For three quarters it looked like the Indiana Pacers were Born Ready.
But in crunch time Miami could answer with the best player on the planet — and much improved defense from Game 1.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade scored Miami’s final 15 points including during a 10-0 Heat run that started with just under five minutes left in the game, a stretch that provided the separation Miami needed to get an 87-83, grind-it-out win on the road.
That evens the series at 1-1 heading back to Game 3 in Miami Saturday night.
LeBron had an up-and down game and finished with 22 points, 12 in the fourth quarter. Wade was the key to the Heat offense in the first half then made a series of big shots, including some impressive floaters, as he had 10 in the fourth quarter and 23 for the game to lead the Heat.
But the offense wasn’t end of the court where Miami needed the biggest change after Game 1.
Miami came out with a much improved defensive effort in Game 2, particularly starting in the second quarter when they held Indiana to 6-of-21 shooting. In Game 1 Miami had little ball pressure and let the Pacers start their sets when and where they wanted, which was the first steps in a series of breakdowns. But in Game 2 Miami was pressuring the ball, forcing turnovers.
That defense was particularly evident in the fourth quarter when Miami pressured and Indiana shot just 7-of-19. As always the Heat’s offense feeds off their defense and Miami shot 58.8 percent in the final frame behind their stars.
“We had some defensive breakdowns that led to threes and we had some turnovers,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said in his post-game press conference broadcast on NBA TV.
Up until that point this game it felt like the kind of grinding, defensive, ugly playoff game that is right in the Pacers wheelhouse. It was close the whole way but it felt like Indy’s kind of game.
Lance Stephenson — nicknamed Born Ready — looked like a guy who is going to get paid as a free agent this summer just dominating for stretches, particularly in the third quarter. He was aggressive but not reckless and did a good job setting up teammates. The result was 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting plus 7 assists and 6 rebounds.
Paul George struggled. He was 1-of-11 to start the game and finished with 14 points on 16 shots. David West had 10 points on 16 shots. Part of that was good Miami defense, but some of it was just missed looks they normally hit.
Roy Hibbert had a strong game again for Indiana — 13 rebounds, 8 of them offensive, plus 12 points on 8 shots. He seems to be back on both ends, and with that the Pacers seem back in this series.
While Wade and LeBron deserve the praise, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made two key moves trusting his bench that paid off big and were key to the win.
One was putting Norris Cole on Stephenson, which hampered Stephenson on the pick-and-roll because Cole was quick enough to take away room. Stephenson was key for three quarters — he owned the third — but after the switch to have Cole on him Stephenson shot just 1-of-3 and was quiet down the stretch.
The other key was Spoelstra leaned heavily on Chris Anderson to play Roy Hibbert in big minutes. Anderson played 28 minutes total and almost the entire fourth quarter — he was the one defender who gave Hibbert trouble. Plus Anderson pulled down 13 rebounds. It was key.
Both teams can take a measure of confidence into Game 3.
Indiana is back and hanging with the champs — they lost by just four on a night where their All-Star wing Paul George was just ice cold (and David West wasn’t much better). Most nights they can force a game at this tempo, in this style, they will win. They have to feel they have a real shot here.
Miami got the split on the road and now is heading home. More importantly their defense was back and if it is back they can keep Indiana from scoring much easier than Indy can stop them. Plus, the Heat still have the best player in the series on their side.
After two games this feels like a series that is going to go on for a while.