By Ben Golliver
The Heat defeated the Pacers 105-91 in Miami on Sunday, winning their 18th straight game and improving to 47-14 on the season.
• There isn't much left for Miami to prove during the regular season, but they managed to take care of some Eastern Conference business for the second Sunday in a row. Last week, LeBron James took over during the second half to claim Miami's first win of the season against the Knicks, following two double-digit early season losses. On Sunday, Miami claimed its first win of the season against Indiana, blowing open the game in the third quarter and avenging losses in January and February in which its offense stalled out against Indiana's No. 1-ranked defense. Miami has now beaten every team in the NBA this season, a nice, albeit meaningless, feather in their collective cap.
This one was less a matter of the Heat's offense overwhelming the Pacers and more a matter of Miami beating Indiana at its own game. Since closing February with a nutty 141-129 double overtime victory over the Kings, Miami has spent March grinding out win after win in relatively low scoring games. While the Heat's defense currently ranks No. 9 in the league on the season, they've clearly flipped a switch with the postseason in sight. In the five games leading up to Sunday, the Heat's defensive rating was a smothering 95.8, more than five points better than their regular season number (101.2). Their intensity remained up on Sunday, as they protected the paint well, took away high-percentage looks for Paul George and shut down Indiana's starters, save for David West, who was a lone bright spot (24 points on seven-for-10 shooting).
Miami's wings were very active on the perimeter, deflecting passes, blowing up plays, crowding ball-handlers and generally disrupting Indiana's rhythm. George was clearly a top priority, as he finished just two-for-11 for 10 points and committed five turnovers, but both George Hill and Lance Stephenson were neutered to the point that they were total non-factors. Dwyane Wade led the way with six steals, reminding Indiana of the game-changing ability he flashed in the last three games of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals.
• This wasn't exactly a signature night offensively from LeBron James, who finished with a season-low 13 points. James took just 10 shots, tying his season-low, and the highlight-type plays just weren't there in a game in which the two teams combined for just eight fast break points.
Roy Hibbert's impact could certainly be felt, as James took just three shots in the basket area, but the reigning MVP's basketball intelligence was at work too. He seemed content to collapse Indiana's defense and distribute to the arsenal of weapons around him, creating scoring opportunities near the hoop for Ray Allen and Shane Battier and finding Chris Bosh on numerous kick-out opportunities. That was more than enough, as Mario Chalmers' game-high 26 points on just nine shots helped make up the slack.
The Heat made big strides last season in their halfcourt offense following their 2011 Finals loss and their ability to win a slow-down chess match through patient ball movement and a balanced attack was on display here. Indiana holds its opponents to a league-best 41.4 percent this season; Miami shot 55.9 percent from the field, the second-highest mark of the season against Indiana (Portland shot 56.4 percent in a Jan. 23 blowout win). To do that without a big night from James and without much in the way of transition opportunities is truly impressive.
• The Pacers and Heat have played chippy basketball on the court and chirped at each other off the court for the last year. That rivalry briefly looked like it might get another chapter in the third quarter, when Lance Stephenson crashed to the floor after taking a hard foul from Shane Battier with the Heat leading 79-56. Stephenson, who riled up the Heat last year by flashing a "choke" sign at James, had his left arm wrapped up by Battier as he elevated, causing him to fall awkwardly and leaving him unable to properly brace himself as he hit the deck. The foul was initially ruled a flagrant foul but it was downgraded to a personal foul upon a video review.
The sequence didn't lead to any real escalation of tension between the two sides. The foul, while slightly dangerous, was mild compared to Dexter Pittman
's cheap shot on Stephenson during Game 5 of the 2012 conference semifinals. That Battier protected the rim in such a direct, playoff-ready manner while leading by 23 points wound up serving as just another signal that the Heat have shifted out of any lull that might have existed prior to their current winning streak.