Indiana Pacers all out of sorts in wild Game 5

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Wow, where to start with Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat?

The lackluster play from the get-go for the Pacers? The three flagrant fouls called? The injuries to Danny Granger and David West? Team president Larry Bird calling out his players for going soft?

The Heat pretty much controlled the entire game Tuesday en route to a 115-83 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena and a 3-2 series lead, but the real story of this game might have been the juicy story lines it has produced for the next 48 hours leading up to Thursday’s pivotal Game 6 in Indianapolis.

The game itself never was realistically competitive.

The Pacers allowed the Heat’s Shane Battier to hit three 3-pointers in the first quarter — a specialty he previously had struggled to execute in this series. Miami hit 56.2 percent of its shots from beyond the arc.

Indiana again allowed LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to explode. James had 30 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists while Wade added 28 points. The game broke open in the final minute of the first half when James was able to connect on two fast-break baskets, giving Miami a nine-point lead at the break when it so recently had been four.

The Pacers again could not get sufficient production from its two starting big men, Roy Hibbert and David West. West opened the game missing five straight shots, finishing five-of-13 for 10 points. He again struggled with being matched up with Battier. Hibbert did grab 12 rebounds but had just eight points on three-of-10 shooting.

To add injury to insult, West and Danny Granger each had to leave the game with injuries they sustained in the third quarter — Granger came down awkwardly on an ankle and was seen after the game in a walking boot, though he hinted he would be able to play Thursday. West said his knee was sprained when a Heat player ran into it; the reports from TNT were that he could have come back in if the game were still within reach.

But that brings us to the juicy stuff in this game.

  • Three flagrant fouls. The drama started just under two minutes into the second quarter. Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough delivered a hard foul on Wade that drew blood on his forehead. The foul was deemed a flagrant 1 even while TV announcers suggested it could warrant a flagrant 2. Not even a minute later, Heat forward Udonis Haslem issued a blow to Hansbrough himself, only it looked far more excessive, blatant and warranting of an ejection. Even so, the officials ruled it a flagrant 1 as well. The most egregious of the three flagrants came in garbage time when Miami’s Dexter Pittman put an elbow hard into Indiana’s Lance Stephenson (who drew the ire of some Heat players for his Game 3 choke gesture when James missed a technical free throw). The NBA is expected to review each of the fouls and could issue suspensions for Game 6. I say Pittman should be suspended and wouldn’t object one way or the other on a Haslem decision. It can be a physical game at times, but player safety is a more prominent issue today than ever in professional sports.
  • Larry Bird calling his team soft after the game: When Larry Bird speaks out on basketball and basketball players, people generally give him credence. Part of that is because of his honesty and bluntness in addressing a topic. He’s never taken politically correct stances in explaining personnel decisions or discussing his status with the franchise. He continued that trend after Tuesday’s game, calling the Pacers soft. The numbers, many of which I listed above, could support such a position regarding the Pacers. It will be interesting to see exactly how Indiana’s players react to Bird’s comments. I tend to think, knowing this team’s mental toughness, it will spark the Pacers going into Game 6.

So now Indiana finds itself on the brink of elimination and seeing a wonderful season put to an end. I don’t think anyone looking at the big picture would consider the Pacers’ season anything less than a success; they finished with the league’s fifth-best regular-season record at 42-24 and earned the third seed in the Eastern Conference. They have taken two playoff wins away from the ballyhooed Miami Heat and still have a chance to win the series or at least push it to a decisive seventh game. They’ve gotten the fans in Indiana to get behind them again. They’re looking at potentially re-signing Hibbert and bringing in hometown hero Eric Gordon in the offseason.

But the Pacers don’t want to settle for that. I know — and I agree — it would be at least a little disappointing, given the team’s performances in Games 2 and 3, to see Indiana bow out in this round to a team against which it should have plenty of advantages with an injured Bosh out of the equation. Besides, coach Frank Vogel has them talking big. They want to walk big too.

Facing an actual must-win game Thursday, they have to.

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