Bulls' rivals Heat, Pacers at a tipping point?

Bulls' rivals Heat, Pacers at a tipping point?
May 18, 2012, 9:43 pm
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Very rarely are NBA head coaches prophetic in their pregame media-availability sessions. Especially in the playoffs. But Thursday, Indiana's Frank Vogel achieved the feat.

"Keep your edge and enhance your edge. Pretty simple. Weve got to understand how they felt after Game 2 is how they felt after Game 1, the league's second-youngest head coach said before the contest. We understand that Game 3 in a seven-game series that a split of one-and-one is pretty typical, so theres great importance to tonights game. Weve got great balance on our team and ball movement is our best friend."

After his Pacers' 94-75 drubbing of the Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, in which Indiana was the aggressor from start to finish and frustrating a seemingly discombobulated Miami squad, it was clear that Vogel's team followed its coach's instructions to the letter. From All-Star center Roy Hibbert's domination of the interior and swingman Paul George's game-long harassment of Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade and from Danny Granger's refusal to back down from MVP LeBron James to the Pacers' point-guard duo of starter George Hill's outside marksmanship and backup Darren Collison's speed, the balanced Pacers were clicking on all cylinders Thursday, leading to a 2-1 series lead with another home game looming Sunday.

"Im certainly happy with the win, but we have a lot of work to do," Vogel said afterward, in his opening remarks to the assembled media. "Im very proud of our guys for a great effort and we won once again with defense and rebounding. Thats what this teams identity is about, led by Roy Hibbert, who anchored our team -- five blocked shots, 19 points, 18 boards -- one of the best games Ive ever seen him play and just a balanced offensive attack on the offensive end."

"It started from the first day of training camp. This is who weve been all year. Were a balanced team, we have depth on the bench, but our starting five is very balanced. Its not one or two guys; different guys every night, different guys every possession."

Chicago fans already know what the Pacers bring to the table, as they gave the Bulls all they could handle in five playoff games last season. Although that series didn't go to the brink, it was extremely physical and set the tone for this year's hotly contested regular-season battles. It also earmarked Indiana as a future force to be reckoned with, even prior to NBA Executive of the Year Larry Bird acquiring Indianapolis native Hill in an under-the-radar draft-day trade with San Antonio, veteran power forward David West in free agency and proven reserve scorer Leandro Barbosa in a quiet regular-season trade with Toronto.

With the additions of three valuable pieces with playoff experience to anchor a young core of leading scorer Granger, an upper-echelon true center in Hibbert and an emerging young talent and potential defensive stopper in the second-year George, it's no wonder Indiana's locker room was brimming with positivity, echoing the unselfishness of the team on the court after the victory.

"They came into a hostile environment and thats kudos to our fans that were there and made it hard for them to ever be in the game, veteran reserve swingman Dahntay Jones told CSNChicago.com. When you have fans like we have, they do a good job of taking teams out of the game and not giving them the boost they need to go on big runs. Just the high energy and pushing the ball, and bringing sparks off the bench to try to bring a different dynamic to the game, that definitely helps us out."

Added Hibbert: "First and foremost, were very appreciative of the fact that were in this position and we worked hard together, tirelessly, to get to this point right here and to have the fans come out and support us, and to win the way we did and in the fashion that we did, was great for us and Indiana.

"But we have a lot more work to do. Were not too high on this game right here. We know how capable the Miami Heat are. D-Wades not going to have the type of night that he did," continued Hibbert, who was viewed as a project throughout his career, from his gawky prep days at Georgetown Prep where he developed into a Big East-worthy recruit, to his time at Georgetown -- eventually becoming an All-American after seeing scant playing time early in his college career. After falling to No. 17 and the Pacers in the 2008 draft because of upside concerns, hes now in his fourth NBA season. "For us, we go, team, team, team. Thats our mantra, thats our motto and we play for each other, no matter what, and I like to see my teammates score.

Vogel lauded the 7-foot-2 man-in-the-middle's effort thusly: "Strength and mental calm, being poised and having composure, and not wanting things too badly, letting the offense come to him. Its just part of his maturity and carries over to the defensive end, as well."

While Hibbert was the star of the evening, it's clear that this year's version of the Pacers has a different sense of maturity about it and while they didn't lack for toughness last season, it's now more of a focused energy. At lot of that has to do with West, who after spurning offers from established power Boston, brought leadership and playoff experience from his days as an All-Star in New Orleans as well as a low-post option to complement Hibbert and a willingness to take big shots, mix it up inside and be a respected enforcer.

"Obviously this is the most talented group Ive been a part of in terms of one through 12. Weve got guys who can contribute at a high level without playing much, but when their numbers called, they come in and make plays, West told CSNChicago.com. Were just growing, man. I think thats the biggest thing. I just see every game, every time we have a film session, guys just embracing the criticism and going out on the floor, and making the improvement. We dont have a lot of egos in here and thats rare. We dont have guys that come in and say, I wish I had this, and again, I think thats part of what we have, our advantage."

Meanwhile, a much more subdued visiting locker room reflected the current state of the Heat, who are missing All-Star Chris Bosh, but probably wouldn't have won the contest with the versatile power forward. His finesse wouldn't have been an answer for the way the Pacers pounded them inside, though admittedly, Hibbert would have at least had to step outside of his shot-blocking comfort zone to defend his jump-shooting ability. Still, it was more than strategy that befuddled Miami, as Wade's sideline confrontation with head coach Erik Spoelstra and shockingly disengaged, five-point, 2-for-13 shooting performance has gone viral, even if as Spoelstra said afterwards, "those things happen."

"Especially on the road, weve got to stick together and everybodys got to encourage everybody," said Wade's longtime teammate, Udonis Haslem, the only other Heat player who was on Miami's 2006 title squad. "It was nothing. I think we all just want to win. I dont think it was anything personal for anybody. Emotions just get high. Were in the playoffs.

"Hes a little banged up right now, but hell be fine. Its the playoffs. Hes got a couple days to rest his body, recuperate a little bit and I know for a fact what type of player Im going to see Sunday," he continued. "Ive been around him long enough to know that he doesnt play like that often and I dont expect him to play like that again. Its just one game out of 10. You read too much into it. Hell be fine Sunday and hell be himself. Its basketball. Things dont always go your way. Hell be fine Sunday.

If it sounds like Haslem was covering for Wade, what else would you expect? As for Wade himself, he was in firm denial mode afterwards -- offering a frank "no," when asked about his televised blow-up with Spoelstra, then saying, "Uh, I don't even know what you all are talking about," when pressed further -- though he took ownership for his poor play.

"It could be a lot of reasons. Obviously we'll go back to film and look at it. I missed some shots early and I missed some shots later, so I've just got to be a little more aggressive, he told reporters. Give them credit. They did a good job defensively. When I got to the basket, they had the big guy in there. I knew I didn't have it going, so I tried to pass the ball to my teammates more instead of going 3-for-25. I'd rather just give the guys the ball. Mario Chalmers was playing well. LeBron was playing well. Offensively, I didn't have it going. There's no secret about it. I wasn't going to just force a lot of shots up.

Vogel had a slightly different explanation.

"Paul George is one of the top-five most versatile defenders in the NBA and hes doing a great job on Wade, he said. Wade had an off night. When he did get free, he didnt knock down shots. We cant give Paul all the credit. Hes too good of a player to have too many nights like he had tonight, but Paul is just competing, hes growing by the day and were just happy about what his future looks like."

"I wanted to come out and be aggressive on him again, and force him to make jump shots and he wasnt making them tonight," George said. I guess thatll be my plan for the next game."

Either way, the Heat's lackluster effort was disconcerting in numerous ways, beyond Bosh's absence, Wade's uncharacteristically horrendous postseason outing and Indiana's successful strategy -- making Miami's aggressive defense work against them with patient ball movement, stretching the shot clock, strong defensive rebounding and "loading up" defensively to force Wade and James, both top-tier one-on-one players, to face a phalanx of defenders on the same trip or simply have Heat role players have to knock down outside jumpers -- were all enforced Thursday.

Wade's incident with Spoelstra, James walking out of a huddle early and standing by himself near halfcourt during the remainder of the timeout, center Dexter Pittman's disastrously brief stint at the start of the game and Haslem -- a key role player who defines sacrifice after taking less money as a free agent to stay in his native Florida upon the arrival of James and Bosh -- then recently relinquishing his starting spot, playing only a bit role in the series, even with Bosh out, against a physical team that would at least think twice before trying to push him around.

"Im healthy," he told CSNChicago.com "Im just being a good teammate. The way were playing, we want to spread the floor with shooters and obviously I dont step out to the three, so offensively, we spread the floor with four shooters on the floor and we play with one center. So, by me not being a three-point shooter, offensively, Im not kind of fitting into the scheme that we want to run right now so maybe Ill work on my range this summer. Maybe if I shoot threes, Ill be out there."

Explanations about strategy and jokes aside, Miami looked like a bunch of misfits Thursday, with James' solo act only so effective against Indiana's size, Wade out of sorts and the team's role players mostly non-factors. They miss Bosh sorely, as his mid-range game, agility in the post, rebounding ability and overall length would certainly help matters moving forward.

"Chris is a big part of our team, so nobody loses a piece like that and its not missed. Nobody, no team," said Haslem. "Chris is a huge part of our team and we know that. I dont think anybody loses 18 points and it doesnt hurt them a little bit."

Added Chalmers, who scored a playoff career-high 25 and was one of Miami's few bright spots: "We never took Chris for granted. We miss him badly, but theres nothing we can do."

Hibbert offered an opposing view: "I can see it in the eyes of LeBron and D-Wade, that they want to take over. I think theyll figure it out, but until then, well try to take advantage of " he continued, pausing while trying to find the right words. "Their lack of continuity."

For now, however, the Pacers are in the catbird seat and if they can turn a one-game lead into a 3-1 edge Sunday, putting Miami on the brink of elimination, it will signal a shift in the NBA's power rankings, Bosh or no Bosh. Indiana will have to be taken seriously as a contender and the Heat, if they were to fall short of even the conference finals, would have to at least consider retooling in the offseason and breaking up the much-ballyhooed "Big Three." But the Pacers aren't merely satisfied with Thursday's thumping, as they believe they haven't reached their postseason peak and as they've said from before the series began, they think they can not only hang with the Heat, but knock them off -- no matter what some observers have preordained, probably without having watched the regular-season matchups between the two squads.

"We still arent playing great basketball," said West, who astutely observed that the best way to respond to little stuff like James' elbow to Granger, which briefly caused the latter to fly off the handle, is to simply execute in the face of confrontation. "We still have a lot of areas we can improve.

"Were going to worry about this locker room. Were going to worry about the things that we can control and move on from there," continued the veteran, who bristled when a reporter asked if the Pacers were starting to think "maybe" they could beat the Heat.

"Maybe? We werent looking at this thing, where we would come into this thing and put up a good fight and make it look good. Our intent was to come in, compete, play our game and try to win the series. Thats been our mindset from the jump."