Most people want to say the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat essentially ended Tuesday in Miami when the Heat clobbered the Pacers 115-83 to take a 3-2 lead.
Some, including columnist Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star, say the Pacers won’t go so quietly because they have every bit the mental toughness as a team that Miami has.
One thing’s for sure: With Indiana finally facing a real must-win situation at 8 p.m. today at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, we’re about to find out which side is correct.
You don’t truly play a must-win game in the playoffs until you are facing elimination with a loss. The Pacers face that prospect tonight.
They face it mere days after owning a commanding 2-1 lead gained when they throttled the Heat 94-75 in Game 3 in Indy. Since then, NBA MVP LeBron James and fellow superstar Dwyane Wade have found themselves and have put Miami back in the driver’s seat by combining for 70 and 58 points in Games 4 and 5, respectively.
By comparison, Pacers big men Roy Hibbert and David West — easily a matchup strength on paper for Indiana in this series since Miami’s Chris Bosh when down in Game 1 with an abdominal strain, have combined for 36 points in the same pair of games. It’s rather inexplicable how the two have come up so small other than West’s missing five straight shots to open Game 5 when he was guarded by smaller Shane Battier.
Scoring down low has to be a point of emphasis if the Pacers are to extend this series to a decisive Game 7 on Saturday, especially with Danny Granger limited by a sprained ankle he sustained Tuesday. Coach Frank Vogel plans to play Granger like normal tonight, per Conrad Brunner, but how effective can he be? Granger has struggled to contain James on the defensive end even when fully healthy, and if the ankle starts to bug him again, chances are good he will miss more minutes than planned and thus be unable to give the Pacers his usual scoring number. That puts an added onus on Vogel and the Pacers to feed the ball inside to Hibbert and West and for those two to score. The absence of Udonis Haslem, who was suspended for his Game 5 flagrant foul on Tyler Hansbrough, leaves even fewer excuses.
They can’t be soft as team president Larry Bird described them Tuesday after the blowout loss.
There really can’t be too much disappointment among Pacers fans if the team loses tonight or Saturday in Game 7. Just containing either James or Wade alone is daunting; the Pacers must contain both, and while they were able to earlier in this series, it’s proving increasingly more difficult. In addition, the Pacers jumped from 37-46 and the eighth seed in the East last year to 42-24 and the third seed this year. Really, the only thing that would be a slight disappointment in Indiana losing this series would be the fact that the Pacers had such a monumental matchup advantage with Bosh out.
There will be questions about the future of this Pacers team as constructed — will this core (and Paul George individually) eventually develop into championship-caliber material, or will the Pacers become the new Atlanta Hawks, who have been stuck in neutral since they similarly rose to the top half of the East three years ago? Will Indiana have to deal Danny Granger in order to make room for another young star like Indianapolis native Eric Gordon? Can the Pacers re-sign Roy Hibbert? Will Brian Shaw remain on the coaching staff or accept a head coaching position?
I’m sure the team would rather play more basketball than begin to address all those questions after tonight.