INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Pacers coach Frank Vogel walked into Monday’s practice with a simple message for players as they adapt to Miami’s new wrinkle – using LeBron James in the post.
He’s not going to overhaul the team’s philosophy for Game 4. They just need to execute better.
Less than 24 hours after blowing a chance to take control of the series at home against the defending NBA champs, the Pacers walked back into Bankers Life Fieldhouse trying to figure out what went wrong in Game 3. It didn’t take Vogel long to come up with a few answers.
“We’ve got to do a better job on the ball, we’ve got to be more active on our helps and we’ve got to double (LeBron James) more,” Vogel said before players watched the ugly reminders on tape. “We’re not going to double him every time he touches the ball, but we’ll look at some things and try to break his rhythm.”
Anything would be helpful at this point with Indiana in desperate need of a win, now trailing 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.
They were hoping home-court advantage would help them take command of the series after stealing one in Miami.
Instead, James and his teammates refused to give in against a Pacers team that has repeatedly shown it will not back down from challenges.
After scoring 36 points in a Game 2 loss, the NBA’s four-time MVP promised to make up for the two turnovers in the final 30 seconds of that game. Did he ever.
James scored 22 points in Game 3 and seized control of the offense by working from the post. The surprise move allowed the Heat to beat the Pacers at their own game, outscoring Indiana 52-36 in the paint and opening up mid-range jumpers for James’ teammates. The Heat wound up shooting 54.5 percent from the field, setting a franchise playoff record with 70 points in the first half and committing just five turnovers – a performance that even had the Heat calling it their best game of this year’s playoffs.
If Indiana intends to stick around a while longer in the Eastern Conference finals, they can’t fool around with James in the middle.
“I’m much better than I was two or three years ago,” James said Monday when asked about playing the post. “I’ve still got a lot of things to improve, but I could work down there all game now. That’s something I probably couldn’t have done two years ago.”
Indiana has the more difficult job – making James less efficient.
The Pacers know what it will take.
Pacers center Roy Hibbert credited All-Star swingman Paul George for making things tough on James throughout the first three games of the series but acknowledged George needs more help from teammates to protect the middle. Vogel, who has relied almost exclusively on man-to-man defense, is now talking about double-teaming the Heat’s most versatile player.
George, a second-team all-NBA defender, has another solution.
“I’ve just got to battle and push him out a little further,” George said. “He’s tough. He’s obviously gifted physically and he’s strong, so it’s tough but it’s something I’ve got to learn.”
The bigger issue for Indiana may simply be staying the course.
Indiana looked nothing like it did in Miami, when it pushed the Heat to brink in Game 1 and thwarted every challenge Miami threw at them to hold on in Game 2.
On Sunday night, Miami started fast, took control in the second quarter and never allowed Indiana to get closer than seven. It was the first time the Pacers lost at home in the playoffs and the 18-point deficit matched their worst home loss all season.
For the Heat, this is nothing new. They’ve won 23 of their last 24 on the road and have now set an NBA record with five straight double-digit road wins in the playoffs.
Perhaps better focus.
“Coming on the road is tougher,” Wade said. “At home you can make mistakes and get away with it, but on the road you can’t make as many mistakes and you have to give yourself a chance. That’s all you can do.”
The Pacers didn’t get away with their mistakes Sunday, and that has put them in the unenviable position of needing a win Tuesday just to avoid facing an elimination game in Miami on Thursday.
But to an Indiana team that has relied on grit and determination all season, they know there is no margin for error now. They must play their best game of the season Tuesday night.
“It sucks playing with our backs against the wall, but that’s the situation,” George said. “We knew that’s how the champions would respond. But every game is going to get tougher and tougher. It’s going to get tougher to score and we have to learn to adjust on the floor.”
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