No matter the scenario or season, this much seems true whenever the Heat and Pacers get together for a big game in Miami.
The Heat has the ability to dial up a blowout on command.
It happened in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, and it happened Friday night at AmericanAirlines Arena with home-court advantage for a potential East finals rematch at stake. With Dwyane Wade watching from the sidelines in a suit and bow tie, the Heat defeated the Pacers 98-86 in the fourth and final game between the teams this season. With three games remaining on its schedule, the Heat now leads the Pacers by half a game atop the Eastern Conference standings.
Putting the victory into perspective, LeBron James said it wasn’t “as big as everyone wants it to be or make it.”
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“For us, it’s big because we wanted to play better than we did on that road trip,” James said. “It has been a while since we put together a 48-minute game, and I think [Friday night] we were as close to 48 minutes as possible.”
Wade missed his ninth game in a row, but James compensated with 36 points, going 11 of 20 from the field, 2 of 4 from three-point range and 12 of 13 from the free-throw line. James scored 38 points in the Heat’s loss to the Pacers two weeks ago, and he has scored at least 30 points in four of his past five games.
“He was just being aggressive,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I wasn’t calling any plays for him.”
It was aggressiveness on defense that allowed for the runaway score.
The Heat (54-25) outrebounded the Pacers (54-26) 40-31 and outscored the Pacers 44-26 in the paint. At the vanguard of that effort was Udonis Haslem, the Heat’s center and co-captain, who returned to action Friday night after missing two games with a stomach illness. Haslem had 11 points and nine rebounds, but, more importantly, completely shut down his counterpart in Pacers blue.
Roy Hibbert, who at 7-2 towers over the 6-8 Haslem, went most of the game without a rebound and was nearly shut out on the glass. He finished with one rebound and five points.
“When the shot goes up, you’ve got to find him and put a body on him,” Haslem said. “He’s 7-feet tall, so you got to turn and try to hit him early.”
Hibbert’s was a demoralizing stat line for a Pacers team that relies on its size to create mismatches against the Heat.
“That old warrior,” Spoelstra said of Haslem, before correcting himself. “That young warrior. He’s my personal inspiration as a coach. I love looking at his photo in my office. He just has the look of intensity.”
Carelessness, more than anything, doomed the Heat in its last meeting against the Pacers on March 26. The two-time defending champs had 19 turnovers in that loss but committed just nine turnovers Friday. Meanwhile, the Heat forced 16 turnovers, which it converted into 20 points.
“Guys were in a great rhythm, and the best thing about [Friday night] is we didn’t force passes to where we turned the ball over, and that was the key,” James said.
Another key: The Heat went 22 of 28 from the free-throw line, which offset eight three-pointers by Indiana. The Heat was 6 of 16 from long distance.
Guard Mario Chalmers began the second half with one of those three-pointers to give the Heat a 48-42 lead, and free throws by James and a fast-break layup by Toney Douglas put the Heat ahead by 10 points. Miami ran off 16 consecutive points to begin the third.
“That was a residual of how we were playing in the first half,” Spoelstra said. “Our defense was on point with the deflections and rotations. … It was about as consistent to our identity as we have had for a while for 48 minutes.”
The Heat led by as many as 23 points in the third quarter but relaxed a little too early. A 12-0 run by the Pacers spanning the third and fourth quarters cut the Heat’s lead to nine, but a silly technical foul by Pacers reserve Evan Turner, a midseason addition from the Philadelphia 76ers, put Ray Allen at the line. The Heat turned the mental lapse into a three-point swing. Following Allen’s free throw, Chalmers found Haslem inside for a dunk. Haslem set the Heat’s all-time record for offensive rebounds in the first half.
It was a brilliant game by Chalmers just when the Heat needed it. He finished with 13 points, going 6 of 14 from the field, to go along with five rebounds, five assists and two steals.
Following the Chalmers assist to Haslem and two more free throws by Allen, Chalmers scored on a running bank shot to put the Heat back ahead by 16 points. He stole a pass in transition moments later and finished the sequence with a cutting assist to Rashard Lewis, who finished with a dunk. In less than two minutes of game time, the Heat doubled the lead and effectively put the Pacers to bed.
Of course, there was still time for a little extracurricular fun in the paint. Haslem went chest-to-chest with Pacers forward David West before officials separated the two. The confrontation brought the crowd to its feet, with most of the patrons in the lower bowl pointing at West to back off the Heat’s emotional leader.
With 3:21 left, James took care of it when he isolated West one-on-one and, knowing West had five fouls, drove hard on the Pacers forward to force West over the foul limit. The strategy worked, and James forcefully gave the universal sign for ejection after West committed his sixth foul.