No high-fives were exchanged inside the locker room late Saturday night. Even something as basic as the slightest of grins came in what could best be described as eye-dropper portions.
Defeating defending NBA champion Miami 91-77 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals guaranteed a 48-hour extension to the Indiana Pacers’ 2012-13 season.
The players themselves understand there remains work to be done, and that it will be anything but easy with Miami scheduled to host tonight’s deciding Game 7.
“It’s one game, so we’ve got to approach it like that. Anything can happen,” reserve forward Tyler Hansbrough said. “We have to come out every game and be aggressive. What we’ve learned from these games is you can’t have a letdown.”
Trailing the Heat 40-39 at halftime Saturday, Indiana overwhelmed Miami with a 29-15 scoring advantage in the third period to the delight of the sellout Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd.
In a game filled with memorable plays by the home team, the one conducted by 7-foot-2 post Roy Hibbert at the 5:49 mark of the third nearly blew the lid off the place in terms of noise.
With Miami backup center Joel Anthony collecting valuable minutes due to Chris Andersen’s one-game suspension for shoving Hansbrough in Game 5, Hibbert took advantage. The big man’s spin move near the free throw line left Anthony defending air as Hibbert motored down the lane to throw down a right-handed dunk for a 53-42 lead.
Heat coach Eric Spoelstra immediately called time out. The Pacers kept it going, however, their lead reaching 17 points at 66-49.
Consecutive 3-pointers from backup swingman Mike Miller led a Miami comeback that chopped the lead to as little as four. In the end, though, Indiana’s ability to place four starters in double-figures in points and three in rebounds proved too much.
The Pacers smothered the Heat on the boards, 53-33, enjoying a 15-9 margin on the offensive glass. They were strong defensively, limiting Miami to 26 of 72 shooting (.361) from the floor.
A victory tonight qualifies Indiana for only its second NBA Finals. The franchise’s other flirtation with a title came in 2000 when it lost in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 6-10 Andersen will be back and motivated to atone for his Game 6 absence. The mohawked center will attempt to crash the boards, giving league MVP LeBron James the kind of interior help he sorely lacked Saturday.
“We came out ready for this game and are happy we got the ‘W’,” said 6-5 Pacers guard Lance Stephenson, who had four points, 12 rebounds and four assists in Game 6. “We’ve got to play aggressive and play tough. We’re going to bring it to them.”
“They’re going to come out with a lot of energy. We just have to keep our composure,” said Indiana point guard George Hill, whose 16 points and six assists Saturday made up for a poor showing the previous game. “We know we can do it. As long as you have heart ...”
Hill didn’t complete the sentence. He didn’t have to.