David West led the way for the Pacers as they claimed game one. Photo: Getty Images
Before the onslaught began, before the Indiana Pacers began to pounce with 3-pointers, pummel with post play, demoralize with depth, flummox with free throws, Pacers coach Frank Vogel offered a hint of what might follow.
The desperate team, he said prior to tipoff, always plays as the hungrier team in the playoffs.
This 107-96 Pacers victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse clearly was the rare Game 1 when desperation preceded the series' opening tip.
"Our overall disposition has to be much stronger, no question about it," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That's probably us at our worst defensively. And you have to give them credit. They played well and we never got into a rhythm."
With the Pacers having lost at home to start each of their previous series this postseason, and with Indiana having been eliminated by the Heat each of the past two years, it became apparent early this was the Pacers' hunger game.
Did it ever.
Blowing the game open in the third quarter, when they punished the Heat with an inside attack that led to a procession to the foul line that produced a 19-point lead at one stage, the Pacers moved to a 1-0 lead in these Eastern Conference finals.
Outscoring the Heat 29-10 from the foul line, the Pacers started 6 of 7 on 3-pointers and later made their statements inside, with more than enough to offset 27 points from Dwyane Wade and 25 from LeBron James.
The Heat's lack of hunger? Perhaps that could be explained by what happened the previous two times they had to start a playoff series on the road. Each time they lost the series opener only to come back to win the next four games, including in the 2012 NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. All four times the Heat previously lost a Game 1 with James on the roster, they have come back to win the series.
"I think we understand they're going to bring an enormous amount of fight in Game 2," Vogel said. "Team that's coming back for Game 2 is the two-time defending champion."
While the Pacers had exceptional balance, the needed statements from the Pacers came from center Roy Hibbert (19 points), power forward David West (19 points) and guard Lance Stephenson (17), who made the most of their matchups. Forward Paul George led the Pacers with 24 points. The Pacers are now 6-0 this postseason when Hibbert scores in double figures.
It was almost as if the Heat were using the series opener to decipher the Pacers, with Spoelstra staying with Shane Battier as his starting power forward and keeping Udonis Haslem on the bench, as he did in the previous round against the Brooklyn Nets. But with that approach backfiring early, Spoelstra then opened the second half with Haslem with the starters and Battier on the bench.
All the while, Greg Oden, added in the offseason with an eye on countering Hibbert, was inactive for the Heat, seated behind the bench in a suit. Spoelstra revealed after the game that Oden still is recovering from a late-season back spasms, a somewhat surprising revelation considering he was active and in uniform for the first round.
As it was, the Heat offense was somewhat out of sync, with center Chris Bosh, who had led the team in 3-pointers in the postseason, missing all five of his 3-point attempts, in a nine-point, two-rebound performance. Bosh is now 3 of 19 against the Pacers this season, when including the teams' 2-2 regular-season split.
"Chris has a great way of figuring things out as a series goes on," Spoelstra said.
With Bosh off, it allowed the Pacers to stay with their preferred approach of packing the paint defensively, and playing with bigger lineups, even if it meant times when West was chasing Heat guard Ray Allen.
After Monday's Game 2, the series shifts to AmericanAirlines Arena for the next two, starting Saturday. The winner of this series faces the winner of the Western Conference finals series between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder that opens Monday.
The Heat fell behind 7-0 at the outset, trailed 55-45 at the intermission, with the Pacers shooting .595 from the field and 6 of 9 on 3-pointers in the first half. The Pacers then went into the fourth quarter up 83-70.
Earlier, when the Pacers led 30-24 at the end of the first quarter, it was their first opening period with 30 points since Feb. 27, their problems of recent weeks and even months seemingly evaporating once they caught sight of the Heat for the opening tip. It allowed the Pacers to avoid becoming the first team, to lose at home in three successive starts of series, having lost their home openers this postseason to the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards.
The Heat eliminated the Pacers in six games in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals and in seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals.
The Heat have won at least one road game in 14 consecutive playoff series, an NBA record set when they won Game 4 of the second round against Brooklyn.
The Heat advanced by sweeping Charlotte 4-0 in the first round and beating Brooklyn 4-1 in the second. Indiana advanced by beating Atlanta 4-3 in the first round and Washington 4-2 in the second round.