By Sean Highkin
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Eastern Conference Finals rematch between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers was always going to be a chess match. For all the Pacers' struggles and near-collapses this season, this is a team that was built from the beginning to match up with this specific foe. In the Pacers' 107-96 Game 1 victory over the Heat, they again showed an ability to take Miami out of its usual scheme. Erik Spoelstra's decision to stick with Shane Battier in the starting lineup backfired when it forced LeBron James to match up with the most physically imposing but least talked-about Pacers starter, David West.
Since signing with Indiana for the 2011-12 season, West has been the quiet conscience of the Pacers. Paul George was the budding perimeter superstar, Roy Hibbert was the paint-clogging defensive force and Lance Stephenson was the explosive wild card. Those three names have dominated the headlines around this team all season. Meanwhile, West has been the backbone of the Pacers' suffocating interior defense and a solid scorer in the paint. He's the only one that hasn't imploded or gone through a significant rough patch this season, and his steadiness paid off in a big way in a commanding performance by a Pacers team that resembled the juggernaut of the first three months of the season.
"We were assertive," West said after the game. "Ultimately, when guys needed to move it they moved it, when guys needed to shoot it they shot it. We didn't turn it over. That's sort of been our Achilles heel against the Heat… they've always been able to turn us over on consecutive possessions and extend their offensive runs. We did a good job of avoiding those tonight."
Indeed, the Pacers only gave up 12 turnovers against the Heat, and West gave Miami headaches with a 19-point, seven-rebound effort that caused Spoelstra to rip up his plan at halftime. After starting Battier with limited success, the Heat went to the bigger Udonis Haslem, who was better at staying in front of West. Spoelstra started Haslem in the second half, but by then, the size mismatch had already taken Miami out of the transition game that has been its strength all season.
"We're not just going to change our lineup," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. "We're going to stay who we are."
The stay-the-course mentality paid off for a team that has undergone no small amount of turmoil in the latter half of the season. In the locker room, as well as on the court, West has served as a steadying hand, a voice of reason for the more emotional and introspective Hibbert. Hibbert was solid in Game 1, with 19 points and nine rebounds to complement an excellent defensive performance. He looked more like the rim-protecting monster that was a deserved All-Star than the non-factor he's been for most of the playoffs. To West, it's all about sending the big man the right message.
"He's his biggest critic," West said of Hibbert. "A lot of the pressure and disappointment is from himself. He wants to be the guy that we depend on, he wants to be center focus. He was open in terms of receiving communication from us, asking guys for advice. He's open to changing his routine. He's looking to get himself out of a funk that as a professional ballplayer, he's going to go through in his career.
"He wants guys to feel like they can depend on him. And so when he's not playing well, it weighs really heavy on him. I just thought the support system that we have has been good in keeping him uplifted and keeping him confident."
The tone West and the rest of the locker room set for Hibbert made all the difference in Game 1. "As we progressed throughout the season, we continued to trust each other and make plays," Hibbert said. "We talked to each other out there and said, 'Hey, we're going to try this. We did what we were supposed to do. I'm just working on small things, trying to get to position, trying to play my best."
After the game, Spoelstra wouldn't commit to any adjustments for Tuesday's Game 2 -- whether that meant starting off on West with Haslem instead of Battier or even dusting off Greg Oden, who has yet to play for the Heat in the postseason. Oden was signed specifically to match up with Hibbert after the matchup difficulties Indiana's bigs gave the Heat throughout last year's Conference Finals. The Heat have treated him with kid gloves due to his extensive injury history, but staying the course hasn't worked for the two-time defending champions against this Pacers team. Something will have to give.
The Pacers, who have been inconsistent throughout the playoffs -- and, really, since the All-Star break -- know that they have to keep this intensity up for as many as six more games against the Heat.
"We've been complacent many times in series, and throughout the year," George said. "We just can't get complacent. We've got to stay humbled off this win and come in with the same mindset that we've got to get another one and let it go from there."
West knows this as well as anybody, and as Hibbert and George continue to receive the lion's share of scrutiny, he's well aware of what they're up against.
"We know these guys and they know us," he said. "There's not a whole lot of improvement or anything. We've just got to handle the details. We've been able to make those adjustments those last few years. We've seen them at their very best, and we've seen them at their worst. But we respect who they are. We understand that we have to play at a certain level to compete against a very good basketball team."
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Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for USA Today, ESPN's TrueHoop Network, The Classical, and other places around the web. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.