It’s a shame that these teams don’t play again until late March.
These games between the Heat and Pacers have become the signature showcase of the Eastern Conference and a matchup that seems all but destined for yet another heart-stopping conference finals.
It’s the only series that matters in the Eastern Conference this season, and it offered yet another gem Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
After trailing for most of the game, the Heat rallied late in the fourth quarter to defeat the Pacers 97-94 in the second installment of a four-game, regular-season set that could decide the top seed in the East once its all over.
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The Heat (19-6) now trails the Pacers (20-5) by one game in the loss column of the Eastern Conference standings. It was the first victory for Miami against Indiana since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, and the atmosphere inside the bayside arena felt like a playoff game with less than three minutes to play.
“This is the type of win we needed and we wanted,” said LeBron James, who played despite a sprained left ankle and finished with 24 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
The Heat trailed 88-80 after Pacers firebrand Lance Stephenson converted a driving layup, but the Heat’s defense steadied itself from there and, thanks to some clutch three-pointers, the home team outscored the Pacers 12-4 over the final 4 1/2 minutes.
“We just kept grinding,” said Dwyane Wade, who finished with a game-high 32 points. “We knew we were getting some good opportunities, but we just couldn’t pull it as close as we wanted, but we knew we weren’t far out of it.
“We got some great defensive stops that allowed us to get out in transition and get some easy baskets and get us back in this thing. You don’t want this team in half-court every possession, so we had to get stops, and we went with the bigger lineup with [Chris Bosh] and [Chris Andersen], and we were able to get more rebounds and get out and go a little bit.”
Wade was 8 of 11 in the second half and matched Paul George point for point in the final 24 minutes of the game. Both players had 18 points in the second half; George finished with 25 points to lead Indiana.
Pacers forward David West was an unstoppable force for long stretches in the second half until Heat coach Erik Spoelstra plugged Andersen in the paint alongside Bosh. The combination, along with James at his hybrid point-forward position, came through with needed stops.
A running dunk by Wade with 2:47 remaining cut the Pacers’ lead to three points, and, after a pair of missed jumpers by the Pacers, Bosh knocked down a three-pointer with 90 seconds left to tie it at 92-92. Bosh finished with 15 points.
“Our guys are fearless, no question about it,” Spoelstra said. “They would want to play every single game like this, with this type of intensity and drama and having to make big plays down the stretch.”
The Heat was horrid from three-point range until the final two minutes of the game. Before Bosh’s three-pointer, Miami was
3 of 19 from distance. Overall, Miami’s sharpshooters combined to go 5 of 21 from three-point range. In the first matchup against the Pacers, the Heat was 4 of 21 from three-point range.
George, the Pacers’ budding superstar, missed a 10-foot jumper to retake the lead with 1:05 to play, and James reached out for the long rebound to start another fast break. It ended moments later when James found Ray Allen in transition for a three-pointer with 59.5 seconds to play.
The Pacers called timeout, and the crowd burst into a noise not heard inside the arena since the Finals.
“[James] set up Ray marvelously for that big three,” Spoelstra said.
Said Wade: “I think everyone in the building knew that was going down. LeBron put it right on the money.”
Andersen was 4-of-5 shooting for eight points off the bench, and Allen finished with seven points. West had 23 points for the Pacers, and Roy Hibbert, who led the Pacers with 24 points against the Heat last week, finished with six points and two rebounds because of foul trouble.
“It’s the best team record-wise in the Eastern Conference and the team that we played the last two years, but it’s not a statement game,” Wade said. “They beat us on their home floor and we beat them on our own floor, so that’s a wash.”
Until March, of course.