INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Pacers can tell themselves it's only one game. They can even listen to Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra saying the margin doesn't matter.
Forget the rationalizing and downplaying. That one hurt.
The Miami Heat's 114-96 win over the Pacers in Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was as thorough as it sounds. It was a re-establishing of identity, a rebooting of the series' personality.
Miami is the champ, Indiana is the challenger and both are back in those roles again. The Pacers were reminded you can't beat the champ with a technical knockout (or technical flopout, to play off the Heat's tendency to tip over). You have to deliver a full knockout punch.
“We have to come out and make them a little more uncomfortable,” Pacers forward David West said. “At halftime, they had one turnover (and only four in the second half), so obviously they're just moving the ball around and doing what they want to do.
“They're the best team in the NBA,” West said, “so if you want to beat the best team in the NBA you have to turn the pressure up, be disciplined from start to finish.”
Game 2 ended with Spoelstra holding figurative smelling salts in his team's face, the home-court advantage taken by the Pacers in a 97-93 win.
The Heat players were fully alert Sunday. Game 3 reshaped the series with a 70-point first half of Heat power in all its defending-champ glory.
“We were more focused to getting to our identity (on offense),” Spoelstra said. “We were more committed to not settling, not letting them off the hook with shots they want us to take. They've a very good defensive team. We have to be committed to move the ball and let other people make plays.”
Spoelstra called it a “team win,” perhaps a veiled reference to the comment out of Pacers camp that the Heat have a “Big 3” but the Pacers have a “Big 5.” He was right. The Heat came out intent on running a fluid offense that didn't have to turn into LeBron James vs. The World.
Suddenly, purposefully, Udonis Haslem returned to relevancy, hitting 8 of 9 shots and finishing with 17 points. “He's played his biggest in the biggest moments,” Spoelstra said.
Mario Chalmers was efficient and aggressive, scoring 14. Dwyane Wade, when he wasn't knocked down by an errant Pacers fingernail or eyelash, scored 18, including one monster dunk. Chris Bosh was solid with 15. James was James, scoring 22 with an emphasis to use his muscle inside.
If there was a moment when the tone of the game, and perhaps the series, changed, it was when James posted Paul George down low, then muscled his way into a left-handed layup. The move, which put the Heat up by 10 in the second quarter, led to a Pacers timeout and George slamming the ball on the floor.
George had his poorest game of the postseason, at both ends, finishing with 13 points and eight assists, hitting only 3 of 10 shots. He couldn't handle James' more physical, inside approach.
“We understand that's where he can operate and get easy baskets,” George said. “I just have to do a better job battling him down there.”
Vogel didn't sound as down afterward as one might expect. The Pacers made a third-quarter push to trim the deficit to seven points, but the Heat pushed back and turned it into a rout.
“They're one of the great teams this league has seen, defending champs on a historic run this year,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “If you're not perfect guarding them, they'll do what they did to us tonight.”
Where does this leave the series? Miami is up 2-1 going into Game 4 on Tuesday night, again in Indy.
The tough part for the Pacers is that the non-LeBron players are awake. Ray Allen hit a couple three-pointers, Shane Battier hit a three and Chris Andersen stretched his perfect shooting to 13 for 13 against the Pacers. While most of those are point-blank shots, perfect is perfect.
The real difference-maker was Haslem, who was hitting the midrange shots that eat at a defense. James called him the heartbeat of the team.
“Is he going to shoot 8 for 9 every night? I don't know, we'll see,” Vogel said. “If he does, it's probably going to be a long series for us. We have to make some adjustment for sure.”
The positive side for the Pacers is the fact a win Tuesday could erase the disappointment of Game 3. They did have a couple bright spots in the loss, including double doubles by Roy Hibbert (20 points, 17 rebounds) and West (21 points, 10 rebounds) and 19 points from George Hill.
Spoelstra pointed out that his team took 48 hours to lament the Game 2 loss and then put it behind. That's what he expects the Pacers will do, too.
“That's what it's got to be right now, the next challenge, the next game, because it doesn't matter how much you win by,” Spoelstra said. “This series is competitive. That's a very good basketball team. So we have to be focused and get ready for another one.”
There's one difference now: Miami has the look of a champ again, no longer staggering.