The Miami Heat came to AmericanAirlines Arena expecting a battle. They left having sent an emphatic message to the Indiana Pacers and Eastern Conference that could pay huge dividends in May and June.
Buoyed by a 36-point evening from LeBron James and a return to an attacking, turnover-causing defense, the Heat pulled away in the second half for a 98-86 thrashing of Indiana on Friday night.
The victory ties the season series at 2-2 and critically gives Miami the inside track at the East's top seed. The Heat are one game ahead of their archrival in the loss column with just three games remaining. Had the Pacers been able to steal one on the road, they would have essentially locked up the conference thanks to their owning of a better head-to-head record.
Instead, the contest represented the dichotomy between two contenders on wildly differing paths.
Up by just three at the halftime break, James and the Heat sprung into action, starting a 16-0 run for the first 4:27 of the third quarter. James scored seven of the points on the run and spearheaded many others, getting out in transition and leading fast breaks for easy finishes and scores. Miami stretched its lead to 23 points, as Indiana fell apart on both ends of the floor.
After lurking around despite a nondescript performance from Roy Hibbert in the first half, the Pacers' other stars followed suit. Paul George committed turnovers and missed wild shots. David West, spectacular in a 10-point first quarter, battled foul trouble as he struggled maintaining control of his emotions. Lance Stephenson was almost entirely absent—besides a few turnovers.
The Heat, meanwhile, were dealing again with a star who actually was absent. Dwyane Wade missed his ninth straight game with a lingering hamstring issue. It now seems more likely than not Wade will miss Miami's last three games of the regular season, hopefully returning 100 percent for the first round.
"Look at the history of hamstring injuries in the league, things can look good and then you have a setback," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters before the game. "We're going to take our time."
James, as he has for much of season, more than atoned for Wade's absence. He added six rebounds to go with his 36 points, though his night was mostly defined by an aggressive scoring outlook. Attacking George in the post and West off the dribble, James knocked down 11 of 20 shots from the field and got to the line 13 times, making all but one.
James has scored 30 or more points in four of his last five games, averaging 34.8 points per game. While he finished with only one assist, James' presence helped opened scoring lanes for teammates.
Five Heat players (including James) scored in double figures, highlighted by 13 from Mario Chalmers. Udonis Haslem scored 11 points and added nine rebounds. Haslem has been strong on both ends of the floor after re-entering Spoelstra's rotation, and he was especially so on defense Friday night with the lockdown job he did on Hibbert.
The towering 7-footer went without a field goal or rebound in the first half before finishing with five points and one rebound. Hibbert has long been the great equalizer in the Miami-Indiana series, but it was clear he's not having the same effect on either end of the floor. James showed none of the hesitance he did in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, and even Chalmers found his way to the rim for layups.
George led all Indiana scorers with 22 points and added five rebounds and five assists. West finished with 18 points and eight rebounds in only 26 minutes, as the Pacers dropped to 4-9 in their last 13 games. Considered by some as the biggest threat to Miami's throne in either conference, Indiana is 20-20 on the road and will now more than likely have to play a Game 7 at AmericanAirlines Arena if the two meet again.
The win was quietly critical for the Heat, who were going through their own struggles. Losses in three of their last four games (all of which by five points or less) allowed the flailing Pacers to somehow retake the No. 1 seed coming into the game. Had they not been able to pull it out, the narrative would have shifted to Miami's struggles—and its 1-3 record against its nemesis during the regular season.
Fortunately for the Heat, the contest instead proved what we already knew: When at the top of their game, there is no better team in basketball than the one that resides in South Beach.
|David West, PF||B-|
|Paul George, SF||B|
|Roy Hibbert, C||D|
|George Hill, PG||D+|
|Lance Stephenson, SG||C|
|Lavoy Allen, PF||C|
|Luis Scola, PF||B-|
|Evan Turner, SF||C-|
|Chris Copeland, SF||C|
|Ian Mahinmi, C||C+|
|Donald Sloan, PG||C|
|C.J. Watson, PG||B-|
|Rasual Butler, SG||C|
|Udonis Haslem, PF||B|
|LeBron James, SF||A|
|Chris Bosh, C||B-|
|Mario Chalmers, PG||B|
|Toney Douglas, PG||C+|
|Rashard Lewis, PF||D|
|Chris Andersen, PF||C|
|Michael Beasley, SF||C|
|James Jones, SF||C|
|Shane Battier, SF||C|
|Justin Hamilton, C||C|
|Norris Cole, PG||C+|
|Ray Allen, SG||B-|
Players of the Game: LeBron James (SF, Miami Heat) and Paul George (SF, Indiana Pacers)
When they say LeBron can beat you a variety of ways, they typically don't mean this. The reigning league MVP had one of his strangest stat lines in recent memory during the first half, scoring 17 points without an assist or rebound.
It wasn't that James was without effect in those areas. ESPN Stats & Info noted just how better the Heat were when James had a touch during the first 24 minutes:
The second half was far more a traditional performance from a statistical perspective but no less noteworthy. At different points in the contest, it looked as if James had no interest in actually shooting the ball. He was barreling toward the rim, life and limb on the line without a regard.
The result, as it typically is, was pretty darn good. James consistently drew fouls at the rim, and even when his attempts went for no-calls, Miami (particularly Haslem) crashed the boards and followed with easy buckets. This was particularly evident during the aforementioned Miami run.
He's not going to repeat as MVP, and James is right that Kevin Durant deserves the award. Just don't ever forget there's a difference between MVP for one season and "best player in the world."
George, himself a recipient of MVP buzz a few months ago, mostly gets this nod by default. There is not one Pacer who played close to his relative potential, unless you want to give it to Ian Mahinmi for not totally falling apart in his 14 minutes. George turned the ball over, didn't finish well at all near the rim and played especially shaky defense on James.
He earns the nod mostly for his solid first half. With Hibbert nowhere to be found and West battling through foul trouble, George scored 13 points and generally looked confident.
It's too bad for Indiana the run was so short-lived.
There will be no reprieve for the Heat, as they travel to Atlanta for the second night of a back-to-back Saturday. The Pacers have a day off before another difficult matchup with the Thunder at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. If the Heat and Pacers finished tied at season's end, Indiana would get the nod with a better conference record.
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