>> The outcome validated the Pacers’ outspoken pursuit of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference as goal not only worthy but mandatory. As we’ve seen before, the fourth quarter of a close game is not something you want to play in Miami. The Pacers’ lead over the Heat in the conference standings is down to one game, with only 57 to go. Buckle up, folks, it’s going to be a wild ride.
>> Funny how all the dialogue beforehand was about how this game meant more to the Pacers than the Heat, and afterward it all changed. “I am going to say every game against these guys is going to be a statement game,” Chris Bosh said. “It is tough to deny that, of course. We want to defend our home court; it was the top two teams in the East. Any time you’re playing an elite team it is a statement game. You always want to send messages. Our message was, we are here to compete and we want to win games.” So when you win it’s a statement game, when you lose it doesn’t matter. Got it.
>> Roy Hibbert’s foul trouble was not what cost the Pacers the game, although Frank Vogel’s decision to leave the center on the floor after picking up his fourth with 9:20 left in the third quarter was simply wrong. Showing confidence in your players is one thing but putting them in position to fail is another, and the latter is what Vogel accomplished. Miami wisely isolated Bosh on Hibbert on their next possession and the Indiana center went to the bench with No. 5.
>> The Pacers led 58-49 when Hibbert left, 84-78 when he returned. Just when I was ready to send Ian Mahinmi to the end of the bench, he played his best game of the season.
>> No, the problem wasn’t Hibbert. It was, once again, Miami’s ability to raise its defense another level in the closing minutes. Leading 92-85 with 3:21 remaining, the Pacers managed nothing but tough shots, missing all five of them, and the Heat used the misses to get runout after runout in a 10-0 spurt, including the consecutive 3-pointers by Bosh and Ray Allen that took the lead away. “I thought that we held the ball a little bit too much offensively in the fourth quarter,” Vogel said. “They’re a great defensive team. We’ve got to move the ball against them. We did for the most part most of the night but it got a little sticky for us for a couple of possessions.”
>> Paul George might’ve been fouled ever so slightly on his final attempt at a tying 3-pointer but the mistake wasn’t by the officials in not blowing the whistle. It was by George in feeling the contact and trying to sell the call rather than staying with his shot.
>> He did emerge nicely from his mini-slump, though, with 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists, and David West scored well with 23 points but for whatever reason did not rebound well (three). Nobody else had more than 13, so the balance was missing, along with the ball movement.
>> Miami’s big three combined for 71 points (32 for Dwyane Wade, 24 for LeBron James and 15 for Bosh) on 28-of-49 shooting (.571). The rest of the Heat produced 26 points on 9-for-28 (.321), so some things haven’t changed.
>> Remember how this rebuilt bench was supposed to push the Pacers over the top? In two games against Miami, Indiana’s reserves have been outscored 46-35. Danny Granger’s pending return may help that, but it’s always dangerous to pin too much hope on any one player, especially one coming back from a lengthy layoff.
>> The Pacers are 4-4 in their last eight games. Three of the losses were on the road to the Blazers, Thunder and Heat, so no particular shame there. But the Detroit home loss is one a true championship contender cannot afford.
>> The defense has slipped. In the last four losses, opponents have averaged 105.5 points on .497 shooting, unacceptable regardless of the quality of the teams played. In the last four wins, the numbers are 91.0 points and .441.
>> The biggest shame is the teams won’t play again until March 26 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a feeling James summarized nicely. “I’m actually kind of sad we don’t play them again for three months,” he said. “This is a really, really good thing going against these guys. They bring out the best in us and we try to bring out the best in them. It’s fun. It was fun the last eight days while it lasted and we get on with the rest of our season now.”