INDIANAPOLIS – For all of the talk about flopping, questionable officiating and who the NBA really prefers to win the Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat series, this thing is back to toughness again.
The Pacers know how to do toughness.
The series is back to inner fortitude, relentless spirit and fight. It's back to reflecting the Pacers' pride, togetherness and resilient nature. It's back even.
The Pacers beat the Heat 99-92 in Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They evened the best-of-seven series at 2-2 heading into Game 5 on Thursday night in Miami. They guaranteed a return trip home for Game 6 on Saturday.
Most of all, the Pacers revived a burgeoning reputation as the toughest out in basketball.
“Nobody said this was going to be easy,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. “We'll have to fight for every possession. It matters. And we embrace this challenge right here.”
Two days earlier, the Heat whipped the Pacers is a game that seemed series-altering. Apparently, the Pacers didn't get the memo. They were probably too busy encouraging guard Lance Stephenson to get his head out of wherever it was in Game 3. He took the advice, scoring 20 points and supplying the embodiment of the Pacers' “Gold Swagger” theme, staring down the Heat bench at one point and volunteering to guard LeBron James.
The Pacers spent time dwelling on the fact they have Roy Hibbert and David West, too, a pair of matchup problems for the Heat if Miami's offense is not on fire and playing with a lead.
Game 4 was all about whether the Pacers could counter the Heat's strong performance two days earlier. They countered it in a variety of ways.
The memorable plays were mostly hustle plays, fitting for this Pacers' team, including three fourth-quarter Hibbert rebounds and scores. Hibbert's size is an ongoing issue for the Heat. When combined with combativeness and drive, there's little the Heat can do.
“That's where our advantage is in the series,” Pacers forward David West said. “Actually, we should have gotten him the ball a few more times than he actually touched it. He does a great job staying active and staying around the basket.”
Hibbert and West both bring size and toughness to the Pacers' inside game. Hibbert finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds and West had 14 and 12.
They also bring some invaluable mental toughness. These guys don't back down.
The Pacers lost a nine-point fourth-quarter lead in part because the referees blew a call, ruling the Pacers had a shot-clock violation when replays appeared to show it should have been reset. Miami seized momentum and a lead.
When Ray Allen grabbed a loose ball and hit an off-balance three from the corner to put Miami up 89-86 with 5:12 left, it looked like that bad call would define the game, and maybe the series.
The Pacers refused to buckle. Stephenson, who hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer from the corner to end the third quarter, tied the game with 3:28 left with a pull-up jumper on Dwyane Wade. That's when he stared down the Heat bench.
The Pacers didn't blink again.
Miami left the game with a loss, and a few complaints. Chief among them was James' sixth foul with 56 seconds left. He was called for an offensive foul on a screen for Wade, marking only the second time he's fouled out of a playoff game. It was a blow to the Heat, as well as conspiracy theorists who think the refs are in the bag for Miami. To emphasize their lack of bias, they called Wade for traveling 30 seconds later.
“I didn't believe it was an offensive foul,” James said. “I was going to set a screen, and I felt like I was stationary. And D-Wade rejected the pick-and-roll. Lance actually ran into me.”
James also disputed when he was called for a foul on Paul George, which George turned into a three-point play, a foul vs. Hibbert and an elbow foul he gave West that set up Stephenson's buzzer beater.
“It was a couple calls that I didn't feel like were fouls, personal fouls on me,” James said. “That's how the game goes sometimes.”
James led the Heat with 24 points, but shot 8-for-18 and always seemed a bit out of rhythm. Chris Bosh was 1-for-6 and fighting injury. Wade was 5-for-15. The only Heat player who turned in a consistent game was guard Mario Chalmers (20 points).
Miami still has two of the last three games at home, but the feel of the series returned to one that seems to have seven games written all over it.
“We know they're the champs,” Hibbert said. “They're one of the best teams in the NBA right now. We know we're fighting an uphill battle. We're never going to give up.”
The Pacers' fight returned Tuesday, and it's a series once again.