MIAMI -- Perhaps it's fitting the Indiana Pacers retreat home on Saturday for Game 6 of the conference finals with their season on the line, because they're now playing with house money.
Even in the midst of highly -- and hotly -- contested playoff series with the Miami Heat, it's OK to deal in reality here.
So regardless what happens Saturday when the Pacers enter Bankers Life Fieldhouse trailing 3-2 in the best-of-seven series for the right to face the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals, they've already bolstered their NBA résumé.
By getting to the Eastern Conference finals, Frank Vogel has already coached his team a round further than last season and has pushed Indiana ahead in line past Chicago and New York as the Heat's biggest threat in the East.
By essentially matching four-time MVP LeBron James shot for shot and highlight for highlight, Paul George has solidified himself as a budding superstar who is deserving of every cent of the max-contract extension he'll soon receive.
By channeling his inner Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for long stretches, 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert is breathing life into what's considered a dying position in the league as the anchor of a proud and stubborn franchise for years to come.
And by the way, absolutely none of it matters to the Pacers.
If they haven't shown any inclination to surrender to the defending champion Heat at any other point during this remarkable series, it certainly isn't the case right now.
Instead, after Thursday's 90-79 loss to the Heat in Game 5 at AmericanAirlines Arena, the Pacers have been waiting all season for this very moment to validate their progress.
And after exuding so much confidence in pushing, shoving, prodding and holding their own against the Heat for five games, the Pacers face a defining moment that will determine just how far they've come since falling to Miami in six games last year in the second round of the playoffs.
“Well, Game 6 will really determine how much we've grown, because we've been in the same ditch, I guess, being in the same predicament,” George said Thursday in the midst of a seesaw series that has seen the Pacers and Heat alternate victories since Game 1. “We'll see where we're at. We've done well all year, especially in the postseason, dealing with adversity and overcoming games where we didn't play as well as we wanted to ... coming out with the energy and the effort to get the job done. Again, we'll see when it comes to Game 6.”
To keep their season alive, Indiana must better capitalize on some of the low-hanging-fruit opportunities they whiffed on against the Heat in Game 5 on Thursday.
It started with the missed layups from David West, whose point-blank blunders cost Indiana a much bigger lead at the half than the 44-40 advantage they carried into the break.
It continued with the 18 turnovers by the Pacers that the Heat directly converted into 22 points. During Games 3 and 4 in Indiana, the Pacers had averaged only 12 turnovers.
And from there, perhaps nothing hurt Indiana's chance to shove the Heat onto the brink of elimination than the shots Lance Stephenson and George Hill kept missing on a night they combined to finish 2-of-11 from the field with 10 fouls, six turnovers and just five points. Earlier in the series, George proudly talked about how the balance of Indiana's “big five” starters were enough to offset the Heat's Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The Pacers then stole home-court advantage from the Heat with a 97-93 victory in Game 2, with George, Hibbert, West, Hill and Stephenson all scoring in double figures. On Thursday, Hibbert, George and West accounted for 66 of the team's 79 points and got practically no support at all.
Defensively, they had no answer for James, who alone outscored the Pacers 16-13 in the decisive third quarter in which Miami turned a 44-40 halftime deficit into a 70-57 lead going into the fourth. James had 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists in 44 relentless minutes.
The absolute necessity of James' performance is the result of another opportunity the Pacers failed to take advantage of Thursday. Wade remains slowed by knee soreness and was again off his game in the least productive playoff series of his career. Bosh was also hampered by a sprained right ankle from Game 4, and appeared to aggravate the injury moments into Thursday's game when he landed awkwardly after he won the opening tip against Hibbert.
Despite their vulnerability, James and his secondary supporting cast of Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers provided enough to compensate for Wade and Bosh combining for 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting from the field.
With the team that takes a 3-2 series lead and goes on to win the series at an 83 percent rate, James and the Heat played like a champion who knew how to respond in a pivotal moment. The Pacers played like a strong contender who knew there would be a chance to retreat and regroup for another day.
“We talked about the environment, we talked about the crowd, we talked about the intensity they were going to play at,” West said of the Heat. “We just didn't respond. I thought for three quarters we played good enough. That third quarter bit us. We just didn't have enough fight.”
Now, the question is whether the Pacers have another strong round left in them to force this series to go the distance and return to Miami for a Game 7 on Monday.
Vogel insists he learned enough about his team already to know they've made strides from a year ago, when they lost three straight to the Heat after taking a 2-1 series lead.
They'll have a shot to show it Saturday.
“We've got a great deal of resolve and a great deal of belief that we can win this series,” Vogel said Thursday. “Our backs are against the wall again. Theirs were, they came back and responded, took care of their business on their home court like they were supposed to. And it's up to us now to come back and get Game 6, see what happens in a Game 7. They're one of the best teams this league has ever seen. We enjoy competing against them. We know we can beat them, but we have to play better than we did tonight.”
A series that has seen one team respond to the other team's adjustments in each successive game comes down to at least one more tweak the Pacers have to make Saturday.
But Hibbert believes the adjustments from here on out won't have much to do with any coaching strategy.
“It's about what's in here,” Hibbert said as he poked at his heart. “It's about effort. It's about who wants it more, who wants that offensive rebound, who wants to get that blocked shot, who wants to get that loose ball. We just have to come out with more determination.”
The Pacers know the stakes. They've already assured themselves of a successful season filled with progress no matter what the outcome is back in Indiana on Saturday.
But they've already come this far and fought this hard. In a series filled with suspense, the only surprise ending at this point would be if these Pacers didn't take care of matters at home and guarantee themselves a return trip to Florida.
“It's one game at a time,” George said of facing the Heat on Saturday. “I know in the back of their minds, they want to get the job done and be finished. So we're going to have to come out and bring it. We have to force a Game 7.”