Should Miami Heat Be Worried About Suddenly Pivotal Game 6?

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Should Miami Heat Be Worried About Suddenly Pivotal Game 6?
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The Miami Heat don't get rattled.

Three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and back-to-back titles have the kind of calming effect where outside noise doesn't sneak inside of their locker room.

Ask them about trash-talking, huddle-crashing, floppingear-blowing Indiana Pacers swingman Lance Stephenson, and they'll respond with a barely usable sound bite.

"I'm just here to play basketball man," LeBron James told reporters when asked about Stephenson's antics. "All the extracurricular activities, I don't really get into. I mean, I'm just trying to win."

Try switching the topic to James' uncharacteristic struggles in Miami's 93-90 Game 5 loss. They were historically significant after all: playoff career-low seven points, the worst postseason shooting performance (20.0 percent from the field) of his tenure with the Heat.

Still, the only words out of Miami on the subject are ones steeped in confidence.

"I do know that guy and I know how he responds," Dwyane Wade said to the media after Thursday's practice. "I know he's going to put his mark on the game."

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The Heat like where they're at right now.

They'll be back at AmericanAirlines Arena for Friday's Game 6 (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) with another NBA Finals ticket waiting to be claimed. They have a motivated, focused James and potentially another hand in the offensive pot with formerly seldom-used veteran Rashard Lewis having erupted for 18 points his last time out.

History says Miami is right where it wants to be:

So, too, do the Heat.

"LeBron James coming off a tough game, coming back home in a series clinching situation, I like where we are," Chris Bosh told reporters.

The problem is that the Pacers feel the same way about their position.

Coach Frank Vogel's team isn't built to win pretty, so the fact that Indiana barely eked out a victory on a brutal night by James means nothing.

What is important for Indiana is that Paul George finally put his stamp on this series with 37 points, six steals and six boards in Game 5; that David West remains a stabilizing presence (19 points, nine rebounds) and Roy Hibbert is still a tough cover for the undersized Heat (13 rebounds, 10 points).

And despite all the headaches—including one apparently given to team president Larry Bird—Stephenson is making his presence felt. The Heat might not be engaging in any verbal sparring sessions with "Born Ready," but the fact they're talking at all means Indiana's pest has done his job.

The irritant has been absolutely irritating.

Indiana, despite all the twists and turns it's taken over the past few months, now sits just 48 minutes from achieving the goal it set at the beginning of the season: hosting the Heat in a winner-take-all Game 7.

A season-ending loss on their home floor Wednesday night would have been disastrous for the Pacers. A win in South Beach on Friday night could be a fortune-changer.

"A strong case can be made that Indiana is a more dangerous threat now that, as the No. 1 seed in the East, they escaped what would have been a demoralizing and more embarrassing ouster on their home court," ESPN.com's Michael Wallace wrote. "... Miami enters game 6 with a Game 7 mentality."

The Pacers could be gone fishing before the night is over, but the Heat enter this contest with all of the pressure bearing down on their shoulders.

Pressure isn't the same as worry, though. Miami knows exactly what is at stake and what will be needed to come out on top:

The Heat don't practice the art of moral victories, but Wednesday's loss carries all the statistical marks of an anomaly.

James, plagued by five foul calls in his 24 minutes, was as bad as he's ever been in the postseason. Bosh, a 51.6 percent shooter this season, and Wade, 54.5 percent, needed 35 shots for their combined 38 points.

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The Heat, who have averaged a league-low 10.9 turnovers in the playoffs, coughed up 17 of them, leading to 21 points for the Pacers. With James serving so much time as a spectator, Miami took the aggression out of its own attack:

At the opposite end, Indiana survived with just six points from its reserves thanks to George's torrid fourth-quarter showing:

For a team that has battled consistency demons all season, Wednesday's performance hardly carried a sustainable feel.

The Pacers could bring that same defensive tenacity they flashed in the second half, or they could go back to bickering and watch everything they fought for this season go up in flames.

"The hard truth is that these Pacers remain fragile and fickle, as likely to lose Game 6 by 20 points as they are to force another Game 7," Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote. "Their focus wanes, their chemistry dissipates and suddenly everyone is back to pointing fingers."

Miami doesn't share those concerns.

The Heat aren't going to be held back by in-fighting or a fragile chemistry. This team is as tight-knit as any in the league.

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It also employs the best player on the planet, who figures to see a lot more run on Friday night. James went more than 254 minutes without being whistled for a foul last season. He's smart enough to keep himself on the floor.

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And his team is smart enough to know what it's up against. Even with frustration in their recent past and potential history in their future, the Heat understand the importance of staying in the moment.

"It's Game 6," Bosh told reporters. "It's our Game 7."

A win could put Miami in the history books. A loss could send the Heat toward summer vacation.

That's enough stress to bury some teams, but the Heat are different. They are the world champs. With that title to defend, there simply isn't time to worry.

Judging by their past, there isn't any reason to, either.

 

Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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