At least 90 percent of the pressure is on the Miami Heat now. I'd call that mission accomplished for the Indiana Pacers after two games.
The Pacers gained the necessary split of the first two games of the NBA Eastern Conference finals with a 97-93 win over the Heat on Friday in Miami. In truth, defending champ Miami is the team lucky to be tied 1-1 heading to Indianapolis on Sunday night.
Take LeBron James out of the picture – as the Pacers did in forcing him into turnovers the last two times he touched the ball – and Indiana is a much sharper team.
The Pacers are more tenacious on defense, they're more physical and they seem more determined. I'm not sure the Pacers have shown a significant flaw in the first two games, other than Lance Stephenson's periodic brain freezes. And Stephenson even hit a couple outside shots in Game 2.
Paul George gets better by the minute, as Chris “Birdman Down” Andersen can attest in that dunk which started looping through ESPN every 10 minutes after the game. George has been outstanding offensively despite spending his time at the other end of the court guarding James.
James, incidentally, was brilliant until he wasn't. You have to wonder how much of that might be tied to trying to carry an entire team on his back, with George in his face.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra downplayed James' final pair of turnovers, passes that were deflected by Pacers forward David West. The bigger problem, Spoelstra said, was the fact the Heat couldn't extend a late four-point lead. He talked about missed opportunities to seize the game. There was a botched play late in transition. There was a too-quick, forced shot by Dwyane Wade. There was a chance to go up 2-0 in the series without playing consistently championship basketball.
“Storylines will change, but we know the deal,” Spoelstra told the media. “It's a very close series and we have to play well, we have to finish, we have to close out games, and we're hoping to do that in Game 3.”
Again, the pressure is on the Heat.
James made a point in the postgame news conference to say he and his team try to remain even keeled.
But this has to be worrisome: James scored 36 points with eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block of 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert. Pacers point guard George Hill said the only one scarier than James is God.
And the Heat still lost.
And James committed two pivotal turnovers.
Maybe I should up that to say 95 percent of the pressure is on Miami now.
James called his last two turnovers “careless.” In retrospect, he said he'd have thrown a bounce pass the first time to avoid West deflecting the pass with no more than peripheral vision. James said he should have used a jump pass to hit an open Ray Allen on the second one. I think he should have went up for the shot, but it's easy for me to say from my couch.
“I made two mistakes tonight that hurt our team,” James said. “That hurts more than anything. I let my teammates down. They expect me to make plays down the stretch.”
The clutch plays down the stretch were made by the Pacers, from West's defense to George Hill's free-throw shooting to Stephenson hitting one of those “No, no, no…yes!” three-point shots.
Hibbert posted 29 points and 10 rebounds and inhibited James' ability to drive to the hoop at times. George scored 22 points with six assists. Hill, who was awful in Game 1, scored 18. Stephenson had 10 and eight.
Now the Pacers return home, where they are undefeated in the postseason while playing in front of a rabid home crowd that seems to raise the decibel level higher with each game. Indiana was in this spot last year and took at 2-1 series lead.
If they get to 2-1 this time, it'll be immeasurably harder for the Heat to even the series up again.
“This whole team has just shown great desire, great heart and great belief,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “That's the only way to put what these guys are doing. They believe we can win this series and they're giving it all their might.”
Momentum can dissipate overnight. The Heat can regain the upper hand in the series if James has another great game, and finishes it rather than throwing it away. If the Miami outside shooters ever find their rhythm and range, that could change things, too.
There's one constant now: The pressure is on Miami. And it's mounting.