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COLUMN

Miami, James make Pacers blink

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For more on sports, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio

Poor closing stretch costs Indiana

Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - 4:21 am

INDIANAPOLIS -- The best basketball player on the planet showed why.

The team that would be champ blinked.

So much for Indiana's home-court advantage.

So much for Miami's defensive misery.

The Heat are two-time defending NBA champs for a reason, and Tuesday night's 87-83 victory was a blueprint for making it three straight. On the brink of a 2-0 series hole, they closed it out with tough-minded, down-the-stretch play.

“You have to have great mental stability,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “There will be possessions when they play you well. This is a hotly contested series. You have to keep staying with it.

“It's whatever it takes. However you can contribute to help us win.”

In the closing minutes of this playoff fistfight (21 lead changes, one near knockout of Indiana forward Paul George), Miami's LeBron James did what he does best -- everything. He scored, defended and assisted. When the Heat had to have it, when Indiana was on the verge of taking fourth-quarter control in their Bankers Life Fieldhouse home, the King ruled. Then teammate Dwyane Wade wowed.

Or did the Pacers buckle?

Truth is perspective.

“We just had a bad two minutes,” center Roy Hibbert said with bowed head from Indiana's locker room.

With seven minutes left, Indiana led by four. With four minutes left, it was a 75-75 tie. Two minutes later, Miami led by seven.

Game over.

“We gave it away at the end,” George said with an unclear head, courtesy of a fourth-quarter collision with Wade's knee. He said he blacked out, then played "blurry" the rest of the way.

There was nothing blurry about James, who scored 12 fourth-quarter points, nine points in the final seven minutes. He finished with 22 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three blocks. Wade had 23 points, five rebounds and five assists. They combined for 22 of Miami's 25 fourth-quarter points, including its final 20, with Wade going 5 for 5 from the field.

That late-season rest Wade received to calm sore knees has paid off in three straight 20-plus-points efforts.

Oh, yes. Miami has now won 11 straight after a playoff loss.

“This was about how bad do we want to win,” Wade said. “We showed it. It was not a perfect game, but we kept fighting, kept digging down deep. Eventually the game turned.”

Indiana lost an opportunity, but not the series. It needs to at least split in Miami (Game 3 is Saturday) to regain home-court advantage. It needs to learn from the final few minutes of futility and find resiliency under adversity.

“They're a great team,” guard Lance Stephenson said. “They came out aggressive in the last five minutes. We didn't make any plays. We have to be smart. Make something happen when they put pressure on us. ... Don't make turnovers. We had some big turnovers in the last three minutes. That cost us.”

The Pacers couldn't sustain their early first-game shooting, in part because the Heat wouldn't let them, in part because George and every reserve not named Rasual Butler were firing blanks. Still, despite shooting just 33.3 percent in the first half, they only trailed by four.

A catalyst was needed.

Enter Stephenson, who finished with 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds.

“I try to be aggressive and make something,” he said. “Don't be too shaky. Be smart and make the right plays. Be poised. Take your time.”

The Heat vowed more intensity and they delivered. Their early problem: The Pacers matched and then surpassed them, led by Stephenson. His seven quick points pushed Indiana to an 18-10 lead.

It was, as it turned out, fool's gold. By the end of the first quarter, the lead was one.

Miami's second-quarter aggression produced leads as large as eight points before it settled for a 41-37 halftime advantage. By that point, George was 1 for 11 from the field, the bench was 2 for 10 and nothing was sure except there would be second-half contact.

Stephenson was a Heat-wrecking third-quarter factor. His 10 points pushed Indiana to leads as large as six points before Miami closed to 63-62 entering the final 12 minutes.

Indiana was 7-0 in the playoffs when leading after three quarters.

Make it 7-1.

“It's a split,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We'll respond.”

Respond is fine; doing what's necessary is better. If they want to win a championship, there's no other option.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.