The Miami Herald

Miami Heat’s playoff dogfight begins in earnest with Indiana Pacers

The phrase, repeated by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra on Wednesday, acts as calming admonition to the panicky among Heat followers and a warning to the brash.

“Welcome to the playoffs.”

That’s pretty much where the Heat sits, tied 1-1 as the second-round series transitions from South Florida to Indiana.

There’s the usual tempest in a teapot. Did Indiana celebrate too much after winning Game 2 or, at least, more than it admitted later? There’s the drama of the championship-or-bust Heat trying to fight Indiana’s size after getting its best player taller than 6-8, Chris Bosh, abdominally pulled from the series.

Don’t worry: nobody expects the Heat’s non-stars to parade again through the five-points-or-less express lane to the offseason again. Worry — the Pacers are playing good enough defense that the Heat is 1 for 22 from three-point range, shots it needs to hit to open penetration lanes for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Don’t worry. Indiana’s not filling the hole, either. Worry — the Heat can’t play much better defensively overall and sits tied in the series after losing a home game the Heat controlled for 40 of 48 minutes.

“This is what it should be,” Spoelstra said. “You’ve got a two seed playing a against a three seed. We had the fourth-best record, they had the fifth-best record. Nothing is going to come easy for either team. Both teams are shooting under 40 percent. It comes down to little skirmishes throughout the game; who can stay the course mentally during rough stretches; who can go on mini runs during the course of the game.”

This is why the NBA playoffs, unlike the NHL or the NFL, often take time to crank up.

Some of you were snookered into thinking the playoffs began weeks ago for the Heat. Battle of the One-Name Stars! LeBron! Dwyane! Carmelo! Amare! Heat-Knicks, a retro revival for those who miss the 1990s (no small group, judging by the prolonged standing ovation given former President Bill Clinton at a Heat home game earlier this season).

Psych. The freewheeling Knicks play to the Heat’s strengths without the locals’ cohesiveness, selflessness or defensive conscience. They were the Dr. Feelgood opponent for the Heat. Playoffs? Playoffs? Playoffs come with doubt, and all reasonable doubt on that series left sometime around the third ill-advised J.R. Smith shot. Without reasonable doubt, this edition of Heat-Knicks was exposed as a fraud of a playoff series.

What remained of that masquerade got stripped in Game 1 of this series by that flyover country bunch with their Boeing wingspans, bigs and jump shooters who thrive in the half-court game and a comfort with brick-heavy, ponderous games. The Knicks were a tune-up bout. Indiana’s Ken Norton to the Heat’s Muhammad Ali, the confident nemesis with disruptive physicality and muscle.

This could easily go the distance.

This is the Heat’s first trip to Indianapolis in May, although its fortunes there through the years used to resemble that of the Andretti family’s at Indianapolis in May. Indy people snicker that the most common four words said at the Indianapolis 500 aren’t “Gentlemen, start your engines” but “Andretti is slowing down,” and the Pacers used to be good at cutting the Heat’s fuel lines.

Spoelstra sneered at the history, noting none of it happened against this year’s Heat team. The truth is, during the past three seasons, the Heat has lost only once up there, though Wade admitted that does help team confidence.

“It helps a lot,” he said. “Early in my career, I never got a win up there. Obviously, this is a different team. You do what certain teams — the Indiana Pacers, Philly — have been able to do: you try to get a game. That’s our job to go up there and win Game 3. I’m sure the crowd will be amazing. But once the game starts, it’s a game.”

Heat forward Udonis Haslem said, “It’s going to be physical, Eastern Conference basketball. It’s not going to be a blowout either way. At some point in the fourth quarter, somebody’s will is going to take over.”

Wade chuckled, “This ain’t a one-eight series. This is a two-three series. I’d expect them to come in confident. They were right behind us in record. They’re a pretty good team. This is what they call a seven-game series. We take it game by game. And we’ll be all right.”

Welcome to the playoffs. Enjoy the tension.

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