By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - The Indiana Pacers fell just short in the Eastern Conference finals opener but their gritty display pumped life into the NBA playoffs and let the defending champion Miami Heat know they have a battle on their hands.
The ease with which the top-seeded Heat have brushed aside opponents during the regular season and playoffs has given an air of inevitability to this year's postseason, resulting in falling television ratings and plummeting interest.
But those hoping for tighter games with the chance of an upset would have been encouraged by the way the Pacers gave a timely warning to the Heat that they will need to draw on all their talent to reach a third straight final.
"It doesn't matter if you win by one or if you win by 30 or whatever the case may be. You just want to win. We have to be better Friday if we want to win again," LeBron James said after powering Miami to a 103-102 overtime victory on Wednesday.
Indiana have struggled on the road this year, losing 21 of 40 games in the regular season, but in a scrappy, foul-ridden game that came alive spectacularly in the closing stages, the Pacers showed their mettle.
"It was a terrific basketball game. Two great teams throwing punch for punch. Our spirit is very high and very confident. And we know we can play with this basketball team," said Indiana coach Frank Vogel.
A layup from James as time expired gave Miami the win after Paul George's heroics looked to have earned the Pacers a shock victory in the opening game of the best-of-seven series that will send the winner to the NBA Finals.
George drained a long-range three-pointer to force overtime and then, in the final stages of the extra period, kept calm to put away three free throws after he was fouled by Dwyane Wade.
But, with just 2.2 seconds left on the clock, it was George who allowed James the space to drive the left of the lane and grab the win for a relieved Heat.
"We have got to feel good about how we played," said George, who nonetheless engaged in some self-criticism.
"At this point every possession counts and that's what we've got to understand. Myself included. We had a couple of turnovers that I wish we could take back ‑‑ I could take back. But the margin of error is so small at this level, so going into Game Two, we have just got to improve off that."
The Heat will look to recapture the intelligent and fast ball movement that has characterized their best displays this year but, after a six-day layoff following their 4-1 series win over Chicago, was not quite there on Wednesday.
But it was significant there was little discussion of style or flow from the Heat after the game with the overarching feeling being one simply of relief.
"In the end it just came down to finding a way, even if it wasn't pretty. And it took an overtime to get it done. We're glad to get that one," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
The Eastern Conference representative will face the winner of the Western Conference finals, which the San Antonio Spurs lead 2-0 over the Memphis Grizzlies, to determine the National Basketball Association (NBA) champion.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)