Indiana Pacers push Miami Heat to brink in Game 7

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Having exceeded everyone’s expectations of them except their own, having pushed the defending NBA champion Miami Heat to the precipice, the Indiana Pacers find themselves with a remarkable opportunity tonight at American Airlines Arena.

One win in Miami, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, for a trip to the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 2000.

It’s funny; the Pacers felt as if they shouldn’t have had much to prove and yet they did (as center Roy Hibbert elaborated in a post-Game 6 press conference that got him fined $75,000). Now, having knotted the Heat at three games apiece at the end of this semifinal series, the vibe is that this Pacers team has proven its mettle to the public. Indiana’s only remaining task is to prove to itself it can win tonight’s monumental matchup.

With the exception of LeBron James, the Pacers have just about every favorable individual matchup in this series.

Hibbert has been a completely different player in the postseason than in the regular season in upping his averages to 16 points and 10 rebounds per game (those rebounds are split almost evenly between offensive and defensive boards) and has been largely dominant against Miami. Granted, the Heat’s stretch-fours, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, have been able to draw Hibbert away from the rim on jump shots and get the best of him from a defensive standpoint, but anytime someone has tried to attack the rim, it has been almost an automatic block. Offensively, not even double teams have kept Hibbert from offensive rebounds and second-chance points in the middle of the paint.

David West has enjoyed similar success in the paint against Miami — exemplified no better than late in Game 6 in Indianapolis, a game in which West participated with a 103-degree fever. After starting zero-of-seven from the floor, West scored eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter and led the Pacers with 14 rebounds in a grizzled veteran effort.

Paul George has continued to blossom into one of the league’s most exciting young players, having hit some big-time shots late in games while assigned with the daunting task of guarding James on the other end.

Guards Lance Stephenson and George Hill have been wild cards for the Pacers in this series. Indiana has done well when these two backcourt players offer some scoring punch — especially when Stephenson successfully dribble-penetrates and creates either for himself or for others (a blog post entirely on this will come soon) — but unfortunately for the Pacers, Stephenson and Hill haven’t been all the way there in each game. In Game 5 in Miami, a contest which the Pacers led at halftime but ultimately lost once James exploded in the third quarter, the two combined for five points. Against a team with as much scoring potential as the Heat — even if Bosh and Dwyane Wade have been quiet of late — the Pacers can’t have such a low output from its backcourt and expect to win.

That will be key, as will a limitation of turnovers (WAY too many on the Pacers’ end in this series), for Indiana to win tonight and earn a shot at its first-ever NBA championship.

The Pacers have made their point to all of us: They can push the mighty Heat to the precipice.

Now they have to prove to themselves they can push Miami over the edge.

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