Indiana Pacers take control of NBA playoff race
The Pacers and Heat were in no mood to talk about the playoffs Wednesday night (local time).
It was about the only thing they agreed on.
Indiana charged back from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit, handing the two-time defending champs an 84-83 loss that could force them to return to Indianapolis for a possible seventh game in the playoffs.
"We're going to be one or two (seed), no matter what happened this game," James said after a 38-point night. "So you know, it means nothing."
The Pacers (52-20), who clinched a second straight Central Division title, now have a clear path to home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference.
With 10 games to go, the NBA's best home team has four at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and only five against teams with a winning record.
Miami (48-22) plays five winning teams in its last 12 and seven at home - including Round 4 with the Pacers on April 11. But the Heat are 7-8 in March, were unable to protect two leads in the fourth quarter and finished the game with Dwayne Wade icing his right hamstring.
Indiana, meanwhile, is still trying to get back in rhythm.
"This is a game that will hopefully get us back on track. It's one game," said Paul George, who had 23 points to help the Pacers end a two-game losing streak. "We have to go back there and play one more, we have to look at it like that. But this is one step closer to playing good basketball to end this year."
Physical basketball, too.
It was the rare grudge match that actually lived up to its billing.
Before the game, the teams chided one another with dueling comments. Afterward, nobody was ready to make up. And in between, the action got downright nasty.
James needed a cotton swab in his nose to keep playing in the fourth quarter after getting whacked in the face.
Pacers centre Roy Hibbert scored 21 points and finished the game despite taking an elbow to the face that left him so groggy he didn't even remember getting hit.
James and George both wound up taking spills into basket supports, and Lance Stephenson was ejected midway through the fourth quarter after picking up his second technical foul for celebrating a basket. The angry Stephenson waved his hand at the ref and after leaving the court, threw a towel and kicked a door. Coach Frank Vogel was not amused with his guard, saying he had a stern talk with the budding star before he went home.
Nobody had it rougher than James, who missed a late 3-pointer that could have given Miami the lead and was treated like anything but royalty. Chris Bosh also missed a potential winning two as the buzzer sounded. Despite the loss, the Heat clinched first in the Southeast Division when Washington lost to Phoenix.
"It is what it is, they ref the game, we play it," James said.
The four-time MVP also had eight rebounds, five assists, was 9 of 15 from the field and 14 of 15 from the free throw line.
The problem: James also had six turnovers, Wade had six more turnovers and Miami managed only one basket over the final 3:23. James and Bosh both missed late jumpers that would have given Miami the lead, the last an airball by Bosh from just right of the top of the key as time expired.
"Unfortunately, that was what I diagrammed," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It probably wasn't the best call. It might have been a little too gunslinger on my part. I just wanted an open shot."
They were so hard to come by Wednesday night that James was even called for a flagrant foul when he drove to the basket and sent the 7-foot-2, 290-pound Hibbert crashing to the ground. When Hibbert got up, he stumbled. Eventually he had to leave the court to change his blood-spattered jersey, but he refused to sit against the Heat.
George spurred the first fourth-quarter run with two monster dunks - one over the hand of a trailing James - to get the Pacers back in the game.
Later, it was Evan Turner, the trade deadline acquisition, who delivered two of Indiana's biggest baskets of the night. The first came after James' final turnover, on a breakaway layup. The second came courtesy of Mario Chalmers' turnover out of bounds. When the middle of the court opened up, Turner bolted through a clear path for an 81-80 lead with 90 seconds to go.
"I know how to get my space, I've been doing that forever, you know what I mean?" Turner said. "Some of my moves I've been doing since I was a little kid, so I can walk a pretty fine line when it comes to that."
After Hibbert made 1 of 2 free throws, Turner scored on the layups, West hit the knockout 3 and all Miami got was a 3 from Bosh with 2.9 seconds left.
"They're a tough team, psychologically against most teams they have the edge," West said. "They've got the best player in the game. Their pedigree, their entire organization, you understand what you're going to get."