[size=18:02d40a0ebd]Bad things come in 3s[/size]
0-2 deficit doesn't bode well for Miami
BY ISRAEL GUTIERREZ
INDIANAPOLIS - The saying goes that a playoff series doesn't truly start until a team loses at home.
Somehow, though, the Indiana Pacers have not only created the sense this series is underway, but that they took a healthy head start before the Heat noticed the race had started.
Indiana handed Miami a worse-than-the-score-indicates 91-80 loss and took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series behind 20 points from Ron Artest and 19 points in 18 minutes from a suddenly youthful Reggie Miller.
It was the kind of loss that can send an overmatched team into a collective state of depression. And the Heat will have to shake it off quickly if it's going to make a series out of this so-far one-sided contest.
''It was another tough one,'' Heat coach Stan Van Gundy said. ``They really outplayed us again. It's the same old problem. We competed, we worked hard inside and got more rebounds. They just have so many weapons. It's tough.''
What's even tougher is fighting back from the hole the Heat is in. In 173 previous occasions that a team has fallen behind 0-2 in a best-of-7, only seven have come back to win the series.
Need to hear something positive? Something to make Games 3 and 4 worth watching and provide a glimmer of hope for the Heat?
First, the Heat believes there were many correctable errors made in Saturday's Game 2. The most noticeable was the players' decision to suddenly abort the concept of team play and attempt to win the game individually.
The Heat came out of the blocks well Saturday and managed to stay with the Pacers for a couple of laps, tying the score 27-27 on a Malik Allen jumper with 8:11 left in the second quarter.
But then the misses piled up. The Heat was still within reach, never falling behind by more than nine in the first half, but the offensive possessions weren't ending with baskets, and that frustrated the young Heat.
Adding to the anger was Miller's buzzer-beating three-pointer with Eddie Jones draped all over him that gave Indiana a 44-36 halftime lead.
''He took tough shots,'' said Jones, who scored nine points on six shots. ``He's been hitting tough shots his whole career. I've seen it for 11 years.''
The frustration of the first-half failures resulted in the Heat abandoning the team concept and trying to take on the Pacers one-on-five.
''It wasn't anything selfish, but we were just trying too hard to make plays,'' forward Caron Butler said. 'When we saw the score, we said, `We're down 15, let me do it.' Everybody was trying to force the issue. But the result was bad because we ended up falling behind by 20 points.''
By the end of the third quarter, Miami trailed 69-54 and was on the verge of being forcefully ejected from Conseco Fieldhouse. While the Heat was dealing with its anger poorly, the Pacers were methodically going about their business, eventually taking a 22-point lead.
''The one thing that happens is we're moving the ball and getting good looks, but we're not making it,'' said guard Rafer Alston, who shot 2 of 10 from the field. ``So therefore we revert to trying to do it single-handedly. Then we start to miss those shots instead of moving the ball and working the ball and working the whole offensive set.
``[The Pacers] do a great job of looking past the first option and going to the second or third option. Then if that doesn't work, come all the way back to the first.''
The Heat's best options all night, Lamar Odom and Dwyane Wade, were limited by foul trouble. Odom, who had 19 points on 9-of-17 shooting and 12 rebounds, played 33 minutes before fouling out. And Wade played 36 minutes and scored 19 points with five assists and six turnovers.
Odom was consistently frustrated with the officiating, especially when he picked up his fourth foul with 6:21 left in the third quarter and the Heat trailed by eight.
''I didn't feel like I played bad today,'' Odom said. ``I know I need to be on the court a little bit more. At some crucial times I felt like my hands were tied watching from the side. Not to say it was all on me, but I was just starting to feel good and then I pick up that foul.
``I'm trying to be as aggressive as I can. I'm trying to keep two hands on the ball and draw some contact. I don't shoot jumpers, and I only went to the free-throw line twice. I guess I'm not going strong enough to the hole. I've got to make it my business to get to the hole and draw contact and make it an obvious call, and on the other side stay out of foul trouble.''
Still need reason to believe the series is not over? Consider that the Heat beat the Hornets by a combined 32 points to take a 2-0 lead in the first round, only to see the Hornets tie the series went it swung to New Orleans.
The Pacers' combined margin of victory in this series: 24.
''We're playing great at home. That's a place where our energy is up extremely high,'' Alston said of AmericanAirlines Arena, where Miami has won 16 in a row. ``Guys feel like they can shoot the ball from halfcourt and win at home. We witnessed what happened to us when we were 2-0 and went to New Orleans.''
[size=18:02d40a0ebd]Here's the scary part: Heat is playing well[/size]
DAN LE BATARD
INDIANAPOLIS -- It's unfair, really.
If their MVP candidate doesn't dump 30 on your head and the league's best defensive player doesn't strangle you, then maybe, as they did Saturday night, the Indiana Pacers will have to settle for sticking a knife in you with only one of the most clutch players in basketball's history.
That's what is so debilitating for the Miami Heat about the first two games of this series.
Indiana isn't playing very well.
And Miami is.
And Indiana has, nonetheless, blown Miami out twice.
That's what happens when the other guys are better than you.
Indiana is deeper, bigger, more experienced and more talented.
Other than that, though, Miami is in great shape.
A recap: Lamar Odom and Dwyane Wade had very nice games Saturday night. Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal was suffocated for the second straight time, playing about as poorly as he ever will. And the Heat outworked and out-rebounded Indiana, again.
That would be the Heat's optimum formula for beating the Pacers.
But Indiana won by 11 anyway.
It was funny afterward, hearing Reggie Miller say, ''We didn't play very well.'' And hearing the first post-game question to O'Neal be about why he's struggling so much. And hearing O'Neal say, ``Our top four or five players are struggling shooting the ball.''
Your top four or five players are off, and you've still won an NBA record six consecutive playoff playoff games by double-digits?
The Heat's Brian Grant shook those dreadlocks.
''Very deflating,'' he said.
He added, ``Just goes to show how many weapons they have.''
This many: Poor Caron Butler was playing in handcuffs Saturday against Ron Artest, who guards the basket the way pitbulls guard bowls. So Butler, predictably, began his Saturday 0 for 6. Artest went to the bench to chew on some raw meat and in to guard Butler came the ridiculously gifted Jonathan Bender, who is only 7-feet tall and even more athletic than the 6-7 Butler.
(Such a strange thing. Nobody could have foreseen the dominant player Artest has become. If you had watched Artest and Butler playing their final season of Big East basketball, there's not a scout on this or any other planet who would have told you Artest would become the better pro than Butler. Butler may still grow into the player Artest is, but, unfortunately for the Heat, it won't be happening during this series.)
''First half, we played great,'' Butler said.
And they were still down by eight.
Blame Reggie Miller. He had 19 points in 18 minutes. And, as Grant sighed afterward, ''Every point was huge. Deflating points. They weren't ordinary points. Momentum was trying to shift in our direction, and he just took the air out of it.'' This is why the playoffs are known as Miller Time and not, say, Eddie Jones Time.
(The Heat is a feel-good story, so I'm done with any Eddie Jones bashing for the remainder of the season. I promise. No more. It is going to take extraordinary discipline and unprecedented will power on my part, but there will only be praise of Jones in this space from now on. In the absence of any praise, you can just assume Miami's $86 million man vanished again.)
Miller, 78 years old, has made and taken more playoff three-pointers than anyone in the sport's history. He did almost all of his scoring Saturday on . . . (Um, good Lord, my will power wasn't supposed to be tested this early. I just made the damn promise a paragraph ago.) Miller scored 19 points in 18 minutes despite extraordinary, suffocating, unprecedented defense by Eddie Jones.
''I don't put nothing past that dude,'' Butler said of Miller. ``He's a monster in the playoffs. He's been like that since I was eight years old. He's one of the best ever, hands down.''
All of history's math tilts against Miami now. The Pacers have never in their history lost a series they led 2-0. And only four percent of NBA teams ever have rallied to win a series after trailing 0-2 (and every one of those four percent were substantively better than 42-40 Miami). Unsolicited, Miller and O'Neal and Indiana coach Rick Carlisle have raved about Miami's toughness and heart, but they're going to show more than that Monday.
''We played well,'' Grant said as he left the losing locker room. ``But not well enough.''
[size=18:02d40a0ebd]Playing for pride now[/size]
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Heat and its fans now need the only thing -- the one item -- currently not available on eBay. A reason to believe. The rest of the nation needs a reason to stay awake -- to not abandon this lopsided series in desperate search of an infomercial for ''killer abs'' or perhaps a Matlock re-rerun.
Miami fell thoroughly into an 0-2 hole here Saturday night to Indiana's superior Pacers in this NBA playoff series, and it left the Heat where it hasn't been since this same season began 0-7 way back in October.
Trying to win as a matter of pride.
Trying not to be embarrassed.
Lamar Odom's voice was a husky whisper in the emptying postgame locker room. You had to lean in to hear that he was speaking at all.
''We've worked too hard all year to go out like this,'' he said.
Doing so many things right, yet having so little chance.
What a stunning contrast Round 2 of these playoffs have been for Miami compared to the opening series against New Orleans. What an illuminating reality check. A week ago we were marking the joyous accomplishment of Miami winning a playoff series, let alone merely making the postseason. Today, we begin to measure how far Miami still is from joining the elite.
The Heat and Hornets slugged through to the maximum seven games, all but one of them decided in the final, tense minute. There was genuine drama there, an honest feeling of having no idea which team would advance, or how. It was the fiercest series of the opening round. A reason we love sports.
One round later, larger stakes, but hardly enough drama to fill a thimble.
The dispassionate observer -- defined here as anyone whose face won't be painted in Heat colors for Game 3 Monday night -- might wonder, ''Can the Heat win?'' . . . and mean a single game, not the series.
It is difficult to recall a local team in a series this lopsided. It surely wasn't Marlins-Yankees last fall, even going in. Baseball is different. One dominating pitcher levels the field. Ask Josh Beckett. Or the Yankees.
Basketball is different. Home court and talent and depth are magnified.
THE TASK AHEAD
Miami must sweep the next two games back at the bayside arena even to elevate its chances in this series from nil to remote, and it's hard to image this Indiana team losing two straight to the Heat anywhere.
That would include on Miami's court, on cracked asphalt with chain-link nets, on a cricket pitch in Pakistan, or on the surface of the moon.
A split in Miami, which seems reasonable, sends the series back up here with the Pacers able to clinch at home in Game 5. That is why, right now, the odds of this series stretching beyond five games are roughly as long as the odds of seeing two NBA players standing side-by-side and neither one of them emblazoned by elaborate tattoos.
The Pacers and the TV guys keep praising the Heat for its effort and heart. They keep using words like ''scrappy'' and ''tenacious.'' Those are compliments, but consolation prizes, too.
They are the things you usually say about an opponent that works like crazy but simply isn't good enough.
No shame in that. It's just that on the NBA scales of justice, Indiana's advantage in talent, depth, height and experience outweigh Miami's heart and workrate. Only by about a ton.
Miami's 16-game home winning streak now is challenged by a Pacers team that had the NBA's best road record. A Pacers team that has won 10 straight overall against Miami and is the first team ever to win six straight playoff games by double digits.
And if the Heat manages to pinch a win at home this week, they still must find a way to win at Conseco Fieldhouse. Despite having not won a single road game all season against a team with a winning record -- let alone the best record in the entire league.
The Heat is left with the realization that it must fashion a perfect game to beat the Pacers.
''Not perfect, but almost perfect,'' corrected Caron Butler. ``You really got to be almost flawless.''
Almost flawless does not include Odom and Brian Grant both fouling out, as they did Saturday. Does not include Butler's 1-for-8 shooting. Does not include Indiana leading faster Miami 11-0 in fast-break points after three quarters. Does not include Eddie Jones vanishing with a grand total of one shot attempt after the first quarter.
You want the contrast Saturday that captured the disparity in this series?
Closing seconds of the first quarter, Miami's Jones scoops up a loose ball and dribbles the length of the floor on a breakaway, laying the ball in at the buzzer. No basket. After a review, still no basket.
Closing seconds of the second quarter, Reggie Miller, with Jones on him like cologne, hits an impossible fall-away three-pointer at the buzzer. Good!
That was a five-point swing right there, and there you had it:
Miami, too late.
Indiana, too good.
Coach Stan Van Gundy challenged his guys after they survived New Orleans. He asked them, ``Is this enough? Or do you still want more?''
And Heat players have been saying all the right things, as when Butler insisted, ``We're not just happy to be here.''
But those things suggest the Heat's mind-set was the determining factor here.
It wasn't. It isn't.
Indiana's talent, and depth, holds sway over all else.
The intangibles aligned nobly on the underdogs' side -- Miami's fierce attitude and effort, etc. -- are what keep games respectably close, not what wins them.
[size=18:02d40a0ebd]Resilience is put to the test[/size]
Caron Butler struggled through a 1-for-8 shooting night against Pacers star Ron Artest, but the Heat's second-year forward vowed to bounce back for Game 3.
BY STEPHEN F. HOLDER
INDIANAPOLIS - About the only silver lining on this otherwise forgettable Indiana evening for Heat forward Caron Butler was that he was able to forget it quickly.
''This night is over,'' the second-year player said, holding his head high after one of his longest games of this postseason.
Butler didn't fret over his 1-for-8 shooting night as you might expect a young player to do. He simply turned the page and promised the next chapter in his playoff odyssey would have a happier conclusion.
That Butler could so quickly make the decision to move past this moment was a credit to him, because this was not a moment that would be easily forgotten.
While he produced only four points in the Heat's 91-80 Game 2 loss against the pacers Saturday, Butler promised a decipherable difference entering Game 3 on Monday in Miami. After this performance, moving forward was the only option.
''I'm going to take my shot and continue to take it,'' Butler said. ``I'm going to play basketball. That's what I do. I'm always going to be aggressive.''
Butler has been that and more for the Heat through the playoffs, his 1-for-6 outing in Game 5 against the Hornets in the first round the only glaring hole on his tiny playoff résumé. But Butler followed that performance with a 50-percent shooting night in Game 6 of that series, and the Heat needs that type of response in the face of this game.
Butler has become one of the Heat's sure things during these playoffs, and on nights when Eddie Jones has one of his many off nights, or on evenings when Dwyane Wade looks like the rookie he is, Butler has usually been the guy there to pick up the pieces.
''He's been huge,'' Jones said of Butler. ``He's one of the guys we've gone to to knock down shots. I think we always need somebody else to step in, but he's been there for us. We're not thinking twice about him.''
Neither is Butler.
He was adamant afterward that his many missed shots Saturday were just that, misses. They weren't a byproduct of Ron Artest's defense, or the result of a lack of confidence.
Butler has shown resilience this season, battling back from early-season injuries that had fans and opponents alike questioning if he was the player who last season finished third in voting for Rookie of the Year.
''Sometimes you have tough nights,'' Jones added. ``You just have to step it up and come out the next night.''
But Butler has his hands full not only offensively, but on defense as well. That's where he has responsibility for Artest, who has 45 points through the series' first two games, 20 coming Saturday.
Artest, at 6-7 and 246 pounds, is a gargantuan defensive assignment. He batters those defending him, sapping every ounce of energy from his man, energy that would have served Butler well on offense Saturday.
And playing offense in the face of a defensive star like Artest isn't easy, either. He recorded three blocks and uses each of his rippling muscles to make driving around him a near physical impossibility.
''He's an All-Star,'' Butler said of the league's Defensive Player of the Year. ``He's a physical dude.''
But that's what Butler hopes to be someday soon, and All-Stars don't let bad nights affect the next night. So, on Monday night, Butler's confidence and maturity and mental toughness will be put the test.
Bring it on, Butler said.
''After watching the film of what happened tonight, I'm going to do the same thing back home, take the same shots,'' he said. ``And they're going to fall next time. It's simple as that.''
[size=18:02d40a0ebd]The numbers do lie[/size]
Despite being outrebounded and their best player having a sub-par series, the Pacers have cruised to a 2-0 lead.
BY MICHAEL POINTER
Special to The Herald
INDIANAPOLIS - The Indiana Pacers aren't dominating the Eastern Conference semifinals, as a quick look at the stat sheet will attest.
They're getting beat on the boards by the Heat. Their best player is struggling offensively.
But the NBA's top team during the regular season finds itself in an enviable position because it is making shots at crucial times. And that's keeping the Heat from building any kind of momentum.
Reggie Miller scored 19 points in just 18 minutes and hit a crucial three-pointer at the end of the first half as the Pacers beat the Heat 91-80 at Conseco Fieldhouse on Saturday to take a 2-0 lead in the series.
''We've had depth all year,'' said Miller, whose 10-point average this season was the second-lowest regular-season average of his 17-year career. ``Tonight, we showed it. That's what is going to make this team hard to beat because you never know where it's going to come from.''
Miller was 6 of 10 from the field, and Ron Artest scored 20 points for the Pacers, who also got a boost off the bench from Al Harrington (eight points, nine rebounds) and Fred Jones (eight points).
They shot 49.1 percent from the field during the first three quarters (26 of 53) compared to 38.9 percent for the Heat (21 of 54) while building a 69-54 lead.
The Pacers are 6-0 during the playoffs, with every win by double digits. They have won 11 games in a row overall.
Indiana has won the first two games of this series even though the Heat have outrebounded the Pacers 91-77, including 44-38 on Saturday. Indiana All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal is just 10 of 32 from the field in the first two games.
''We got killed on the offensive boards, but we made some big shots,'' Indiana's Austin Croshere said. ``That's not characteristic of our team. We're usually the team that makes the hustle plays and gets the stops to make up for a poor shooting night.''
Miller hit a three-pointer at the first-half buzzer to give Indiana a 44-36 lead at the break. He hit another with a hand in his face with 7:25 left in the third quarter, giving the Pacers a 55-46 lead.
That propensity to make big plays at crucial times wasn't lost on Indiana coach Rick Carlisle.
''That's what happens when you're on your home court,'' Carlisle said. ``You get that extra boost of energy, a little more confidence. Things tend to happen for you a little more easier.
``There were a couple of times we were up against the shot clock, and if we miss, they're taking off in numbers. But the ball goes in, and we're able to get back, so in effect, it ends up being a four- or five- point play.''