The Heat rode a 12-2 closing run to defeat the Pacers 97-94 in Miami on Wednesday night. The victory evened the season series between the two teams at one game apiece and narrowed Indiana's lead in the Eastern Conference standings to just one game.
• Heat go big to close hard. Tense and intense. That's how things have gone between the Heat and Pacers, and Wednesday night's thriller clung tightly to that rule. Let's see, in no particular order: Mario Chalmers delivered a strong blow to Lance Stephenson that ended with double technicals, LeBron James had to be restrained from going after Chalmers in a huddle, Shane Battier got in a shot to David West that was initially ruled a flagrant foul, Dwyane Wade went head over heels during a lay-up attempt, and the contest ended with Paul George delivering his profane assessment of a last-second no-call to referee Joey Crawford. Just another round of what we've come to expect from the East's top two teams; just another mid-winter appetizer for the inevitable 2014 conference finals match-up.
Indiana will kick itself for frittering this one away, especially after they responded well to multiple second-half rally attempts by Miami. George, who finished with 25 points (on 8-for-16 shooting), eight rebounds and six assists, succeeded in playing LeBron James to a virtual draw, which has become the lead item on his job description. James was a game-time decision due to an ankle sprain, but he finished with 24 points (on 8-for-14 shooting), nine rebounds and seven assists, and he looked uninhibited on multiple high-flying dunks, including a nasty stop-and-go move that froze Luis Scola in his tracks.
James ran off 10 quick points in a three-minute stretch spanning the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, and yet George was right there to break up the bleeding with an and-one. Miami pressed again with the game under six minutes, and George responded with a jumper and an assist to Roy Hibbert that kept Indiana firmly in control until the game's closing minutes. Indiana's MVP candidate wasn't a one-man show, but he has joined Kevin Durant as the only wing players who are capable of dulling or at least delaying the impact that results from James kicking his game into high gear.
Just when it seemed that Miami, who trailed by as many as 15 points, would run out of time with its comeback bid, Indiana faltered in the game's closing three minutes. The Heat ditched Chalmers down the stretch, tabbing James, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen as a big unit closing five. That group offers Miami a strong combination of shooting and versatility while also maximizing its ability to compete with the likes of Roy Hibbert and David West on the glass, and it paid dividends on Wednesday. Indeed, James was the only one of the Heat's closing five players not to score in the 12-2 push over the game's final 3:09, a testament to Miami's ability to generate opportunities from multiple scoring options through good ball movement and decision-making.
Injured center Greg Oden, who has yet to make his regular-season debut for Miami, still looms as a wild card, but it's certainly possible that the James/Wade/Allen/Bosh/Andersen group sees the court together when it counts against Indiana come the postseason, even if it's barely been used since Andersen signed with Miami back in January.
• Paul George got jobbed. This is the definition of spilled milk, but there's no question that George should have been awarded three free-throws on Indiana's final possession. With the clock under 10 seconds, George did well to evade James in a rushed situation, coming back to the ball at the top of the key for an attempt to tie the game. As he rose into his shot, James' left hand clearly contacted George's waist. Yes, George clearly sold the degree of contact with an embellished reaction, but the contact was undeniable.
The worst part about this one is that James wasn't even all that sneaky with the handsy treatment. He was banking on the referees swallowing their whistles more than he was deftly pulling a fast one, as he was a little bit hurried in his defensive effort because he was trying to make up for the fact that George had turned the corner. George appeared to say, "Bleeping bull-bleep, Joey," as he walked off the court. He had every right to be peeved, even if Indiana made a mess up multiple possessions down the stretch.
• Dwyane Wade piles up points in transition. Limiting Miami's fast-break points is far easier said than done, especially if turnovers are a recurring issue, as they have been for Indiana. That said, Pacers coach Frank Vogel will expect better from his players, who committed 16 turnovers and sacrificed 21 fast-break points on Wednesday. Wade finished with a game-high 32 points (on 15-for-25 shooting) and he made a killing in the open court, scoring 10 points in transition opportunities. Miami forced some of those chances with their defense but others were simply a matter of the Pacers losing track of Wade, who has long been a skilled cherry-picker. After Lance Stephenson missed a fall-away jumper, Wade leaked out behind him and the rest of the Pacers to net an uncontested dunk with less than three minutes to play, shrinking Indiana's lead to three and making this a one-possession game. Conceding two easy points in that time/score situation is the type of unforgivable, cardinal sin that separates contenders from champions.