Miami Heat Take Lead in Eastern Conference Alpha Dogfight

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Miami Heat Take Lead in Eastern Conference Alpha Dogfight
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MIAMI — You can choose to take LeBron James at his word, nod at his practiced nonchalance and accept his bland platitudes about “process.” Or you can dismiss the verbal misdirection and pay heed to his actions and gestures, because that is where the truth usually lays.

Among James’ actions Friday night: 36 points scored, one assist registered and two playful slaps on his right biceps, in one of those “I’m too strong for mere mortals to stop me” displays.

The night ended with an emphatic 98-86 defeat of the Indiana Pacers, and with James’s Miami Heat once again occupying the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Heat (54-25) hold a half-game edge over the Pacers (54-26), with less than a week to play.

“I think it's not as big as everyone wanted it to be,” James said.

But the night was significant for all of the reasons James refused to indulge.

The Heat tied the season series, rather than ceding it to the Pacers. They took a huge step toward securing home-court advantage in the first three rounds, including a potential conference finals rematch with Indiana. And they knocked the fragile Pacers right back into their tailspin of self-loathing and self-doubt.

“We haven’t played well enough to be the top seed,” Pacers forward David West said, seething. “We get what we deserve, I guess.”

The Pacers had given their starters a game off this week, in the hope of rejuvenating their legs and their spirits. The good times barely lasted 48 hours.

Miami blew this game open with a 19-0 run that bridged the second and third quarters, pouncing on every Pacers miscue and converting every turnover into a fast-break chance. One of those fast breaks ended with James flinging in a tough, running bank shot from the baseline, while drawing the foul from Lance Stephenson. James slapped his biceps for emphasis, then walked to the foul line and hit his free throw.

The next two Pacers possessions ended with two more turnovers and two more flying forays by James to the opposite basket. He missed both attempts, but Udonis Haslem was there to tap them in.

Minutes later, James was at the foul line again, hitting two free throws for a 22-point lead while the home crowd serenaded him with a brief “MVP” chant.

“You can tell LeBron had the mindset to become the one-man break during that stretch,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.

See? Deeds, not words.

The Pacers, who have been wobbling for six weeks, rallied briefly before disintegrating. They had cut the deficit to nine points early in the fourth quarter when Evan Turner chose to air his grievances with the officials, drawing a technical foul. Ray Allen hit the free throw, starting a 9-0 Miami run that ended with 34-year-old Rashard Lewis flying for a fast-break dunk.

The only fight the Pacers showed after that point was a brief jawing and posturing match between West and Haslem in the paint. West fouled out a minute later while trying to guard James, who cheerfully motioned with his thumb to indicate that West was gone.

As two-time defending champions, the Heat arguably do not need the security blanket of home-court advantage—against the Pacers or anyone else in the East. But the Pacers had set out since training camp to claim the No. 1 seed, and they expended immense energy in pursuit of that goal. Losing their hold on the top spot—and losing 13 of their last 21 games, period—has clearly unnerved them.

Indiana held a 4.5-game lead as recently as early March. Now the Pacers are a half-game back, with two games left: at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder and at Orlando. The Heat finish with road games at Atlanta and Washington and a home finale against Philadelphia.

“As of now, it’s not in our hands, and we’re perfectly fine,” George said.

That was one of many unconvincing assurances from the Pacers’ locker room.

Moments earlier, Vogel asserted, “I’m confident in this team, very confident,” though his voice and his expression lacked conviction.

The Pacers have a week left to regain whatever edge or chemistry or belief they have lost. And a week left to figure out how to get Roy Hibbert, their 7'2" center, performing like a star again.

Hibbert’s interior dominance helped power the Pacers through seven games of the conference finals last spring, but he was thoroughly neutered Friday by Miami’s big men, who boxed him out and shoved him aside. Hibbert did not attempt a field goal until the third quarter. He finished with five points and a single rebound, which he grabbed with 2:19 left in the game.

“I got to find a way to get into a rhythm if I don’t get any shots in the first half,” he said glumly. “So that’s tough. But I go to do it.”

George scored 22 points for the Pacers, but he never put an imprint on the game. West had 18 points before fouling out. Lance Stephenson had a quiet 11 points.

Forty-five minutes before tipoff, James did his best to shrug off the chase for the East’s top seed, or any need to put down a Pacer uprising.

“Whatever the seedings may place themselves, then so be it,” he said.

Six minutes after tipoff, James had already racked up 10 points, including a deep 3-pointer that made his intentions abundantly clear.

Take James’ words at face value if you want to, but understand this: You do so at your own peril.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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