under had they been able to maintain a better grip on that mid-fourth-quarter prosperity. Now, the gains they made during an uncharacteristically impressive 107-96 victory in Game 1 have been neutralized.
Indiana simply had nothing left at the finish. Four of the five starters played at least 40 minutes, and the only reason West didn't was because he was limited by early foul trouble. By the end, they were out on their feet, dazed and sluggish -- right when James and Wade were starting to heat up.
"We know it's not going to be easy, but we'll regroup," Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. "That's just how it is. We expect it to be a long series, and they're a good team. We didn't expect to sweep them. So this sort of just goes with the territory."
Indiana is now in this position because of its inability to protect its own territory.
One of the most perplexing things about the Pacers has been their Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies over the second half of the season. Watch them long enough, such as over the course of two games, and you see two completely different versions of the same team.
The same Pacers team that posted the NBA's best regular-season home record at 35-6 already has lost five home games this postseason. The same Indiana squad that exploded for 107 points on 52 percent shooting in Game 1 saw those numbers plummet to 83 points on 40 percent shooting Tuesday.
Indiana coach Frank Vogel credited the Heat for making adjustments and ratcheting up the intensity and urgency, particularly when James and Wade took over down the stretch.
"It's not demoralizing," Vogel said. "We know they're great, great players. They're a great team. They're champs. That's what we expect from those guys because they've been there before."
The Pacers aren't strangers to this predicament, either.
They've squandered these kinds of opportunities before. It was two years ago when the Pacers took a 2-1 series lead over Miami going into Game 4 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Instead of pushing the Heat to the brink of elimination, they watched a desperate and wounded tandem of James and Wade dominate the second half in much the same way they did Tuesday.
Indiana didn't win another game that series.
Sooner or later, these Pacers are going to have to prove they can capitalize on opportunities. Or, at the very least, string together two consistent performances and distance themselves from this identity crisis.
"Now, we've got to go on their floor and take a game from them the same way they did," said George, who missed 12 of his 16 shots and had three turnovers. "We gave this one away, so we have to work even harder on their floor. We just made some plays down the stretch that cost us. It happens. We were in control for 44, 45 minutes of this game."
Those other three or four minutes were hazy as the Pacers tried to figure out what hit them.
It was a blur disguised as James and Wade.
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