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.