There were hard fouls and harder fouls and perceived retaliations and official reviews.
And this is just the beginning.
The Heat’s third match-up of the regular season against the Indiana Pacers played out like a physical postseason game and fed a budding rivalry that is expected to extend all the way the Eastern Conference finals.
Ever since the last conference finals last season, games between these two East powerhouses have been determined by the slightest of margins and Wednesday was no different.
The Pacers won this installment 84-83 and built a three-game lead over the Heat for the No. 1 seed in the East after Chris Bosh missed a jumper for the win at the buzzer.
Roy Hibbert leaped high in the air and appeared to partially block Bosh’s final effort and the Pacers’ big center doubled over in celebration moments later. The Heat and Pacers now have swapped victories one after the other since Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference.
“Both teams played playoff style,” said Dwyane Wade, who left the game late in the fourth quarter with a leg injury. “For us, I don’t think we executed good enough. We had a few turnovers down the stretch there and we would love to get shots up, especially when the game is so close. And that hurt us.”
LeBron James led the Heat with 38 points, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a balanced effort from the Pacers’ starters. Paul George led Indiana with 23 points and Hibbert added 21, but power forward David West had the biggest basket of the game.
The Pacers went ahead 81-80 on a driving layup by Evan Turner with 90 seconds to play. After a timeout, West made a clutch three-pointer to give the home team a four-point lead with 50 seconds left. West finished with 13 points and Lance Stephenson, who was ejected with five minutes to play, had 15 points.
The Heat gave itself life with three seconds remaining when Bosh made a three-pointer. Following a timeout and a quick foul by Norris Cole with 2.3 seconds left, Pacers point guard George Hill missed two free throws to give the Heat one last chance, but Bosh’s attempt never reached the rim.
“It didn’t have enough time,” Bosh said. “If I had about a half a more second or maybe one more second it would have been, but there was no time. It was two passes. You can’t make two passes and set for a shot at the end.”
The dramatic ending was the exclamation point of a physical and emotional game.
A driving layup by Stephenson gave the Pacers a 76-72 lead with 5:01 left, but Stephenson was then hit with his second technical foul of the game for taunting Wade. The violation triggered an ejection for the Pacers’ spirited guard, who has developed into a formidable player over the last two seasons, but is still apparently a liability.
“It’s physical. There’s a dislike,” Wade said. “I don’t really play those games that Lance plays, so the refs took care of it. They did a good job.”
Wade’s free throw following Stephenson’s ejection cut the Pacers’ lead to three points and James knocked down his second three-pointer of the game to tie it with 4:53 left.
A strong dunk in the lane by Wade gave the Heat a 78-76 lead a minute later, but
Wade left the game with 1:59 to play and his team leading 80-79. The Heat’s starting shooting guard grabbed at his left hamstring away from the ball and quickly motioned at the Heat’s bench for a substitution. Cole finished the game in place of Wade.
“It just cramped up, so I had to get off of it,” Wade said.
Bosh finished with just eight points and starter Greg Oden had two points in the first half. Udonis Haslem started for Oden to begin the second half and Oden appeared to be suffering from discomfort in his lower back while sitting on the bench during the final two quarters.
The Heat committed 19 turnovers, which the Pacers converted into 26 points.
The Heat led 81-80 with two minutes left but a key turnover by James led to fast-break layup by Turner.
“In a game like tonight, you can’t turn the ball over,” James said.
Despite the loss, the Heat clinched the Southeast Division title on Wednesday after the Washington Wizards lost to the Phoenix Suns.
Two hard fouls on James in the second half called for official reviews before James elbowed Hibbert in the jaw on a drive to the basket in the fourth quarter. James was hit with a technical foul on the play and the incident added plenty of spice to the Heat’s rivalry with the Pacers until the next meeting on April 11 in Miami.
“I don’t want to fall into the pit of what’s going on, but between me and Blake Griffin, we take some hard hits and they call it how they want to call and it’s very frustrating,” James said. “As a player, you play the game the right way, but sometimes it just doesn’t go your way.”