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vs. Miami
Eastern Conference finals
Series: Best of seven
Game 1: Indiana 107, Miami 96
Tuesday: at Indiana, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday: at Miami, 8:30 p.m.
Monday: at Miami, 8:30 p.m.
May 28: at Indiana, 8:30 p.m. *
May 30: at Miami, 8:30 p.m. *
June 1: at Indiana, 8:30 p.m. *
* – if necessary
TV: All games on ESPN

Pacers’ right psyche bad for Heat

Team says swoon made it stronger

The Indiana Pacers’ drama could wind up ruining the Miami Heat’s season. The Pacers have grown stronger while solving problems – most of which were self-inflicted – en route to the Eastern Conference finals. In Game 1, the Heat didn’t notice until it was too late.

The Pacers jumped ahead early and dismantled the two-time defending NBA champions 107-96 at Indianapolis. Game 2 is today at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. After dropping openers on their turf in the preceding two rounds, the Pacers, for a change this postseason, looked like the East’s No. 1 seed. For the Heat, that’s bad news.

The Pacers possess the physical tools to finish atop the league. They’re still trying to prove they have the heart required to get there, but they’ve shown some recently.

Center Roy Hibbert’s perplexing slump, the scuffle between guard Lance Stephenson and swingman Evan Turner in practice and the team’s disappearing act at the worst possible times had, rightly, stirred concern within the hoops-savvy Hoosier State. But by outlasting the tougher-than-expected Atlanta Hawks in seven games and eliminating the rising Washington Wizards in a six-game fight, the Pacers displayed mettle few outside their organization figured they had. Against the Heat, coach Frank Vogel expects the Pacers to show even more.

“Everything is behind us,” Vogel said recently, a sense of relief evident in his confident tone. “How we struggled down the stretch, and took a lot of criticism … that means nothing now. This is where we wanted to be: at the conference finals (with) a chance to move on.”

In Game 1, it was no coincidence the Pacers had their most efficient performance of the postseason. Indiana looked like a team that has regained its rhythm.

“Stuff happens,” Stephenson said after Game 3 in Washington. “It’s a long season, man. Guys can get frustrated, upset, whatever … but you have to think about what got you to where you are. You need to (be there for) each other. You always have to remember that.”

The Pacers, who have only one starter older than 28, didn’t handle success well. Suddenly, there was too much “me” and not enough “we.” Late in the season, Hibbert called out some of his teammates for being selfish.

The Pacers finished 23-19. Then the road got tougher in the playoffs.

On the eve of facing Atlanta, Stephenson and Turner mixed it up. The altercation led credence to the widespread belief the Pacers had major issues in their locker room. They also spilled out onto the court during games.

Hibbert failed to score three times in a span of four games against the Hawks and Wizards. Facing Washington, the former Georgetown standout even had a double-zero outing: zero points, zero rebounds.

After being blown out by the Wizards in a potential close-out game, Hibbert and his teammates could have benefited from counseling sessions. The Pacers eliminated the Wizards in the next game, prompting Hibbert to predict the Pacers would be better for the experience.

“With our team, we learn from everything,” said Hibbert, who scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds in Sunday’s Game 1 victory over Miami.

“We take (their experiences) and try to get better as a team. It’s really just about supporting our teammates in everything we do. When we’re at our best, that’s who we are.”

Although future Hall of Famers LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were productive in Sunday’s opener, most of Miami’s other players weren’t. With the 7-foot-2 Hibbert and tenacious power forward David West, Indiana has a major size advantage. Factor in the Pacers’ apparently improved psyche, and the Heat has a lot working against it.

“Those ups and downs made us stronger,” Stephenson said.

For a team chasing a title, believing in each other is the best way to go. The Pacers just needed a lot of adversity to remind them.