Pacers express confidence, Heat urge caution for Game 6
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Pacers no longer know what to anticipate from Udonis Haslem, but he knows what to expect of them. "We have to take their punches early and we have to come back with a few punches of our own," said Miami's power forward, who has been the crucial swing player of the Eastern finals. "I understand they're going to come back with a lot of energy, a lot of emotions right from the jump, and we have to be ready."
Trailing 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers have no choice but to play their best in Game 6 here Saturday in order to force a Game 7 at Miami. And so their approach will have to be matched by Miami's approach, too.
"We can't warm up," said Haslem. "We can't kind of work our way into the game. We have to be ready as soon as the ball is jumped."
The series has shifted back and forth with each game, as the losing team has adapted to the latest trend while winning the next game. For the Pacers, who in Game 5 yielded a 30-13 third quarter that was driven by LeBron James and Haslem, the latest adjustment will be geared toward preventing James from dominating while also closing out to Haslem, who has gone 8 of 9 from the field in two of the last three games -- his best play coinciding with Miami's finest moments in the series.
"It's not just false talk," said Indiana coach Frank Vogel of his optimism in forcing a Game 7. "There's a reason I'm confident. I like to tell these guys I'm not an optimist, even though that's what my image is; I'm a realist. And when I look around at what I see in the room when I'm talking to this team, when I look at what I see on the court and the level of execution that we're capable of and the adjustments that make sense from our coaching staff -- which I think my three assistant coaches are the best in the NBA -- the intelligence that they bring to the table, combined with the talent we have on this basketball team, gives me real confidence. So I think our guys understand it's not just happy talk or anything like that. There's a real reason to believe."
James took off for 16 points and four assists in the third quarter to finish with 30 points overall in Game 5. As always, the Pacers must mitigate his impact. "We have to keep them in front of us -- that's the biggest thing -- and we've got to take his airspace more," said Vogel. "He got a lot of basically uncontested dribble pull-ups that we know he's going to make: They're high-percentage lifts for him. We have to make that harder on him while keeping him in front of us. It's a tough task, but I think our guys are up to it."
For a majority of this series the Pacers have lived up to the high standard they established during the regular season, when they emerged as the NBA's top defensive team. They've been effective in the paint at both ends of the floor while raising the profile of 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, their leader with 22.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in these five games. Hibbert and All-Star forward Paul George had scored all of Indiana's field goals in Game 5 until the 16th minute, when power forward David West knocked down a jumper. Their job became easier when the Heat's backup center Chris Andersen was suspended for Game 6 for shoving Tyler Hansbrough Thursday.
Point guard George Hill was 0 for 4 in Game 5, but Vogel will be confident of a strong bounce-back from their offensive organizer -- much as he recovered from a poor Game 1 to help lead the Pacers to a win two nights later.
And yet there is always an ominous sense of trouble being created by anyone sent onto the floor by Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. Haslem (20 for 30 in the series) is the most obvious example of how quickly the ball movement of the Heat can create opportunities apart from James.
"We have to account for him," said Vogel of Haslem. "He's a champion. He's the heart of their team. He's making big shot after big shot after big shot. And if we over‑help, he's going to burn you. So he's not as much of a factor as the Big Three, but the concept of stopping the Big Three and getting to everybody else applies to him as much as it applies to getting to Ray Allen at the three‑point line or [Shane] Battier or [Mario] Chalmers."
Any of those players could tip the game Miami's way and add to the pressure felt by the young Pacers down the stretch if a tight fourth quarter puts them on the verge of elimination. Then there is the case of Dwyane Wade, who has been limited to 15.4 points per game by his ongoing knee trouble.
"I've been in that situation where you're injured and you can't really play the way you want to play," said Haslem. "But no matter what the situation is physically, he gives us everything he has, and that's all we can ask. Regardless of if he's 70 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent, you still have to prepare for Dwyane Wade on the floor. Just that preparation that you have to do for Dwyane helps out our other guys that go out there."
Wade has been unable to explode or create space for himself. And yet the Pacers can't discount the possibility that he'll give Miami a few breakout minutes that could make all the difference.
"I can't sit at home," said Wade, who then referred to the conversations he has with James throughout each game. "I can tell him I['ll] give you everything I got, and that's all I can do. Obviously everyone looks at scoring -- I would love to score 20 or 30 a night. Everyone looks every game just how many points I put up, and that determines my success. That [doesn't] really determine my success on this team every night. We understand that.
"If I'm feeling better and I can go for more points, I'll try to be aggressive. But if it's a game I have to make plays for other guys to get shots and give up myself, that's what I do. It's about winning at this time of year. It's not about any individual."
And so once more the game will come down to James, the individual who has the biggest influence on winning. He may have to refer back again to his Cleveland days and score prolifically, or he may move the ball to Wade and Haslem and Allen and Chalmers and Chris Bosh. James understands the Pacers will be desperate. He can empathize because he is five wins away from a second NBA championship.
We're desperate, too," said James. "We're desperate to get back to the NBA Finals. So both teams are desperate in that they are trying to keep their season alive, and we're trying to advance. We'll see which one clashes the best."