Pacers build big early lead but fall to Heat

Former Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1). (Lynne Sladky/AP)

MIAMI — Everything was going Indiana’s way. The Miami crowd was silent, the scoreboard showed the Pacers leading by 15 points and the Heat’s frustration was evident.

Such was the case on Dec. 18, when the Heat wound up rallying to win.

And that nightmare scenario struck the Pacers again in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The up-and-down post-season ride for the Pacers took another dip Saturday night, when LeBron James scored 26 points, Dwyane Wade added 23 and the Heat controlled the second half on the way to a 99-87 victory and a 2-1 lead.

"It’s very early in the series," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "They came back. They took care of their home court. We’ve got to come out and try to get Game 4."

That chance comes on Monday night, back in Miami.

"Every game is a must win," Pacers centre Roy Hibbert said. "We have to leave here after Game 4 hopefully with a win. We just have to play smarter and stronger."

Finishing would help, too.

According to STATS LLC, the Pacers have lost only three games this season after leading by 15 or more — and all were Florida Flops. Indiana wasted a 17-point lead in a loss at Orlando on Feb. 9, a 15-pointer in Miami a week before Christmas, and now another 15-pointer to put itself in another precarious spot.

"I don’t think we were sharp enough, particularly in this building, to get a win tonight," Pacers forward David West said.

Miami once trailed 37-22, before outscoring Indiana 77-50 the rest of the way.

"A lot of our situations that we’ve been through where we’ve struggled have been against this team," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That’s what they do to you. They’re very good. It’s a function of their defence.

"But we had no choice but try to re-gather."

That they did.

And then some. Ray Allen added 16 points and led a late-game charge for the Heat.

It’s the third straight series where the Pacers have faced a deficit.

"Tough loss for our guys," Vogel said. "Thought we competed pretty well, came out of the gates really strong, got off to a good start and then didn’t manage our foul trouble well and didn’t manage picking up their defensive intensity well."

Paul George scored 17 points for Indiana, shooting 5 for 13 in his return after being concussed late in Game 2. Hibbert had 16 points and West added 13 for the Pacers, who never trailed until early in the third quarter.

Miami started the game 2 for 10 from the floor. The Heat then made 21 of their next 31 shots, including eight straight in the third that gave the two-time defending NBA champions their first lead.

James’ dunk with 7:36 remaining in the third put Miami up for the first time, 52-51. That was the first of nine lead changes in the quarter, before the Heat did what Spoelstra implored his team to do in a pregame locker room address.

"Impose our identity," Spoelstra said.

Eventually, the message reached the Heat, and their two best players led the way.

"We just want to get better as the series goes on," James said. "We want to move their defence from side to side. When we do that, we give ourselves an opportunity to get to the lane. And when our shooters get going it definitely adds more space as you saw in the fourth quarter."

James’ 3-pointer with 1:21 left in the third put Miami up 67-63, then its biggest lead of the night. Wade subbed in for James with 5.7 seconds left because the four-time MVP was dealing with what appeared to be a hamstring cramp and connected on a 3-pointer with 1.4 ticks remaining for a 74-67 lead going into the fourth.

James retreated toward the locker room at that point, stopping halfway down the hallway known as "Championship Alley" while trainer Mike Mancias stretched him out. Meanwhile, Wade — not exactly known for behind-the-arc prowess — opened the fourth quarter with another 3, the Heat were up 10 and the floodgates were opening.

Indiana got to 76-74 before Allen made a 3-pointer. He made three 3s in the final 5:59, the last putting Miami up by 15.

"I think we need to stick to what we do," West said. "We got away from ourselves. We tried to make some stuff on the fly, which is not us."

The halftime score looked ugly: Pacers 42, Heat 38.

That didn’t even come close to describing how much Miami struggled at times. Here’s one example: After 11 minutes, it was Hibbert 10, Heat 10. But in the end, Indiana ran out of answers.

"You can’t play around with this team," George said.

NOTES: Commissioner Adam Silver was in attendance, posing with plenty of fans for photos. … Stephenson had nine rebounds by halftime. The Heat, in total, had 11. … Heat F Shane Battier, announced earlier in the day as the winner of the league’s Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year award, got his trophy in a pregame ceremony from 2013 recipient Chauncey Billups. … Greg Oden was active for Miami for the first time since Game 4 of the opening round.

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