WASHINGTON — The Indiana Pacers had the Miami Heat right where they wanted them in the waning moments of overtime Wednesday night, but they couldn’t get out of their own way long enough to secure their most important playoff victory in more than a decade.
The Pacers played even with the defending champs in their building for 52 minutes, but the final minute of overtime of Game 1 in the Eastern Conference Finals might doom them for the rest of the series.
With the game tied at 99 with 24 seconds to play in overtime and Miami holding possession, Indiana coach Frank Vogel inexplicably removed his best defensive weapon - 7-2 center Roy Hibbert. Miami noticed this substitution immediately and LeBron James predictably put the Heat ahead with an easy layup.
By the grace of some luck, Indiana’s Paul George was fouled on a 3-pointer by Dwyane Wade, who fouled out on the play. Indiana was only in this position because George tied the game with .7 seconds remaining in regulation on a desperation 32-foot 3-pointer.
George made all three free throws and the Pacers had a one-point lead with only 2.2 seconds remaining in overtime. Despite the disastrous outcome of the previous Miami possession, Vogel removed Hibbert once again for the final play.
Sure enough, James caught the inbound pass, darted past George and put in the game-winning layup as time expired. The Heat had protected home court and the Pacers were left wondering what could have been.
Vogel is regarded as one of the bright young coaches in the NBA, but his decision to remove Hibbert not once, but twice will not be forgotten.
This wasn’t just another loss. Indiana was given little chance, if any, to win this series and they had just squandered a golden opportunity to take a one-game lead. These kinds of chances don’t come around ever against a team like Miami.
George outplayed James - the four-time league MVP - for much of the fourth quarter and overtime, but that’s not something you can count on more than once in a series. When you have the chance to beat the Heat in their house, you have to capitalize.
The Heat has lost three games since Super Bowl Sunday in which James has played, so the task of winning four out of seven games was hard enough. The Pacers essentially have to win five out of seven against the defending champions after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
After the game, Vogel explained his rationale that he worried about the quicker Chris Bosh getting an open shot with Hibbert ranging out to the perimeter. This answer is completely inexcusable. Indiana was the best defensive team in the NBA this season, and Vogel¹s biggest weapon on that defense was Hibbert. You don¹t take your best weapon out of play in the game¹s biggest moment.
Just this past Saturday, Hibbert’s block on a dunk attempt at the rim by Carmelo Anthony sparked an Indiana rally to finish off the Knicks and put the Pacers into the conference finals. Maybe the Heat would have hit a game-winning jumper if Hibbert had stayed in the game, but at least Indiana wouldn¹t be left with the sick feeling they have now. This isn¹t all on Vogel - George allowed James to go right around him and score the winning bucket and no one rotated over to contest the layup.
Indiana showed it can play with the Heat, but that might not be enough to win tonight.
The Pacers took every punch Miami threw at them in Game 1, but the feeling that they should be up 1-0 will haunt them for the next 24 hours, while they are peppered with questions about Vogel’s ill-fated substitution.
Today’s Game 2 can’t come soon enough, but will it really matter? Indiana’s odds were long enough before the series started, but now they are behind the eight ball. Game 2 has essentially turned into a must-win game. That’s how quickly things can change in the playoffs.