Published December 11, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana treated Round 1 with Miami like it was a championship event.
Now it's time to get ready for the rematch.
Roy Hibbert controlled the middle, scoring 24 points, and Paul George scored 15 of his 17 points during a second-half scoring spree that helped the surging Pacers pull away late from the two-time defending champion Heat 90-84 — on a night Indiana didn't come close to playing its best.
"We didn't play that well in the first half, but we were only down seven going into the second half," Hibbert said. "But we knew we were going to fight back."
Nobody has done that better this season than the Pacers, who improved to 10-2 when trailing at halftime.
But everyone seems to be asking the same question: How good is Indiana?
The Pacers (19-3) returned home after finishing a five-day road trip that took them to four of the top five teams in the Western Conference, and a three-game span in which they beat both of last year's finalists — San Antonio and Miami. Indiana's three losses have come to teams that are a combined 46-19, all on the road, and they continue to hold on to the coveted title of NBA's best record.
Tuesday night's win also gave Indiana a three-game lead over the Heat (16-6) in the Eastern Conference chase for home-court advantage and extended their franchise-best home start to 10-0.
As for the schedule, it's not getting much tougher.
After holding four-time MVP LeBron James to nine points and 3 of 11 shooting over the final three quarters, the Pacers play get back-to-back home games against Charlotte and Detroit before heading to Miami on Dec. 18. They'll host Houston two days later and then play 12 consecutive games against teams currently under .500.
But it's that rematch that everyone wants to see.
Win that one and the Pacers will assure themselves of no worse than a season split, and Miami (16-6) has a better sense of what they'll have to do next week, too.
"There are going to be some ups and downs against this team," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They just played better down the stretch."
That's been the Pacers mantra all season, and it was no different Tuesday.
Before the game, Lance Stephenson acknowledged he was treating this contest like a championship game — something two of Miami's big three, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, downplayed.
The hometown fans were in postseason form, too, booing loudly at the officials, chanting "He's a flopper" on some contestable foul calls and eventually serenading Miami players with those familiar chants of "Beat the Heat."
It looked a lot like last season's Eastern Conference finals, which Miami won in seven games.
Hibbert dominated the middle, scoring nine of Indiana's first 11 points and making a season-high 10 baskets — most from point-blank range — despite playing in the second half with a cotton plug in his injured nose. David West added 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists including a left-handed, 4-foot runner that gave Indiana an 88-81 lead with 38.9 seconds to go.
James' defense and Miami's physical double-teams frustrated George most of the night, but when George finally got free in the second half, late, he made three big 3-pointers to help the Pacers pull away. George, the NBA's No. 4 scorer, finished with 17 points, three rebounds and four assists.
Chasing George all night apparently took a toll on the Heat.
While James, the league's No. 2 scorer did get 17 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, he struggled uncharacteristically over the final 36 minutes — three quarters when Miami failed to top the 20-point mark. Wade also finished with 17 points, while Bosh added 12.
"I thought we brought it tonight," James said. "We know they're a very good defensive team. I thought they hit some tough shots and they attacked the rim real well but even though they had us down by 10 rebounds, I thought we rebounded well and we battled."
Miami never trailed through the first 2½ quarters.
Indiana finally tied the score at 55 on George Hill's 3 with 8:15 left in the third, and Hibbert gave the Pacers' the lead, 58-57, on a three-point play 2 minutes later. Miami never tied the score or retook the lead again as George heated up to keep the Heat at arm's length.
"It was fun, it was a real intense game," George said. "Both teams were playing at a high level. You could see an urgency to win this game tonight."
NOTES: Singer Justin Timberlake, Jim Courier and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles were among the familiar faces in the crowd Tuesday night. ... West grabbed his 5,000th career rebound in the first quarter. ... Indiana had a season-high 21 turnovers. ... Miami shot just 42.9 percent from the field and was a dismal 4 of 21 from 3-point range, scoring just 54 points over the final three quarters. ... Indiana improved to 10-2 when trailing at halftime this season.