The Indiana Pacers’ drama could wind up ruining the Miami Heat’s season. The Pacers have grown stronger while solving problems — most of which were self-inflicted — en route to the Eastern Conference finals. In Game 1, the Heat didn’t notice until it was too late.
The Pacers jumped ahead early and dismantled the two-time defending NBA champions, 107-96, in Indianapolis. Game 2 is Tuesday on the Pacers’ home court. After dropping openers on their turf in the preceding two rounds, the Pacers, for a change this postseason, looked like the East’s No. 1 seed. For the Heat, that’s bad news.
The young and talented Pacers possess the physical tools to finish atop the league. They’re still trying to prove they have the heart required to get there, but they’ve shown some recently.
Center Roy Hibbert’s perplexing slump, the scuffle between guard Lance Stephenson and swingman Evan Turner in practice and the team’s disappearing act at the worst possible times had, rightly, stirred concern within the hoops-savvy Hoosier State. But by outlasting the tougher-than-expected Atlanta Hawks in seven games and eliminating the rising Washington Wizards in six, the Pacers displayed mettle few outside their organization figured they had. Against the Heat, Coach Frank Vogel expects the Pacers to show even more.
“Everything is behind us,” Vogel said recently, a sense of relief evident in his confident tone. “How we struggled down the stretch, and took a lot of criticism . . . that means nothing now. This is where we wanted to be: at the conference finals [with] a chance to move on.”
In Game 1, it was no coincidence the Pacers had their most efficient performance of the postseason. Indiana looked like a team that has regained its rhythm.
The Pacers passed unselfishly. They made smart decisions. Often, if a player could have taken a good shot, he waited for a teammate to move into position to attempt a better one. Their formula to success was simple: The Pacers relied on one another. Stephenson saw it coming.
Following Indiana’s Game 3 victory over the Wizards, Stephenson said signs indicated the Pacers were emerging from their long nightmare. The Pacers didn’t have a basketball problem, it was “about us needing to count on everybody again,” Stephenson said, pointing to dressing stalls in a mostly empty visitor’s locker room at Verizon Center.
“Stuff happens. It’s a long season, man. Guys can get frustrated, upset, whatever . . . but you have to think about what got you to where you are. You need to [be there for] each other. You always have to remember that.”
Early in the regular season, the Pacers did. The all-about-the-group approach was evident during the team’s 33-7 start. Back then, the Pacers had the look of a potential NBA champion. They faded down the stretch amid rumblings of off-the-court chemistry problems.
The Pacers, who have only one starter older than 28, didn’t handle success well. Suddenly, there was too much “me” and not enough “we.” Late in the season, Hibbert called out some of his teammates for being selfish.
Hibbert didn’t name names. It didn’t matter. His comments were another blow to team unity. The Pacers finished 23-19. Then the road got tougher in the playoffs.
On the eve of facing Atlanta, Stephenson and Turner mixed it up. Although tempers occasionally flare during practice, the Stephenson-Turner altercation led credence to the widespread belief the Pacers had major issues in their locker room. They also spilled out onto the court during games.
Hibbert failed to score three times in a span of four games against the Hawks and Wizards. Facing Washington, the former Georgetown standout even had a double-zero outing: zero points, zero rebounds.
After being blown out by the Wizards in a potential close-out game, Hibbert and his teammates could have benefited from counseling sessions. The Pacers eliminated the Wizards in the next game, prompting Hibbert to predict the Pacers would be better for the experience.
“With our team, we learn from everything,” said Hibbert, who scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds in Sunday’s Game 1 victory over Miami.
“We take [their experiences] and try to get better as a team. It’s really just about supporting our teammates in everything we do. When we’re at our best, that’s who we are.”
Until this series, the Heat was on a roll. Miami swept the Charlotte Bobcats in the first round and needed only five games to defeat the Brooklyn Nets. Anything short of winning another title will be a disappointment.
Although future Hall of Famers LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were productive in Sunday’s opener, most of Miami’s other players weren’t (unless Chris Bosh gets going, this could end quickly). With the 7-foot-2 Hibbert and tenacious power forward David West, Indiana has a major size advantage. Factor in the Pacers’ apparently improved psyche, and the Heat has a lot working against it.
“Those ups and downs made us stronger,” Stephenson said. “It made us more together.”
For a team chasing a title, believing in each other is the best way to go. The Pacers just needed a lot of adversity to remind them.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.