INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana is done talking about home-court advantage.
The top-seeded Pacers are ready to use it against the two-time defending champs.
They took the first step Sunday, when Paul George finished with 24 points and seven assists, David West added 19 points and seven rebounds, and suddenly surging Indiana led wire-to-wire in a 107-96 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
“This is just a fun matchup,” George said. “It’s one that we’ve been waiting for all year.”
For the first time in this year’s playoffs, the Pacers won a series opener. And for the first time in their past three playoff battles against the Heat, the Pacers won Game 1.
Game 2 is Tuesday night. The home team has won all five games in this season’s fiercest and most competitive rivalry, though none was more impressive or important than this one.
All five Indiana starters and backup C.J. Watson scored in double figures, helping Indiana produce its highest point total of the playoffs.
The Pacers limited the Heat to just four offensive rebounds and 6-of-23 shooting from beyond the arc. LeBron James went 1-of-5 on threes and shot just two free throws, and Miami fell behind so fast, it never had a chance to tie the score.
Sure, opening this best-of-seven series at Bankers Life Fieldhouse helped. The hometown crowd that sometimes serenaded the Pacers with boos during the first two rounds spent most of the first half on its feet, chanted “De-fense” every time it looked as if the Heat might come back and finished the game with its customary chant of “Beat The Heat!”
But the biggest difference was on the court.
Indiana shared the ball, limited its turnovers, maintained its poise and saw contributions from everyone in a game it had to win. Roy Hibbert finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, Lance Stephenson had 17 points and eight assists, and George Hill added 15 points as the Pacers looked more like the team that was so dominant during the first half of the season, rather than the one struggled so mightily in the second half.
The challengers in this matchup insist they know it’s only a start.
“There’s nothing to celebrate. It’s not like we won a championship. It’s one game,” Hill said. “Yes, it was good, but if we come out and lay an egg on Tuesday, this game doesn’t mean anything.”
The toughest part for the Heat will be figuring out what went wrong.
Coach Erik Spoelstra used Shane Battier in the starting lineup, then replaced him with Udonis Haslem after the Pacers took a 55-45 halftime lead. It made no difference.
James, who had 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, and Dwyane Wade, who had 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting, desperately tried to rally the Heat but had little help. Chris Bosh had nine points and two rebounds. Ray Allen finished with 12 points.
While Bosh thought the primary problem was Miami’s inability to obtain stops, James wasn’t as sure.
“The game’s still so fresh. It’s too hard to just say, ‘Well, we need to do this better in Game 2,’” James said after the Heat lost for just the second time in 10 playoff games. “We need to evaluate our mistakes and things we did in Game 1 first before I can say what we need to bring to Game 2.”
Clearly, the Pacers weren’t the same team that spent most of the last three months answering questions about their second-half swoon.
Indiana swarmed the glass, exploited its size advantage, knocked down six of its first seven 3-pointers and forced the Heat into playing catch-up.
When the Heat cut a 10-point, first-quarter deficit to 41-37 midway through the second quarter, Stephenson scored four points in a 5-0 run to make it 46-37. When James trimmed it to 50-45 with back-to-back baskets late in the quarter, the Pacers ended the half with five straight points to make it 55-45.
Hibbert and West then combined eight of Indiana’s first 14 points to open the second half, pushing the lead to 69-52.
James and Wade rallied the Heat within 83-74 early in the fourth, but the Pacers opened it up again to 102-84 with 4:11 to go.
Now comes the hard part – doing it all over again Tuesday night.
“We’ve been complacent many times. We just can’t get complacent,” George said. “We’ve got to stay humbled off this win and come in with the same mind-set that we have to get another one.”