Indiana’s Lance Stephenson, left, and Miami’s Lebron James have locked horns throughout the playoffs, and they’ll do so again tonight in Game 5.
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WHO: Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat.
WHAT: Eastern Conference finals, Game 5.
WHEN: 8:30 p.m.
MIAMI — Before the start of the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel had to reiterate to LeBron James that the Heat weren’t just another team.
Four games into the series, James and the Miami Heat understand the Pacers — the team James and Company vanquished in the playoffs last season — aren’t just another team, either.
“Our guys rose to the challenge,” Vogel said of the Pacers evening the series 2-2 with a 99-92 victory in Indianapolis late Tuesday. “Our defense returned to form.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was flabbergasted by what were perceived as errors — by his team and officials — as a four-point deficit ballooned in the final minute when James fouled out and Wade was called for traveling on the next possession.
“We pride ourselves on closing out games, and we weren’t able to,” Spoelstra said.
Now the matchups and adjustments for Game 5 tonight on South Beach have become predictable, with each coach putting his cards on the table in three tightly contested games and a Game 3 blowout victory by the Heat.
Based on media questions to players after Game 3, many had written off the Pacers. For example, Heat forward Chris Bosh went into great detail on what it might be like opposing idol Tim Duncan in the Finals. But looking ahead to future challenges, such as defending Tony Parker or matching up with the San Antonio Spurs’ big men, is a sure road to defeat, a reminder Miami’s coach delivered again Tuesday.
“We have our hands full,” Spoelstra said. “If we’re thinking about San Antonio, our minds are absolutely on the wrong thing.”
Indiana isn’t built around household names of superstars. Paul George, the team’s top scorer in the regular season and the NBA’s Most Improved Player, scored just 12 points in Tuesday’s victory. Center Roy Hibbert (23 points, 12 rebounds in Game 4) and forward David West are proving thorny matchups for Miami, and loose cannon Lance Stephenson had multiple brilliant moments in crunch time, too.
“Not one guy in that locker room didn’t believe we we’re going to win this game tonight,” Hibbert said. “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. We’re relentless.”
Of course, the Heat aren’t known as just another team, and for good reason.
“You have to overcome a lot in the playoffs,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not easy to compete for a title. So we just went to other guys, and end of the day we still had an opportunity.”
The Indiana Pacers made the necessary adjustments on the interior to keep LeBron James out of the paint and ended up evening the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece. It will be the Miami Heat’s turn to make adjustments when they host Game 5 on Thursday. After getting torched in the post by James and letting role players like Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen beat them in Game 3, the Pacers tightened things in Game 4.
Roy Hibbert and David West were quick to help on James, who did not get a chance to settle into the paint and ended up fouling out with under a minute left and the Heat trailing on Tuesday. The superstar was called for his fifth foul in the paint with 1:30 left and was then caught slightly moving on a screen 34 seconds later. “I didn’t believe it was an offensive foul,” James said. “I was going to set a screen and I feel like I was stationary, and (Dwyane Wade) rejected the pick and roll and Lance (Stephenson) actually ran into me.” Indiana did not allow Miami to score the rest of the way.
TV: 8:30 p.m. ET, TNT
ABOUT THE PACERS: Indiana was outscored in the paint in Game 3 but built up a 50-32 advantage in that area in Game 4 while outrebounding the Heat 49-30. Roy Hibbert led the way with 23 points and 12 rebounds while anchoring the defense on the interior. “Not one guy in that locker room didn’t believe we were going to win this game,” Hibbert told reporters. “We showed fortitude and we picked each other up.” Stephenson took over some of the defensive responsibilities on James and added 20 points while attacking the paint. The Pacers let a nine-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter but recovered to control the final minutes. “We’ve shown a great deal of resolve all year,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “This is the first time we’ve faced adversity this playoff season. 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.”
ABOUT THE HEAT: Indiana did exactly what it needed to do to beat Miami by controlling the interior and simply out-muscling the Heat in Game 4. James got little help from his supporting cast, as Wade looked hampered by his knee injury and Chris Bosh struggled to 1-for-6 from the floor. “In the playoffs, on the road, you’re up by three, handful of minutes to go,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Again, the way we are, we pride ourselves in closing out games, and we weren’t able to do it.” Wade was called for traveling in the final minute after James had fouled out and Bosh missed a 3-point attempt as the shot clock was winding down with the Heat up by two points and less than four minutes remaining. The Pacers got the rebound, tied it on the next possession and never looked back.
The Heat have totaled 11 turnovers in the last two games.
Hibbert has recorded at least 20 points and 10 rebounds five times in the playoffs. He reached those marks seven times total in the regular season.
Miami went 37-4 at home during the regular season but has suffered two of its three playoff losses in its own building.
PREDICTION: Heat 98, Pacers 90