LeBron James, Heat remind Pacers who the champs are – USA TODAY
MIAMI — Before the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat tipped off Friday, LeBron James put a fine point on all the noise about the top seed and home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference.
“As a competitor, we don’t want to finish second,” the Heat’s four-time MVP said.
So yes, Miami wants home-court advantage.
Then James and the Heat and destroyed the Pacers 98-86 Friday, and Miami re-gained first place in the East, taking a half-game lead on the Pacers.
“We definitely wanted to play better basketball being on our home floor against a very, very good team,” James said. “It was a good response.”
PACERS: Change tune after loss
BOX SCORE: Heat 98, Pacers 86
James scored 36 points, including 13 in an impressive third quarter in which Miami outscored the Pacers 20-2 in the first six minutes of the half, built a 71-48 lead and rolled to a victory. It was a thorough beating and a blunt reminder that one team is preparing for a deep playoff run and a chance at a third consecutive NBA championship and the other is struggling to find its way with the playoffs a week away.
Whatever respite from the late-season slump the Pacers enjoyed by beating the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks with its starters on the bench Wednesday had disappeared by Friday. Flaws were exposed again — lackadaisical defense and sloppy play resulting in too many easy Heat shots and too many turnovers.
Indiana’s struggles have shaded Miami’s problems, but the Heat haven’t been playing great basketball lately either. The only difference is that Miami is confident it will start playing the way it wants, and Indiana is trying desperately to find its game that put it atop the conference standings for most of the season.
Miami played disruptive defense, taking the Pacers out of sets and taking center Roy Hibbert out of the game. Hibbert, who has had success against Miami, including 24 and 25 points in Indiana’s two victories against the Heat this season, had five points and one rebound Friday.
“He’s had his way with us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Our guys really felt that we had to really control the paint area on both ends, and it’s not easy because we’re giving up a lot of size with him. If you’re not getting to him early, then he’s shooting over the top, he’s rebounding over the top.”
GALLERY: NBA photo of the day
Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen handled Hibbert, and Miami also beat Indiana on the boards, outrebounding the bigger Pacers 40-31.
“It takes an incredible commitment to rebound like that,” Spoelstra said.
Miami also rendered Pacers guard Lance Stephenson ineffective, and Pacers point guard George Hill didn’t take a shot or score a point.
Even though the Pacers shot 47.7% from the field, they were lost in the third quarter, which began with a 16-0 Heat run. By the time they recovered, it was too late. Few teams can afford a third quarter like that against the Heat and survive.
Miami wasn’t great offensive — good, not great — but no team in the league has the ability to turn a six-minute stretch into a decisive and dazzling stretch quite like the Heat. When the Heat step on the gas like they did in the third quarter, it’s near impossible to catch them.
HOT STORY LINES: Future for Pistons’ Joe Dumars?
James had 14 points in the first quarter, scoring on a variety of shots in halfcourt sets. But Indiana remained close and trailed 45-42 at halftime. But by time fans returned to their seats from halftime in the third quarter, Miami had a 61-42 lead.
That quick, it was over for Indiana.
“The third quarter was too much to overcome,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.
The Heat had lost three of its previous five games prior to playing Indiana, and rather than concentrate on the top seed, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and players said they were focused on playing better.
That’s an easy way to diminish the importance of home-court advantage, but with the Heat, topics are not important to them until they’re important to them. They refuse to put undue importance on games before the fact, at least publicly. It’s a philosophy that works well for them.
Three hours after James said the Heat don’t want to finish second, he said the game “was not as big as everybody wanted it to be.”
“For us, it’s big because we wanted to play better than we did on our last road trip,” James said. “It’s been a while since we put together a 48-minute game. Tonight, we were as close to 48 minutes as possible.”
Miami — maybe a little slower than it wanted — is finding its playoff basketball game.
“It was about as consistent to our identity that we’ve had in a while for 48 minutes,” Spoelstra said.
The Heat are sensing it’s starting to come together for them, and the confidence is building. It’s unraveling for the Pacers, and the confidence is lacking.
It was the game Miami wanted to find, and the game Indiana wanted to avoid.
The Heat know where they want go and know how to get there. The Pacers know where they want to go but right now, they have no idea how to get there.
GALLERY: LeBron James, through the years