By TIM REYNOLDS
MIAMI — Losing a game at the final buzzer, no less than a playoff game on the road against the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat, would seem to have potential to demoralize the Indiana Pacers.
“Our belief,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said Thursday, “has strengthened.”
Barely 12 hours after LeBron James scored on a drive as time expired in overtime to give the Heat a win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers were more steeled than shaken when they arrived for practice at the arena where it all went awry in the series opener. The second-guessing of Vogel’s decision to keep Roy Hibbert on the bench for the final play was still going strong, but the Pacers insisted that they’re mentally fine.
A short memory would likely help Indiana now, especially with Game 2 of the series back in Miami on today (2:30 p.m. HST, TNT).
“Very encouraged,” Vogel said. “Our belief in our ability to beat this team has strengthened after Game 1. Our familiarity in the playoffs, in the playoff series grows with each day, grows with each game, and there’s a lot of things we can definitely do better.”
And on that point, the Pacers and Heat are in total agreement.
For as intense and down-to-the-wire as Game 1 was, with 35 ties or lead changes over 53 scintillating minutes where neither team ever held more than a seven-point lead, both the Pacers and Heat are expecting Friday to simply be better.
Matching the level of drama may be difficult, but the actual level of play, they think, will improve. It’s easy to see how that could be the case, after a series-opener where both teams were turnover-happy — 20 for Indiana, 21 for Miami, hardly the norm for either side — and play was at times choppy thanks in part to 58 personal fouls being called.
“We’re going to play a lot better,” Heat center Chris Bosh said after film and on-court work Thursday. “We’ve come to expect that of ourselves. We know that yesterday wasn’t the championship effort that we need in order to win the series, let alone win the finals. We’re going to have to do a much better job on defense and on offense to take care of the basketball, do a better job on the boards, do a better job of containing some of their actions.”
For all the sensational statistical story lines that were born from Game 1 — James’ 30-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist effort, Chris Andersen making all seven of his shots, David West and Hibbert combining for 20 field goals — the boxscore alone points to plenty of areas where things could get better for both sides on Friday night.
In Miami’s case, key reserves Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Norris Cole combined to shoot 2 for 16. In Indiana’s case, George — who finished with 27 points — only had two at halftime, and Lance Stephenson shot just 2 for 10.
“We can get better,” James said. “I think both teams didn’t play to the level that they’re capable of playing at in Game 1. But both teams had a chance to win.”
The Heat usually have more than a chance to win. They’re now 46-3 in their last 49 games, and 28-0 when Andersen grabs at least four rebounds. Still, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was pleading for more.
“We have to push to get to another level,” Spoelstra said. “It was a very competitive game. Both teams were laying it all out there but we’re trying to push to another level that we think we can get to — and we’ll need to in this series.
“We have to continue to push forward and evolve. … We have to play better in this series. In order to be able to win this series, we have to get to another level,” Spoelstra said.
Another lineup — not another level — might have done wonders for the Pacers at the end of Game 1.
Vogel’s decision to not have a 7-foot-2 shot-blocking machine like Hibbert in the game for the final play was still creating plenty of buzz on Thursday, though the second-guessing seemed to not be raining on Indiana’s collective mood.
With Miami down by one, James took an inbounds pass from Shane Battier with 2.2 seconds left, drove past an overcommitted George and easily dropped a left-handed layup home as time expired. If Hibbert was in the game, odds are he would have been able to at least contest James at the rim. Without Hibbert, no one so much as seemed to even jump toward the final shot.
“I may have been able to get a hand on it,” Hibbert said. “I may not have. He may have done something differently. Can’t really think about that. You just have to move on.”
When James scored, West turned and raised his arms a bit in clear disbelief. On Thursday, the Pacers’ leader spoke about it all with a calm tone.
“I mean, hindsight is always 20-20,” West said. “We know he wants to be out there on the floor. Looking back at it, probably should have been on the floor. Again, we still had the chance to make the play.”
What’s done is done, and Vogel said the second-guessing didn’t bother him whatsoever. He’s already moved on, and with good reason. The Pacers lost Game 1 of a second-round series in Miami last season, then took Game 2 and swiping home-court advantage away.
And he knows a Pacer win on Friday would change the complexion of this matchup as well.
“I don’t think you can say you’re the better team when that team has done what they’ve done,” Vogel said. “But I believe we can beat them.”
NOTES: Miami starting point guard Mario Chalmers said he’s still dealing with a bruised left shoulder but expects to play in Game 2. Chalmers left in the third quarter on Wednesday after running into a hard screen set by Hibbert, though Spoelstra said he could have returned to the lineup if necessary. … James headlined the All-NBA first team, collecting each of a possible 119 votes. George and Miami’s Dwyane Wade were both on the third team.