The Miami Heat have reached the same point in their series with the Indiana Pacers that they were at in their previous tussle with the Chicago Bulls: Tied in the best-of-seven tussle at 1-1 and headed on the road.
But this time, instead of a wounded Bulls team, the defending NBA champions are facing a Pacers club that very much looks capable of holding onto the home-court advantage it earned with its 97-93 victory in Game 2 Friday night in Miami.
The two teams play the first of two games in Indianapolis Sunday night. Game 4 of their Eastern Conference final is Tuesday.
The Heat needs to gain a split, just as the Pacers did in the two games played in Miami, to regain the home-floor advantage they earned by posting the best record in the regular season.
Which is what they faced a couple of weeks ago in the second round, and they swept the Bulls, who were without three of their best players, in Chicago, then won the second-round series by hanging to win Game 5.
The Heat lost both regular-season meetings with the Pacers, but that’s not what is relevant here. Regular-season matchups have little bearing in the playoffs.
What is relevant, however, is that the Pacers have found various ways to compete with the Heat while the Heat seem to be down to fighting back with LeBron James. His supporting cast seems to have left him.
After recording a triple-double with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists and scoring the decisive basket in the Heat’s overtime win in Game 1, James came back with 36 points in Game 2. He was two rebounds short of a double-double and settled for only three assists.
Yes, he also made two turnovers in the 42 seconds that prevented the Heat from tying the Pacers or taking the lead, but if his teammates had been more productive, the Heat would not have been in such a precarious position.
Behind James’ production, the Heat had two other players in double figures. Chris Bosh had 17 points, Dwyane Wade 14.
Take away James’ 14-of-20 shooting and the Heat shot only 37.7 percent from the floor.
In the two games combined, James is 26 of 44 (59.1 percent) from the field. The rest of the team is 49 of 115 (42.6 percent).
The issue the Heat must correct or go home for the summer earlier than expected, however, is in their bench production.
Chris Andersen, whose main function is to provide help in the interior defensively and on the boards while providing a spark to the tempo, has done his part. In two games, he hasn’t missed a field goal attempt (nine) or free throw (five), but his 23 points are two more than what the rest of the bench players have scored in the two games combined.
Shane Battier and Ray Allen, who were instrumental in opening up things with their 3-point shooting throughout the season, have hit one 3-pointer between them in 12 attempts from behind the arc. That, and 20 points combined in two games from starters Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers, isn’t going to get it done.
TV analyst Charles Barkley proved to be very prescient when he said at halftime that James was going to have to win the game for the Heat by himself.
Meanwhile, the Pacers have shown they can get things done in more ways than one.
Roy Hibbert and David West combined for 45 points to dominate the Heat on the inside in the opener, and George Hill, after scoring just five points in the loss, joined with Paul George in the second-game win to give the Pacers 40 points from the perimeter.
Hibbert, at 7-foot-2 always the tallest player on the floor, has been virtually unstoppable inside with 38 points and 19 rebounds in two games.
It’s a deadly inside-outside combination that the Heat have yet to find an answer for on a consistent basis.
It could be they will find that answer in Game 3, and just like last year, when they recovered after losing two of the first three games against the Pacers to win the last three to capture the 2012 second-round series, the Heat will return to Miami for Game 5 back in command.
But it’s going to take more than super-human efforts from LeBron James for them to do it. Others are going to have to step up as well.