The Miami Heat defeated the Indiana Pacers Sunday in Game 3 Sunday night, 114-96. In a game that could be pivotal, the Heat have regained home court advantage and the Pacers now are in a pressure situation to win Game 4 on their home court in order to avoid a close-out Game 5 in Miami. The nature of tonight's smack-down also underscores how delicate the Pacers' margin for error is, and how costly it was to not be able to win Game 1.
Most people will focus on the Heat's ridiculous 1st half performance against one of the best defenses in the league. Miami dropped a staggering 70 points on the Pacers through 2 quarters of play, a sharp contrast to Game 1's 37 point 1st half performance and Game 2's 47 point 1st half performance. If you're a fan of team offensive basketball, then the first 2 quarters are for you. Miami did everything it wanted to do, and it did it not off of LeBron James' scoring but because of his ability to read defenses. We wrote the other day about how Indiana had figured out how to close off passing lanes to LeBron, which helped seal a Game 2 win. This time around, LeBron and his team had little trouble finding teammates in scoring position around the rim, as guys like Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen got open looks aplenty.
That's all fine and good, but this is the NBA. If you're a good team, there are ALWAYS opportunities to get back into games, even when you're down big. What makes it so difficult though is that as the lead grows, the chances of recovery get smaller and smaller. The margin for error grows razor thin, and if the opportunity presents itself and the chaser is not ready for it, that opportunity will be gone like Keyser Soze. More often than not though, the opportunity window WILL be there. It may only open up for a short period of time when the game can be reduced to a lead of only a couple of possessions and it may not last for more than a minute, but it does open. We Thunder fans know this. When it closes though, it is closed forever.
The Pacers play great defense, and in the 3rd, that defense finally figured out how to get some stops. Miami opened up slow, and what was once a 16 point lead was beginning to fall. Lance Stephenson went 1-2 from the free throw line to cut the deficit to 7, and a glimmer of hope remained. A defensive stop followed by a basket would make it a 2 possession game. They got their stop, a block by Roy Hibbert. The Pacers could not get a good look at the other end, settling for a long contested Paul George 3-pointer.
After a few possession exchanges and the Pacers now down by 10, Hibbert again stepped up and completed an and-1 3-point play. Deficit was 7 once again and the Pacers had to find a stop and another score. Unfortunately this time, Mario Chalmers answered with his own and-1, and the Pacers' shooters went cold. The Heat went on an 11-2 run over the next 4 minutes, and that was that. The lead went from 7 to 16 and the Pacers' shot was gone. The window remained open for a precious 2 minutes and 33 seconds. Unfortunately the Pacers could not get the points they needed, and Game 3 was all but over.
The other side of the coin is this - that 3rd quarter showed exactly why the Heat are so good. The 70 point 1st half was exceptional, no doubt, but it was their 3rd quarter defense that sealed the win. By refusing to allow the Pacers to execute good offense and make the game competitive, it stuffed out the candle with nearly a quarter to play. There was some token effort in the 4th, but it was clear that Indy knew their chance had passed.
Game 4 is now a huge question mark for the Pacers, because they were routed on their home court and looked like they never even had a legitimate shot to win. Can they regain their composure and mental focus quickly enough by Tuesday night?
That's why the Heat are the favorites and the Pacers, the underdog. The margin for error, it shrinks once again.