It came down to a last shot and who was going to take it, an all-too-familiar dilemma for the Miami Heat.
Dwyane Wade? He was slightly fresher, but tired, too, not to mention sullen and streaky by turns, having lost his cool with less than 10 minutes to go and then missing a layup with 16 seconds left that would have tied the game.
And so with two of the best clutch scorers in the NBA relegated to decoys, the ball wound up in the hands of Mario Chalmers for the final shot, a 3-pointer from the left side of the arc with 8 seconds left and Miami trailing by three. He missed.
But at the moment, closing looks like the least of the Heat’s problems.
“This series has started,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after Indiana’s 78-75 win evened the conference semifinal at 1-1. “They won on our home court. Now we have to collect ourselves, gather ourselves and get ready for Game 3. That’s all that matters right now.”
That might be easier said than done.
The Heat will likely be without Bosh for the remainder of the series, and perhaps even the rest of the playoffs, after he strained a lower abdominal muscle in a Game 1 win. How big a problem his absence would cause wasn’t apparent right away, because James and Wade shared the burden for the rest of that first game, outscoring the Pacers 42-38 in the second half. And it seemed they were going to do it again Tuesday night, combining for 26 of Miami’s final 29 points _ but zero as the Heat went scoreless over the last 2 1/2 minutes. No other Miami player scored more than five for the game.
There are a variety of ways to measure Bosh’s contributions. The Heat score seven fewer points per game on average without him, and their shooting percentage from the floor tumbles from a well above the league-average 49 percent to a slightly sub-par 44 percent. But it’s Bosh’s versatility that Miami figures to miss even more than his production.
Because of his length, Bosh can rebound and score consistently in the paint like a big man. Because of his strong mid-range jumper, he can pull defenders away from the basket and open up the lane for James and Wade. And because he can pile up points both ways _ and in a hurry if need be _ he gave Spoelstra the freedom to cobble together lineups designed to buy his other stars the occasional breather or attack an opponent’s specific weakness. Or to put it another way: Bosh was the glue between the two superstars and the rest of the Miami squad, which could charitably be described as a collection of role players _ Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller and Shane Battier _ and fugitives from the center position _ Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf _ who were signed by Heat boss Pat Riley with the few dollars he had left after paying the big three.
The more wearying the task for James and Wade becomes, and the more the rest of the team has to pick up the slack, the more likely it becomes we’ll see other shooting nights like Game 2, when the Heat shot 35 percent from the floor and 1 of 16 from behind the arc.
“I wish I could have got him a minute or two of rest in the fourth quarter. But because of the hole that we dug ourselves,” he added, “there was no way to do it.”
Miami better get used to the pace because Indiana isn’t likely to change a thing. The Pacers learned in their first-round series against Orlando the best way to gum up a spread offense like the one the Heat have been forced to deploy. The Magic were without All-Star big man Dwight Howard, so Indiana played a deliberate half-court offense, parking big men Roy Hibbert and David West in the lane to clog things up on the other end and control the boards. A 50-40 edge in rebounds Tuesday night helped the Pacers overcome some not-so-nifty shooting of their own (38 percent from the floor).
“Our team has won with defense and rebounding all year. Those are the two areas that hurt us most in Game 1,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “The transition game and rebounding they won (in Game 1). Tonight we won those two battles and helped us get over the hump.
“We understand that offense is going to come and go,” he added a moment later. “Our defense has got to be our staple. Our guys competed harder tonight than they probably have in the entire season.”
Speaking of that, the fine Vogel incurred before the series even began for calling the Heat the “biggest flopping team in the NBA” and suggesting the officials pay close attention to such stunts looks like money well spent. No team is less popular with rival fans than the Heat, and some of that attitude appears to have rubbed off on the Pacers.
With 9:53 left, Wade drove to the basket and expected a call when Indiana’s Dahntay Jones got in his way, wrestled the ball away and set up a score for teammate Leandro Barbosa on the other end. Barely half a minute later, after another Miami turnover sprang Darren Collison for what looked like an uncontested basket, Wade barreled into Collison from behind and earned a flagrant-1 foul. It wasn’t the only confrontation and it isn’t likely to be the last in the series, either.
“This was an ugly game,” Danny Granger said, “but we found a way to win.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.