INDIANAPOLIS - It’s easy to understand the Heat trailing several of the teams ahead of Miami in the Eastern Conference standings.
It’s not so easy to rationalize why the Heat trails the Indiana Pacers.
And many of the 10 teams below the Pacers in the East might feel the same way.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Indiana, which went 42-40 last season and then traded its one All-Star, Paul George, to Oklahoma City.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But the Pacers, at 42-31, have exceeded all reasonable expectations and stand fifth in the conference, percentage points behind No. 4 Philadelphia and three games ahead of No. 7 Miami entering Sunday’s 5 p.m. Heat-Pacers game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“You've got to give credit where credit is due,” guard Tyler Johnson said. “They're obviously playing a high level of basketball. The fact is they are 11 games over. 500, they are playing really well and they are a good basketball team. So you have to just give them credit.”
Guard Victor Oladipo, acquired with Domantas Sabonis for George, has been terrific, averaging 23.3 points, and the Pacers have received contributions across the board, including Bogan Bogdanovic (13.8 points per game), Myles Turner (13.7 points, 6.9 rebounds), Darren Collison (12.7 points, 5.3 assists) and others.
“They've got guys that can knock down shots,” Johnson said in the wake of the Heat’s 105-99 loss Friday at Oklahoma City. “Bogdanovic can knock down shots. Vic is a handful. Myles Turner is a handful. They've got really good role players and Thaddeus Young. They've got a lot of weapons, similar to how we do. Different guy different nights but obviously the head of the snake is Oladipo.”
Goran Dragic calls the Pacers the biggest surprise in the Eastern Conference. But Dwyane Wade said he’s not surprised.
“I think from a preseason standpoint, everyone was surprised by the way they came out playing,” Wade said. “But when guys get opportunities in this league, anything can happen. If you look at the makeup of their team, you can tell why they’re good. They play to their strengths and it’s obviously been a great surprise to 98 percent of the world that Victor Oladipo can play. But Victor Oladipo can play. He just didn’t have the opportunity that he has in Indiana to be the guy.
“He’s definitely done it all year and Lance Stephenson has been great, too, coming off that bench and leading them guys. So it’s a good team. In their building, it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere and it’s going to come down to who makes the most 50-50 plays, who gets the most rebounds and things like that. So, it will be a good game.”
The Heat can clinch the tiebeaker with a win. Miami beat Indiana 112-108 on Oct. 21, lost 120-95 on Nov. 19 but won 114-106 on Jan. 10.
“There's a lot of other teams in our bucket, what Indiana has done, Portland we saw, and some other teams, the strength of the team is in the unity and playing together as a team, bringing something better out of each other,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And that's what you're seeing right now with Indiana. You can tell that they're playing for each other, competing at a high level. Like I said, so is our group, and it shapes up as a very competitive game."
Wayne Ellington needs 20 three-pointers over the final nine games to surpass Damon Jones’ record of 225 threes in a single season, set in 2004-05.
Ellington surpassed Tim Hardaway for second on the Heat’s all-time single season three-point list with four threes in Friday’s 105-99 loss.
“It’s an amazing individual accomplishment,” Ellington said. “I’m just appreciative of everything. Spo has been unbelievable with the way he believes in me and that’s all you can ask for as a shooter like me, for your head coach to have that type of confidence in you.”
• After missing five games with a sprained hamstring, Dwyane Wade returned with seven points on 3 for 9 shooting in 20 minutes against the Thunder.
“It feels OK,” Wade said. “These guys really set a great rhythm. I'm just trying to get back out there in the flow. A very tough team to come back versus. They're switching a lot of things all around, a lot of athleticism. But I think I was OK, physically. And I though the team did a great job, giving ourselves a chance on the road, and Westbrook went Westbrook in the fourth quarter.”
• From Elias: Westbrook scored only 12 points over the first three quarters on Friday night, but he scored 17 of the Thunder’s 41 fourth-quarter points to key a 105-99 come-from-behind victory over the Heat. It was the 19th time in his pro career that Westbrook has scored as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter of a game, but it was only the second of those 19 games in which he had come into the fourth quarter having scored fewer than 17 points.