A gimpy LeBron James may not be at full power when Heat-Pacers II inflames AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday night, but don’t let his compromised ankle detract from the rare and juicy pleasure of watching an NBA regular-season game that is actually meaningful.
The Heat will again downplay the significance of this series, especially if James sits or sees limited minutes. Last week, when the Pacers won 90-84 in Indianapolis, Pacer Lance Stephenson talked about how the game was freighted with the intensity of a championship.
Heat players rolled their eyes. Asked when he circled the date of the matchup on his calendar, Chris Bosh deadpanned, “Yesterday.”
“What is a rivalry these days?” James said, dismissing the notion that Heat-Pacers qualified as one. He was the King ignoring the serfs as they girded for revolution.
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Perhaps Heat players are taking the jaded, realistic view. Who cares about December hothouse flowers? The Heat blooms in June.
Phase One of the long NBA season is for warming up and preserving body parts, not peaking, according to the two-time defending champs. Part of the problem with a league in desperate need of tinkering is the soullessness of so many games. The schedule starts to look like a vast wasteland with mediocre teams plodding from one inconclusive skirmish to another. Realignment and relegation deserve study if the NBA wants to awake.
In the meantime, we have Heat-Pacers II, to be followed by Heat-Pacers III on March 26, Heat-Pacers IV on April 11 and presumably Heat-Pacers Apocalypse in the Eastern Conference finals.
So the Heat better pay attention. As coach Erik Spoelstra is fond of saying, championship habits are ingrained during the regular season. Heat players, who beat the Pacers in seven games in last year’s playoffs, have a right to act superior, but the Pacers won’t be any worse for wear by stockpiling confidence. While the Heat conserves energy, the Pacers hone their ability to exploit Miami’s flaws — skills that will come in handy in five months.
Roy Hibbert is perfecting how to become a 7-2, 300-pound thorn in the Heat’s side.
The center dominated the paint in Indy and made a season-high 10 baskets — almost all from close range as the Heat failed to prevent him from catching post passes. David West added 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
The Heat has no answer for their size and muscle. The Greg Oden Project continues, in secret, with no sign that the big man’s knees will be ready anytime soon. If and when he does return — and Hibbert said he’s looking forward to it — Oden has to make up for a lot of lost time. He hasn’t played in a regular-season game in more than four years.
Paul George is making the most of valuable on-the-job training against Miami. The emerging superstar had a harried first half against the Heat’s double teams last week, but he figured out how to unlock himself and sank three crucial three-pointers, finishing with 17 points.
James was the unselfish distributor with his balanced contribution of 17 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, plus feverish defense of George, but if James’ ankle will cooperate, he needs to be a more aggressive scorer Wednesday. At Indy, he made only 3 of 11 field goals in Miami’s anemic second, third and fourth quarters.
Miami believes it can make do without a center — and has two titles to prove it. But the rebounding bugaboo almost doomed the Heat against Indiana last year and again against San Antonio in the NBA Finals. Even against Utah on Monday, Miami gave up 17 second-chance points in the first half.
“It’s always a point of emphasis for us,” Bosh said. “It keeps teams in it against us.”
Let’s not forget Indiana owns a two-game lead for the No. 1 seed and postseason home-court advantage. No amount of nonchalance can disguise the fact that Miami does not want to play Game 7 of the conference finals inside the home of Indiana’s own Big 3.
Sure, it’s not even Christmas yet. But take too much for granted now against the improved and improving Pacers and the Heat could be facing a long and empty summer.