Pacers lose to Heat but build confidence for playoffs

The final score reads 97-94, Miami over Indiana. On paper, the Pacers squandered an 11-point half time lead and 5-point advantage heading into the final period, the first time they've lost all season with a lead after three quarters. It gives them their first consecutive loss of the season and drops them to 20-5, just a single game ahead of the Heat for the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Yes, it's only December and the teams are locked at 1-1 for the regular season series, but it looks as though the Heat asserted their authority tonight and put to bed any notion that the Pacers are simply better than them this season.

Having said all that, the Pacers have to be feeling pretty good about themselves, even with the heartbreaking loss. Why? Well first of all, Roy Hibbert, the Pacers' biggest weapon against the Heat, arguably at both ends fo the court, was in foul trouble all night. Hibbert played just 23 minutes and put up 3 shots for 6 points to go with his 5 fouls. And he only blocked one shot. In fairness, the majority of the fouls were legitimate because of Roy's follow through, something he will need to keep in check next time these two teams meet.

Secondly, Paul George went to-to-toe with King James, matching him in just about every aspect of the game tonight. PG24 had been in a slump the last three games, but he broke out of it tonight with 25 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals on 50% shooting from the field. James, on the other hand, had his usual 24, 9 and 7 on 8-14 shooting, to go with 3 steals. Both guys had 3 turnovers. Paul George's confidence must be higher now knowing that he just matched the production of the best player on the planet, bum ankle or not. 

Thirdly, the Heat won the game because of a monster night from Dwyane Wade, who had a game high 32 points on 15-25 shooting. But we're only a couple of months into the season and Wade's health is always a concern, and the odds are that Wade won't be able to reproduce this kind of effort in May on a nightly basis (if both teams make it to the conference finals). He'll have his moments, but the wear and tear over the next five months could render him a much smaller factor in a 7-game series.

Fourth, I don't like to blame the officiating, but the Heat DID get a lot of home calls and superstar calls down the stretch tonight as they were making their comeback. Wade got to utilize his bag of dirty tricks on offense without reprimand and LeBron got away with an obvious foul on a Paul George three-pointer attempt at the buzzer (both hands wrapped around hip). It's a call that probably would have been made at Bankers' Life Fieldhouse. It's not a complaint, just an observation. The Pacers have gotten their fair share of them at home this season too. What it means is that home court advantage, if they can acquire it, will be huge for the Pacers if they face the Heat in the playoffs. 

And lastly, the Pacers bench was not a huge liability as they have been in the past, thanks largely to Luis Scola., who provided both points and stability. CJ Watson's shots didn't fall tonight but he's still an upgrade over anything the Pacers have had in years, and even Ian Mahinmi, who is routinely ineffective, had some strong moments tonight stepping into extended minutes due to Hibbert's foul woes. If these three guys can remain solid, just imagine how good the bench will be when Danny Granger returns to form. He'll reportedly be back on Friday against the Rockets.

Having said all of that, the Pacers did kind of self destruct tonight down the stretch with too much overdribbling and failing to initiate any offensive set until there were only a few seconds left on the shot clock. The last two possessions, both of which came up empty, were pretty horrible, especially that telegraphed George Hill pass from under the basket that was intercepted by James. Hill was 2-8 tonight and has been terrible for a while, and I can understand why people think the Pacers can't get over the hump with him as the starting point guard. His defense has been solid but the Pacers do need more from him offensively.

By the way, I forgot to mention David West, who turned on Beast Mode to score 23 points to make him look like a man among boys. The Heat have no answer for him.

Well, the good thing is that this game is finally over and the two teams won't face each other again until March.

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