INDIANAPOLIS – Are the Miami Heat in trouble or not? Is this going to finally be the time where an Eastern Conference team beats them? Do the Indiana Pacers, on their third try, truly have the mental toughness to deny the Heat when it really matters?
This conference finals series is either going to be different or it’s not, and that message will be established during Tuesday night’s Game 2.
Unless you’re an intense follower of the Heat, you probably can’t even name the five times the Heat have lost Game 1 in a playoff series over the past four years. That is because the Heat have made them irrelevant in history, as they have repeatedly thwarted upset attempts and almost always pushed back after losing a playoff game.
Being up 1-0 on the Heat has been borderline meaningless; they've won Game 2 all four times it’s happened in the Big Three era and won the series each time. They have won the next game 10 straight times after a playoff loss. In the past 15 series, they are 19-3 after a loss overall. Three times when they lost Game 1, they came back to win the next four games, including the 2012 Finals.
They have only once been down two games in a series, and that was in the 2011 Finals when they lost Game 6 to end it by a 4-2 count against the Dallas Mavericks, the only series they have lost since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh signed up in 2010.
So, as impressive as the Pacers' strong overall performance was coming out of the gate Sunday with a comfortable win, its value is uncertain. If they allow the Heat to storm back and win Game 2 on the road, which the Heat have done twice in the past few years, it’s a very strong signal of how this series will end up playing out. The history detailed, even in brief, above is rather daunting.
In their review of Game 1 mistakes, the Heat were appalled at some of their efforts and felt they were totally fixable.
“Our defense sucked,” Bosh said. “We have to do what we have to do, we like to keep it simple and do the things we can control.”
The Pacers win, however, and now you have the Heat in an unprecedented situation with three days off to stew before Game 3 in Miami. That’s 72 hours for the world to pick at them and speculate about their downfall. The James, Wade and Bosh free agency stories that have been largely buried all season -- see how that topic explodes during the middle of the week’s news cycle if the Heat go down 0-2. The emotionally violate Pacers are most dangerous when they have confidence and most hollow when they're unsettled, going to Miami as the latter would not bode well based on recent results.
Game 2 decides nothing permanent, but it sure will explain where this series is headed.
“We know what they're capable of,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We know they've lost Game 1s before and won series before, it’s well-documented. They're the champs. We need to get Game 2.”
The Pacers have been up on the Heat in the past, taking a 2-1 lead with Game 4 at home. The result was James pounding the Pacers for 40 points, Wade scoring 30 and the Heat taking control of the series by humbling the Pacers on their home floor.
Last year, after losing Game 1 at the buzzer and then winning Game 2 in Miami, the Pacers came home for Game 3 thinking they were in great position to gain a foothold in the series. Then, wham, the Heat totally physically dominated the Pacers in a demoralizing 17-point win in Indianapolis in Game 3. The series went seven, but after that night, the Heat never doubted they could win a game they had to against that Indiana team.
Two years, two series, two defining moments on the Pacers’ court. It would be foolish to emphatically state that Game 2 has that type of potential, but the way history repeats itself often with the Heat, there is no missing the recipe. Especially after the way Miami was uncharacteristically dominated in Game 1, the type of effort that usually creates a wake-up call.
“I remember what happened here in Game 3 last year,” Pacers star Paul George said. “I expect that again [in Game 2], where they come out and make a huge emphasis of being physical. We have to be ready for that this time.”
The Heat, for their part, have attempted to be reverential to realities of the past being that. Of their talking points leading into their attempt to even the series, many of them have referred to the trap of assuming they will recover, because they have so often in the past. But there is also a clear message that they expect to bounce back as they always have.
“We lean on the history of playing together, but we also know that, just because of that doesn't mean that you're going to correct it,” Wade said. “You've got to come out and do something about it.”
Throughout the season, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has tried to enforce the point that this season is a different journey than their back-to-back titles. Not only is this an intelligent coaching technique to ward off complacency, it also has been true because the Heat are playing with less depth and less consistency than the past few seasons.
Generally, this Heat team is a little more fragile than the past two seasons. It has shown up in their record, and it is because of the record that they are not at home for this game and they will not have home-court advantage if they reach the Finals. However, their varying amounts of slippage from last season has yet to significantly hurt them this season.
If they storm back to win Game 2, then it still won’t. That is clearly what the Heat expect to do, even if Spoelstra continues to raise the alarm about assumption.
“We don't really care about what's happened in the past,” Spoelstra said. “We have to understand the urgency of the response for Game 2.”