The Heat’s game against the Pacers here Friday night understandably was billed as the battle for No. 1 — for the top conference playoff seeding as the NBA postseason fast approaches. It was supposed to be crucial because it would determine who would have home-court advantage in a deciding Game 7 in these teams’ inevitable Eastern finals rematch.
Nice, neat little story line.
Only one small problem with the premise.
It assumes both teams will advance that far, a presumption that seems mighty flattering right now to one of those teams.
The Pacers look disheveled and done, frustrated and finished. They look lost, their downward spiral continued by a decisive 98-86 Heat victory at the downtown bayside arena, an outcome putting Miami in control of that top seeding.
Here is why the outcome had to be so disheartening for Indiana fans and such a shot of adrenaline for Miami’s chances of a third consecutive championship.
The Pacers were the Pacers again, healthy, rested and supposedly re-energized after their fatigued starters recently were given three consecutive day off.
And the Heat still was not the Heat, not fully, not with Dwyane Wade missing a ninth consecutive game on account of a strained left hamstring.
Yet LeBron James with 36 points led his depleted champions to a resounding triumph that tipped on a 16-0 Miami run to open the second half.
The Heat has too much offensive firepower, even sans Wade, for light-scoring Indiana, which has too little in the way of a counter-punch. Pacers top scorer Paul George has not been anything special most of the second half of this season, and Miami seems to have discovered a weapon to stop Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, the 7-2 behemoth who is a lumbering slug against the rest of the NBA but tends to take a star turn against Miami.
The Heat’s not-so-secret weapon against Hibbert? His name is Udonis Haslem. He held Hibbert to a whispering five points and one rebound Friday. Haslem had fallen out of the rotation this season but seems to be a big factor again as the playoffs loom.
“It’s great to have U.D. back,” James said of Haslem. “He’s the heart and soul of our team.”
Haslem gave up 6 inches and 55 pounds to Hibbert but won the matchup with hustle, with knee burns on wood earned diving after loose balls. Haslem turns 34 in June, right around the time of the NBA Finals. With obvious affection, coach Erik Spoelstra calls him “our old warrior.”
“He set the tone early,” Spoelstra said. “It’s what going on in here, which you can’t teach.”
As he said “here,” Spoelstra tapped his finger on his chest, over his heart.
The No. 1 conference seed turning back in the Heat’s favor allows us to set aside that obsession for a moment and focus on the larger point, at least from Miami’s perspective.
For the Heat it’s about a different number right now and moving forward, and was even before Friday’s game.
See, having No. 1 is fine.
But having No. 3 is better.
The top seed is great, but having No. 3, Wade, back in uniform, is what will mean even more as the playoffs begin next weekend.
The top seed never was a requirement around here. Indiana spent most of this season talking about it and holding it up as its Holy Grail. Miami did not. I loved Shane Battier’s perspective. He called the No. 1 seed “a luxury, not a necessity.”
“It isn’t the seed, it’s how we’re playing basketball at this particular time,” he said after the game. “This is a good step.”
James noted that turnovers “have been our Kryptonite all season,” but that Miami committed only nine Friday night.
Spoelstra called the performance “about as consistent to our identity as we’ve had for a while, for [all] 48 minutes.”
The coach in the next week must balance clinching the No. 1 seed now in its control with giving rest to starters including the overworked, do-it-all James.
“I’ve always felt taxed at this point in a season,” James said. “Who wouldn’t be taxed at this point? We’ll see if I can recharge before the postseason, because I know how taxing that can be as well.”
Miami must enter the playoffs with a full, healthy team that is playing in rhythm and is as fresh as possible.
“We want to get healthy. That’s all we care about,” James said.
Mostly that means getting Wade back and reintegrating him into the flow.
Spoelstra doesn’t seem concerned about that not happening right away. He downplays the idea it might take time for the team to regain its synchronicity and rhythm once Wade returns. Speaking of the Big 3 of James, Wade and Chris Bosh, the coach said: “The three of them have played almost 260 regular-season games and almost 60 playoff games together. There’s a lot of history in the bank, a lot of deposits together. It’s not as if we’ll be introducing them to each other and putting name tags on their jerseys.”
For the Heat it’s about two important numbers, accomplished in sequence, as the playoffs draw near.
No. 1 is the seed now in Miami’s control.
No. 3 is the player, still missing, for now, whose absence made Friday night that much more impressive.