By Joseph Goodman The Miami Herald
INDIANAPOLIS — Shellshock.
That was the look on Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s face at one point in the third quarter of a disastrous start for his team to begin the Eastern Conference finals.
After rolling through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Heat looked dumbfounded at times Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The rest of the time the defending back-to-back champions simply looked lost defensively.
It made for a sobering reminder of just how difficult last year’s championship run really was and how much work the Heat has ahead of itself to win three in a row. Miami’s 107-96 loss to the Indiana Pacers felt like an extension of last year’s back-and-forth conference championship series and this latest best-of-7 set already feels like it’s going the distance.
“That’s probably us at our worst defensively,” Spoelstra said after the game.
And he was right, of course. The Pacers’ 107 points was the most allowed by the Heat this postseason. Indiana shot 51.5 percent from the field, made six of its first seven attempts from three-point range and got to the foul line 37 times.
“It was a little bit of everything,” LeBron James said of the defensive collapse. “Our pick-and-roll coverage had a lot of breakdowns, including myself. I broke down a few times defensively, and we allowed them to get into the paint.”
The Pacers scored 30 points in the first quarter and had 55 at halftime. Both were postseason highs for a team that struggled to get past the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round and also had a few scares against the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards in the second round.
Led by All-Star Paul George, all five of the Pacers’ starters scored in double figures and guard C.J. Watson had 11 points off the bench. Indiana led by as many as 19 points in the third quarter.
“It seemed like they could pretty much score at any time,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “Our defense was unacceptable.”
James scored 25 points and Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 27 points, but the two future Hall of Famers didn’t get much help from their teammates. James and Wade combined for 23 field goals. The rest of the Heat’s players combined for 17 and shot 40.5 percent from the field. Chris Bosh went 0 of 5 from three-point range and the Heat went 6 of 23 from beyond the arc overall.
“Obviously, the three-point shot is a big thing for our team, and tonight they weren’t there,” James said. “No one had it going. We had some really good looks. They didn’t fall, and we just got to do a better job executing in the next game.”
Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals is 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. From there, the series shifts to Miami for Games 3 and 4. The Pacers made it their top priority to secure home-court advantage for this series, and they made the most of it in Game 1.
“They’re a much better team at home,” said Heat forward Shane Battier, who started the game at power forward, but was replaced by Udonis Haslem to begin the second half. “They play well here, there’s a reason why they have such a good record. We need to play a more complete game. We fouled way too much.”
The Heat committed 26 fouls compared to 15 for the Pacers. The worst of it, of course, was a flagrant by Mario Chalmers on Watson with 9:22 left in the game. Chalmers first hit Watson with a common foul as Watson drove the basket. The Heat’s starting point guard then pushed Watson into press row, which was located on the baseline. Chalmers was assessed a flagrant foul for the unnecessary shove and Watson was awarded four foul shots. His free throws gave the Pacers a 15-point lead.
An 18-foot turnaround jumper by Lance Stephenson put the Pacers ahead by 13 points with 7:37 to play and Indiana led by double digits for the remainder of the game. It was Stephenson who said before the series began that he wanted to push Wade to the point that Wade’s knee tendonitis returned. Stephenson finished with 17 points, going 8 of 12 from the field.
While Stephenson did a little bit of everything for the Pacers, David West was an unstoppable force inside. West was 8-of-11 shooting for 19 points. Roy Hibbert was aggressive inside as well, scoring 19 points and going 9 of 13 from the free-throw line. Four players attempted at least six free throws for Indiana, which was 29 of 37 from the free-throw line.
Indiana finished the game 8 of 19 from three-point range after its blazing start from the outside. George followed Stephenson’s jumper with a corner three-pointer and the two teammates gave each other a high-five as they trotted back on defense. After stumbling through the first two rounds of the playoffs, it was as if the Pacers were suddenly the most confident offensive team remaining in the playoffs. West went inside on the Pacers’ next possession and celebration began in Indiana’s gold-washed arena.
“This is the game we needed and we couldn’t let this one go,” George said.