The Heat’s path to a third consecutive NBA championship hasn’t gotten any easier or harder lately. But it does feel different. The chief road block to Miami’s fourth consecutive trip out of the Eastern Conference and into the Finals appears to have changed colors, from golden yellow to Darth Vader black.
Looks for now like the cold Indiana Pacers are out.
Looks for now like the hot Brooklyn Nets are in.
And the Heat, bucking all trends, is as has been:
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Still the team to beat, unless or until you hear otherwise — despite Tuesday night’s 88-87 loss to the Brooklyn Nets here.
This was maddening on a few levels.
One is because LeBron James appeared to have been fouled on a blocked shot by the Nets’ Mason Plumlee — of all people — with less than two seconds left on what would have been a likely winning play by James.
“It only matters if three people [the referees] think it’s a foul,” noted a smiling Plumlee. “So, we win.”
James flapped his arms gesturing for the call that never came, incredulity on his face, and remained adamant in the loser’s locker room.
“It was a foul,” James said. “He [Plumlee] didn’t do it on purpose, but he grabbed my right hand.”
If superstars are supposed to get benefit of doubt over lesser players in this league, there might not be a greater disparity than between James and Plumlee.
The loss also was maddening because it seems the Nets have Miami’s number. That number is 4-0. Brooklyn is the only team the Heat has not beaten, although I would not read too much into that considering three of the games have been decided by one point and the other was decided in double overtime.
You couldn’t slide a sheet of notebook paper in the space separating these teams this season.
And the result was maddening, maybe most of all, because this loss as much as any lately shone a spotlight on how much the Heat need back Dwyane Wade, who missed a seventh consecutive game Tuesday with his left hamstring strain. It was the 26th missed game in Wade’s hobbled season.
James scored 29 points Tuesday but nobody else had more than 12 for Miami. The Heat need a healthy Wade. So does LeBron as the landscape of the Eastern Conference shifts and the playoffs fast approach.
The collapsing, unraveling Pacers are reeling and, evidently, tired. Coach Frank Vogel said he would start resting key players, which feels like a surrender flag in the season-long race for the conference’s No. 1 playoff seed.
When LeBron and his two-time defending champions are the objects in the rear-view mirror that are closer than they appear — just before they roar past you — there is a mental fatigue involved in the chase that apparently can grow quite burdensome, or at least it seems to have for Indiana.
Brooklyn won’t get near that top seed, but the Nets are giving indications — and did again here Tuesday night — that they may be Miami’s new biggest threat in the East, perhaps along with annoying Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls.
This week is for anybody who has been popping No-Doz during this regular season and acting as if nothing really starts until the playoffs.
Heat Drama Week began with a Sunday win over the Knicks, and Brooklyn is followed immediately by a game in Memphis on Wednesday night, then Indiana here Friday.
That visit by the Pacers could still end up being tantamount to winner-take-all for that No. 1 conference seed, especially if Miami loses in Memphis on Wednesday. Tuesday’s Heat loss suggests the Pacers might deploy their weary starters Friday, after all.
No matter Indiana’s swoon, though, or Brooklyn’s rise — and no matter Tuesday’s result making the Nets 33-13 since the first of the year — the reminder for both Eastern rivals is that the hierarchy has not changed.
The Pacers spent most of the season talking and posturing like it had. The Nets lately have been acting and playing like it has. It hasn’t.
The Pacers are out, the Nets are in, but the Heat, bucking all trends, is as it has been.
The team waiting for you.
You want to get to the Finals, Eastern rivals? You must win in Miami.
Other teams do not intimidate or get into the heads of the Heat. The Heat do that to other teams.
This is the earned arrogance of the champion.
“This is the class of the league,” as the Nets’ Paul Pierce said of Miami prior to Tuesday’s game.
Call that a timely reminder for those who had been too enamored of Indiana or now might read too much into the small sample and even smaller margin of Brooklyn’s four wins.
Somebody is still going to have to beat LeBron’s champions four times in a seven-game series.