So who blinks first?
Now it’s a test of will between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat. A best-of-three trial by fire, with both teams having whacked momentum back and forth at each other. First Miami, then Indiana, them the Heat, then the Pacers. If they had two rackets and a yellow ball, it’d be the French Open.
“Playoff competition at its best,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra called it, and that was after his team lost.
So who backs down first?
The Eastern Conference finals have been a swaying exercise in damage control. Last game’s loser goes back to the laboratory, makes adjustments, then turns into the next game’s winner. So now it’s the Heat’s turn to answer. The box score from Indiana’s 99-92 Game 4 victory will tell them where to start; a 50-32 shellacking by the Pacers in the paint.
“Can’t happen,” LeBron James said. Other things can’t happen for the Heat, either. James fouling out, for instance.
Miami figures to feel the urgency at home in Game 5, as Indiana did in Game 4. Back and forth it goes, dead earnest and dead even.
“We know the feel of that,” Paul George said. “The pressure’s on them a little bit. We know they’re going to come out and play at another level.”
Clearly, the Heat understand how to respond to defeat. They haven’t lost two in a row since early January, 61 games ago.
“I don’t think we’re worried about streaks,” George Hill said.
So who hits the wall first?
They have to be tired. They have to be hurting. But both sides are sure they can win, and that is what drives them to the end.
“We don’t need confidence to go into any game,” James said of any boost needed for Thursday night. “We’re a confident bunch.”
But so is the opponent they’re playing.
“We feel like we can compete with this team,” Indiana’s David West said. “We’re going to come out and give them everything we have until this thing is over with.”
One hot hand could swing the issue now. Lance Stephenson, maybe? He was tentative and ineffective for the Pacers in Game 3, and his teammates let him know it. He answered with 20 points Tuesday night, made most of the biggest baskets of the second half, and volunteered to guard James during some critical moments. That’s like volunteering to dance with a cobra, but he has the edge and the muscle to try.
“We were on him after the last game, yesterday, this morning,” West said Tuesday night. “We just stayed on him because we need him.”
Added Hill, “We need him to be the Lance Stephenson we know.”
Stephenson listened, and took it to heart so much, he said he barely slept Monday night. “They told me if I’m not me, we’re not the same team.
“I know I’ve got to bring it every game. I can’t take no days off.”
Everyone remembers this time last year, when Stephenson threw his hat into the ring to get elected knucklehead of the year for flashing James the choke signal during a Miami defeat. But he as much as any Pacer tormented the Heat in Game 4. He said he’d sleep much better Tuesday night.
James seems still a tad touchy about the matter. While being complementary about Stephenson’s effort, James tossed in, “If you’re sitting here and talking about an individual one-on-one match-up between me and Lance Stephenson, I’m not going to harp on that.”
Who gets pushed to the edge first?
That’s what Game 5 is all about. By this time in a fiery series, the two teams should be getting annoyed with one another. But there is respect, too.
“This team is unbelievable,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said of the Heat. “It’s just as complete an opponent as we’ll ever face.”
Yet, the Pacers are certain they have the formula to pull it off.
“Trust in our identity, win the war in the trenches, defensive rebounding,” Vogel said. “That’s how we’ve had success all year.”
As the Indiana team left its locker room for Florida Tuesday night, this was message on the board.
Who cracks first? We’ll know soon.