INDIANAPOLIS – When a close series suddenly has a blowout, a collective pause is taken by both sides.
For the Pacers, it was more of an inward look after the Heat turned their first Eastern Conference Finals home game in nine years into a rout from mid-third quarter on. Miami’s offensive ease had even the most optimistic of Pacers’ fans wondering if this result would turn what looked to be a promising series into a Heat runaway.
Meanwhile Miami was weary of a Pacers team that could be up 2-1 even with the Game Three blowout, understanding the ebb and flow which a championship series tends to take.
Both trains of thought intersected at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday night in Game Four-the junction of a series which seemed destined to go the limit after the first two games but was cast in doubt following the third act.
Indeed this game would veer away from Game Three and revert back to the competitiveness of the first two contests of the conference finals and like Game Two, the Pacers found a way to get the plays when it counted.
Indiana overcame a late three-point deficit to beat the Heat 99-92 and tie the best-of-seven series at two games in front of a raucous “Gold Swagger” crowd of 18,165.
“Just resiliency,” said head coach Frank Vogel of his team in Game Four. “We’ve shown a great deal of resolve all year. This is the first chance we’ve faced adversity this playoff season-and our guys rose to the challenge to start the game and then when Miami came and took the lead, they rose to the challenge again.”
Roy Hibbert especially. The center led the Pacers with 23 points and 12 rebounds while Lance Stephenson added 20 points and George Hill 19. David West added 13 and Paul George 12 as all five Pacers starters were in double figures.
“We’re mentally tough,” said Hibbert of the team, who is now 5-1 in the playoffs after losing a game. “Not one guy in that locker room didn’t believe we were going to win this game tonight. We showed fortitude and we picked each other up. We never held our heads down. We know they’re the champs. They’re one of the best teams in the NBA right now.
“We know we’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. We’re never going to give up.”
On Tuesday they didn’t on the defensive end after getting taken advantage of by the Heat in Game Three. With added emphasis on getting help guarding LeBron James on the post, the Pacers held Miami to 39 percent shooting on the night and 32 points in the paint-20 less than they had on Tuesday night.
James would go on to lead the Heat with 24 points put fouled out in the final minute, helping a late Pacers surge hold up till the end. Mario Chalmers also had 20 points for the Heat while Dwayne Wade added 16.
“Energy,” said Heat guard Shane Battier of the difference in the Pacers’ defense on Tuesday night. “They played with much more energy and I thought we settled for more jump shots than last game.”
The defending NBA champions now must settle for a split in Indianapolis as the series is knotted up again at 2-2 as the series shifts to Miami for Game Five Thursday night at 8:30 P.M.
As they did in Game Two following a heartbreaking overtime loss in the series opener, the Pacers started out as the aggressor in the first few minutes. Hill had a quick five points and the Pacers made their first three shots to race out to an 11-0 lead with the game just 2:38 into the half. Miami wasn’t deterred, going on a 17-5 run just before the half to grab the lead themselves with 3:02 to play.
The Pacers pulled back ahead late in the quarter and grabbed a four-point lead following 12 minutes after a layup by Lance Stephenson with a second to go. Through three games, the team that led after the first quarter went on to win the game-and Indiana followed that script early in the second quarter.
Hibbert asserted himself in the post throughout a half in which he scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds, giving the Pacers an eight-point lead on a bucket-and-foul with 3:25 to go. Yet Miami rallied again despite shooting 39 percent for the half and got within one just before halftime on a James layup with .4 to go-yet there was some relief that Indiana’s defense was up to the challenge Tuesday night.
“When LeBron went to the post we were able to challenge him,” said George of the defense. “I think he felt our presence a little bit.”
What occurred in the following 12 minute features some of the most emotional basketball of the series and maybe the season for the Pacers. The Heat quickly built a six-point lead on 5-of-6 shooting in the first five minutes of the quarter, but the Pacers responded with a 10-run that was aided by seven points from West to help Indiana go up by four.
There was even a sequence in which James blocked Hill on a breakaway slam, George was called for a foul and Frank Vogel was whistled for a technical arguing it, bringing a sold-out “Gold Out” crowd to a fever pitch. Stephenson kept it there when he finished a quick Pacers flurry to end the third quarter with a fall-away three pointer as time expired to give Indiana a 77-70 lead after three quarters.
It was the highlight of one of Stephenson’s best games a Pacer, as he hit 9-of-15 shots from the floor in scoring 20 points while also grabbing five rebounds.
“When I’m aggressive and everybody is hitting shots and playing aggressive, we’re an unstoppable team,” said Stephenson of his efforts-and the Pacers proved that through some adversity in the final quarter.
A Hibbert jumper early in the fourth got the lead up to nine but the Heat then made their move, going on an 14-2 run. Wade put them ahead when he drew a goaltending call and a foul on a lay-up and when he hit a free throw the Heat had the lead 86-83.
Indiana go the lead back with 2:40 left on a putback by Hibbert to put the Pacers up 91-89. The center then put the Pacers up by five when he got the offensive rebound off his own miss and put it in and got fouled, which he then hit a free throw. James responded with a quick three with 1:20 left to get Indiana lead down to two, but Stephenson hit a bucket to put the Pacers back up four.
On the ensuing possession, James fouled out of the game when he was whistled for an offensive foul with just under a minute to go and the Heat would never recover as an already memorable series will continue on for at least two more games.
“It was just keeping our composure,” said Hill of the effort late. “Not getting too high or two low, competing on every possession and just worry about the outcome after it.”
Thanks to a gritty effort Tuesday by the host Pacers, the series’ outcome is very much in doubt.