The Indiana Pacers can win Game 7, but they cannot squeak out a win. Confused? Not if you watch the NBA.
Indiana meets the Miami Heat at 8:30 p.m. Monday in the winner-take-all finale of the NBA Eastern Conference finals. The winner goes on to the NBA Finals to play the San Antonio Spurs, who have spent the last few days alternating between practice and sitting in their rocking chairs.
The Pacers can win in Miami. They can't squeak out a win.
It's not real complicated. The Pacers will win a one-sided game, the Heat a tight one.
The Pacers can win if they click as a unit, Paul George remains hot, David West is fully healthy, Lance Stephenson suddenly remembers how to play on the road and Heat players Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen keep playing like they're in a sequel to "Space Jam." (That means their talent has been stolen, for those who don't remember "Space Jam," if such people exist.)
The Pacers are at their best when they control the action, meaning pounding the ball inside to Roy Hibbert and West. They thrive when they can build a 10-12 point cushion and hold off the Heat charge, as they did in Game 4 and Game 6.
But they cannot count on beating the defending champs in a close one.
The Pacers can't squeak out a win because LeBron James will make the big play or get the call late in a game at home. It's not a conspiracy. It's just a hunch. Stars on their home court get 50-50 calls leaning in their favor.
James might not need a call – he's certainly spectacular enough to make plays without any help – but the edge clearly tilts at home. Two examples of circumstances in games in Indianapolis: James is called for his sixth foul near the end of Game 4 and James is called for a charging foul against Hibbert in a critical moment at the end of Game 6. Those calls tend to even out over the course of a series. All things being equal, superstars at home get the calls.
The Pacers showed they won't roll over with their win in Game 6 on Saturday night.
“(We) work all season long for a Game 7, home court,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Regardless of how you get to that point – play well, don't play well, win a game, lose a game – it all builds up to this. It's an incredible opportunity as a professional athlete to be part of a Game 7.”
Pacers coach Frank Vogel, who has mastered the art of preparing his team after losses, needs to come out with a plan that brings them out quick after a win. If Indiana can gain the edge in setting the tone of Game 7, the Pacers are more likely to hold off the inevitable James-led Heat run.
“We didn't play our best basketball game (Saturday night) and we were able to get a win,” Vogel said. “We're going to have to play our best basketball to get a win down there in Game 7.”
The Heat have one major asset on their side in James. But other than a little help from Mario Chalmers early and Mike Miller late, he was a one-man show in Game 6 with 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
Bosh was 1-for-8, Wade 3-for-11, Allen 2-for-8 and Udonis Haslem quit shooting after missing his first two shots.
In the Heat's one dominant win in the series – a 114-96 win in Game 3 in Indiana – all five starters finished in double figures scoring.
Miami is a champion for a reason. If Wade, Bosh and Allen (and Shane Battier, if he comes back from the witness protection plan) are going to find a way to the fountain of youth, it'll be in Game 7.
Las Vegas seems to feel the Heat's magic will return, favoring them by seven points early Sunday.
“Each and every year,” James said, “there are 30 teams that would love to be a part of this, to have one game to advance to the NBA Finals. And there (are) two teams in this position, and it's something that you can't substitute this feeling. You can't substitute the atmosphere that we're going to be in on Monday night. We should all cherish this moment.”
James strolled around the court at the end of Game 6, shaking hands and encouraging his teammates after they had lost. He was already mentally moving on to Game 7.
“This is why we work hard for home-court advantage,” Wade said. “We are going to have to self-will it and we'll see how we respond as a team.”
James, Wade and Bosh all talked about having “confidence” after Game 6. James has it. The others will need to at least simulate it.
As for the Pacers, they have to enter Game 7 with the mindset that they can't win by technical knockout. They have to knock out the champ, with Hibbert making sure his play does the talking. They need to build up a lead and maintain it, or maintain most of it, until the clock becomes their ally.
They do not want the ball in James' hands needing one shot to win it at the end. In Miami? That would be a recipe for heartbreak.