Forget simply making the playoffs. A seed that would avoid Cleveland, should Miami keep winning, is now very much within reach for the Heat after Miami’s 16th win in 18 games, a 113-95 vanquishing of the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
By winning for the third time in a row, the Heat (27-32) moved within three games of Indiana and Chicago (who are tied for sixth and seventh in the Eastern Conference) and 1 1/2 games behind No. 8 Detroit.
What’s more, the Heat clinched the tiebreaker with the Pacers; the teams meet only three times this season and Miami has won the first two matchups.
The Heat got an assist from referee Gary Zielinski, who ejected Pacers star Paul George after he picked up his second technical foul within a 1-minute, 56-second span early in the third quarter.
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The first infraction against George was a double technical when he and Rodney McGruder shoved each other. George then drew his second technical, and an automatic ejection, when he cursed at Zielinski with the Pacers down by six and 8:49 left in the third.
When asked about the second technical, George said: “This is a soft league. [Zielinski] was a puppet with [Heat coach Erik] Spoelstra in his ear, and he called it.”
Zielinski said George was assessed the second technical because of “profanity directed at an official.”
Zielinski said the referees knew it was his second technical, meaning an ejection. But it wasn’t announced immediately because Goran Dragic was shooting a free throw.
Heat players thought this was a case of McGruder getting under George’s skin, though McGruder said that wasn’t his intention.
“That’s what Rodney does,” guard Dion Waiters said. “He gets under your skin. You know he is going to make you work. He is like the heart and soul of our team. Paul George wasn’t up for that or ready for that. You have to respect that man.”
Said James Johnson: “I love it. Paul George is a great player. Rodney McGruder doesn’t care.”
The Heat got good work from Hassan Whiteside, who had 22 points and 17 rebounds. Whiteside shot 1 for 9 in Friday’s win at Atlanta and opened 3 for 9 on Saturday before making all three of his shots from the field and seven of his nine free-throw attempts in the second half.
“He’s not thinking about 3 for 9,” Spoelstra said. “Hassan got every single rebound way over the top. He was good on pick-and-roll defense, setting screens, being active. It was great to see him make a lot of winning plays.”
Once again, the Heat’s backcourt was at the epicenter.
Pacers coach Nate McMillan said before the game that Waiters “has been amazing.” Waiters was again very good Saturday, scoring 22 points on 8-for-15 shooting, though he did have six turnovers to only three assists.
And Dragic had another splendid night, with 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting. Dragic and LeBron James entered Saturday as the only players in the NBA who in February are averaging at least 22.6 points, shooting at least 53.6 percent from the field and at least 47.4 percent on threes.
Johnson again filled the boxscore with 15 points, seven rebounds and eight assists, and Luke Babbitt made three three-pointers, giving him 10 threes in the past three games.
In the process, Miami reached 100 points for the 16th consecutive game, extending a franchise record.
There was one frightening moment though, as backup center Willie Reed sustained a strained right calf and left the arena on crutches, Whiteside said. Reed will be re-evaluated on Sunday.
“You don’t want to think the worst,” Spoelstra said. “Part of that was we were telling him to stay down [as a precaution]. Knock on wood, and hopefully we get a good report [Sunday].”
With the Pacers opening 16 for 16 from the free-throw line, the Heat trailed by 11 early in the second and went to the half down 54-53.
But Miami took the lead for good with a 10-0 run late in the third quarter and led 83-79 after three. The Heat outscored the Pacers 60-41 after halftime.
“They were more physical in the first half, [and] we were more physical [in the second half],” Dragic said. “They are strong, have a lot of guys that bully through screens.”
Whiteside said the momentum change “started with Rodney, the defensive job he is doing.”
George, guarded by McGruder and Waiters, among others, had 10 points on 3-for-8 shooting in 19 minutes before his ejection.
McGruder didn’t believe the double technicals were warranted.
“He shoved me; I shoved him,” he said.
Does McGruder like being a pest to opposing scorers?
“If they need me to be a pest, I will be a pest,” he said.