brunos_blog_400You don’t want to overreact, but neither can you simply shrug.

Both teams went into Sunday night’s game intent on sending a message and only Miami’s got through:

The defending champions are getting better, while their perceived primary challengers in the East are not.

Miami has flipped the switch, winning 18 consecutive games including the 105-91 spanking of the Pacers in American Airlines Arena. The Pacers are back on the treadmill.

They fattened up their record at home in February but have looked nothing like a true contender since. Their last four losses were to quality teams (Nets, Clippers, Celtics, Heat).

A team built around its big, strong post tandem of David West and Roy Hibbert has developed an alarming tendency to panic and abandon its identity when things get tough. In those four losses, the Pacers hoisted 101 shots from the 3-point line (25.3 per game), making just 29.7 percent.

So while the Heat has built toward the finish, the Pacers look like a team that may already be spent. Danny Granger’s return was supposed to be the much-needed late-season spark, the difference-making event that would propel them to another level.

But Granger’s return hasn’t gone as hoped and the only level they’ve reached is a step down.

PACERS BACKED DOWN FROM CHALLENGE

The Heat dominated the Pacers with LeBron James taking 10 shots and scoring 13 points.

West won the power forward matchup with Udonis Haslem 24-0. The other four spots, Miami won 86-39. The Pacers’ backcourt tandem of George Hill and Lance Stephenson was completely overmatched, outscored 49-13 by Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers. Chalmers doubled them up by himself, scoring 26.

Indiana’s chief assets against the Heat reputedly are size, strength and defense. Not much was evident Sunday. From the outset, Miami was our aggressive, more active and much, much tougher. The Heat threw the first punch and the Pacers were on the ropes the rest of the night.

“We didn’t compete from the opening tip,” said West. “I just don’t think we brought enough competitive fire. … We were on our heels. Any time a guy crawls into your space, you’re leaning back. They’ve got the power advantage. It’s a position of strength versus a position of weakness. They were in a position of strength against us all night.”

That was an accurate, cogent analysis.

This, from Frank Vogel, was not:

“We are a young team,” he said. “Paul George and Lance Stephenson are still very young players and their two superstars got the best of us tonight.”

Really? We’re all the way back to playing the youth card?

GEORGE NEEDS HELP, BUT IS IT COMING?

As good as George looked in those two victories over the Heat, he looked equally overmatched this time. He shot 2-for-11, with seven of his attempts coming from the 3-point line, a problematic trend.

Opponents have become much more aggressive attacking his dribble, which has led to 34 turnovers in the last eight games (a 4.3 average) and pushed George’s offensive game away from the bucket. In those games, he has attempted just 15 free throws, compared to 59 hoists from the arc. He is allowing the defenses to make him a one-dimensional player, and it is not his best dimension.

He needs help on the perimeter, somebody to help create space within the defense, giving him room to operate.

Granger will try again, presumably later this week, and it’s very possibly his last chance at an effective comeback this season. If his left knee is unable to support consistent, sustained minutes this time, there seems little chance for him to have an impact in the postseason.

But if Granger can’t get it done, can anyone?

If the Pacers are to re-establish themselves as true contenders, the only player that ultimately can make a difference is the one in the mirror.

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