The Indiana Pacers staggered Miami with one more big punch on Saturday, beating the Heat 91-77 to force a decisive Game 7 in their NBA Eastern Conference finals series and keep alive their hopes of a stunning upset.
Roy Hibbert did everything but pull out the boxing gloves in Game 6, finishing with 24 points and 11 rebounds, and continually contesting Miami’s shots to help Indiana stave off elimination.
Paul George scored 28 points, had eight rebounds and five assists, and the Pacers held Miami to 36.1 per cent shooting as they booked a trip back to Miami for the decider.
“Myself and David (West), we throw ourselves in the fray, in the paint. We like to muck it up,” Hibbert said.
“Paul and myself, we wanted to make sure we got this for him as well. We didn’t want this to be our last game.”
After winning their first division crown in nine years, the Pacers are one win away from advancing to the NBA Finals for only the second time in franchise history. They lost to the Lakers 4-2 in 2000. They haven’t played a decisive seventh game in the conference finals since losing to Chicago in 1998.
And amazingly, they’ve done it this time against the defending champions who many considered virtually invincible after winning 27 straight during the regular season, finishing with a franchise-record 66 wins and having won 23 of their last 24 road games before losing Games 4 and 6 in Indianapolis.
But the Pacers have pushed four-time MVP LeBron James and his high-scoring, high-profile teammates to the brink of elimination by punching back, and Game 6 followed a familiar story line. The Pacers had a 53-33 rebounding advantage, outscored Miami 44-22 in the paint and limited Miami’s shooters to 16 of 54, 29.6 per cent, from inside the arc.
James led the Heat with 29 points on 10-of-21 shooting. Nobody else scored more than 10.
How have the Pacers done it? With Hibbert controlling the inside after adding martial arts training to his offseason regiment.
“Roy Hibbert is making extraordinary plays in the pocket, poise in the pocket we call it,” coach Frank Vogel said.
“He’s getting paint catches and just having great poise, great reads. He’s not ploughing over guys. He had a charge in Game 5, but has been under control.”
It was everything an elimination game should be. The teams traded baskets and jabs, sometimes literally, and players ignored the bumps and bruises of yet another wrestling match that has made this tough-guy series compelling. Both teams attacked the basket, sometimes with problematic results.
Indiana missed about five dunk attempts in the first half and a series of short jumpers, too, costing them precious points.
The Heat struggled, meanwhile, starting the game just 3 of 22 from inside the 3-point line. Miami’s Big Three – James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – went just 14 of 40. Excluding James, Miami managed only 16 baskets – eight 3s and eight 2s.
With Chris “Birdman” Andersen suspended, the Heat couldn’t keep up with Indiana’s big rebounders inside. Even Lance Stephenson, who was not effective at Miami, finished with four points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
Indiana’s loud crowd created a hostile atmosphere, too. Fans chanted “Heat Are Floppers!” sporadically throughout the second half, urging the Pacers to play harder, to defend better and to make another trip home. The only way to do that is to win Game 7 and avoid a second straight playoff elimination at the hands of the Heat.
For Miami, the stakes were so high that when James was called for an offensive foul midway through the fourth quarter, he lost his cool. James protested by running from one end of the court to the other, drawing a technical foul, and when Miami assistant coach David Fizdale showed his support for the league’s four-time MVP, it drew another technical.
George Hill answered by making free throws and Hibbert followed that with a layup, ending any chance of Miami making a late comeback.
James said he was trying to avoid an ejection and wound up spending the last 66 seconds on the bench.
“Explain it? You seen it. It was total domination by the Pacers in the third,” James said when asked what happened to the league’s most dominant team on Saturday. “They made a lot of shots, we didn’t get too many stops and we missed some very, very easy shots.”
It was a complete reversal from Game 5, when Miami took control by outscoring the Pacers 30-13 in the third.
This time, against one of the league’s top offensive teams, the Pacers gave up only six points in the first eight minutes of the quarter, using a 14-2 run to turn a 40-39 halftime deficit into a 66-49 lead with 1:15 left in the quarter. Hibbert scored nine in the quarter.
Miami did close to within 68-55 after three, but it was too big a deficit to overcome – even with James running the show.
“They just flat-out beat us in every facet of the game. They just outclassed us in that (third) quarter,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said.