and the Pacers
claimed a 2-1 lead on the Heat
in the season series. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
In a testy clash between the East's two best teams, the Pacers used a fourth-quarter rally to earn an 84-83 victory against the Heat, seizing a three-game lead in the race for the No. 1 seed. Indiana clinched the Central Division title with Wednesday's win, while Miami suffered its eighth loss in 13 games.
• The 2014 Eastern Conference finals might overshadow the Finals. If Adam Silver's stars should align and the Heat and Pacers meet again in the conference finals, NBA fans will be treated to a series with more violence than Game of Thrones, more alpha males than Mad Men, more ruthless rivalries than House of Cards and more plot twists than Breaking Bad. OK, all of that is probably ridiculous, but you get the point. Last year's postseason meeting not only produced a seven-game slugfest but also a mutual dislike that has festered for months and is approaching contempt.
The buildup to the anticipated rematch in the 2014 playoffs has only fanned the flames. Backhanded compliments and fronthanded insults have been exchanged and three chippy games have been contested, with Wednesday's result giving the Pacers a 2-1 lead in the season series (the finale is April 11).
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The end of the regular season is still a few weeks away and the toughest tests of the playoffs a good two months in the future, but calendars be damned: Wednesday's clash felt like a postseason showdown. Two struggling contenders entered the game looking to right their wrongs with a big win over their most bitter rival -- and they played with a sense of desperation that made ESPN's Finals-like buildup seem appropriate.
LeBron James scored 38 points. Lance Stephenson got into a half-dozen mini-fights before being ejected. Roy Hibbert (21 points) destroyed Greg Oden, the man brought to Miami to stop him. Paul George (23 points) had the bounce-back game he's been chasing. Udonis Haslem changed the game with his defense. David West hit a critical three-pointer in the closing seconds. And then on the final play of the game, Chris Bosh shot a long jumper off a pass from LeBron that would have not only given the Heat the win but also brought them even in the loss column with Indiana, inching them closer to knocking off the Pacers from the top spot they've occupied since Nov. 4.
Instead, Bosh's shot clanged off the rim and Indiana got the W and a three-game lead on Miami. But the storyline-packed game also gave the two-time defending champions something to chew on. Stephenson, the stick in South Beach's craw, got under the Heat's skin again, giving them plenty to be upset about.
It started with some pushing in the third quarter, when Dwyane Wade took exception to Stephenson's getting in Mario Chalmers' face, leading to double technicals on Wade and Stephenson:
But, as you could guess, that's not where things ended for Stephenson. With 5:01 remaining in the fourth quarter, Stephenson drove for a bucket that gave the Pacers a 76-72 lead. But scoring the pivotal basket wasn't enough. After making the layup and falling to the floor, a pumped-up Stephenson got up and began yelling, briefly getting tangled with Chalmers. When he rose, he found himself in Wade's face. And if you know anything about Lance Stephenson, you know what happened next. Rather than run down the floor and let bygones be bygones, Stephenson first couldn't turn down an opportunity to show up his Heat counterpart, staring Wade down and yelling, "What?"
Wade flashed a devilish grin at Stephenson -- half shaking his head at the guard's antics, half enjoying them -- but then something dawned on the Heat guard. Wasn't this taunting? Wade's grin quickly turned into a scowl and he appealed to referee David Jones, who agreed and assessed Stephenson his second technical foul, ending the guard's night:
In between those incidents, we also saw James deliver a devastating blow to Hibbert -- and not in the form of a poster dunk. Instead, LeBron was called for a Flagrant 1 after hitting the Pacers' center flush in the jaw with an elbow on an attempted layup. The shot sent Hibbert to the floor (and briefly the locker room). After passing a concussion test (and getting a new blood-free jersey), Hibbert returned with 6:58 remaining:
Blood, big names, great basketball, fourth-quarter drama and two bitter rivals -- how could Pacers-Heat not overshadow the Finals?
• Roy Hibbert is Indiana's trump card. An advantage against a two-time defending champion is a rare commodity. A 7-foot-2 center who can dominate on both ends is one of them.
In last year's conference finals, Hibbert helped the Pacers take the Heat to seven games by devouring the likes of Bosh and Chris Andersen, averaging 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds. Miami narrowly survived its encounter with Hibbert (an excellent rim protector and budding force on the block), but the team realized it might not be as fortunate next time around.
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Enter Oden, he of the major talent, maligned knees and no expectations. The Heat signed the former No. 1 pick with the hopes that Oden would give them an answer to the league's few dominant centers like Hibbert, but without the pressure of having to contribute on a regular basis. The Heat have cautiously brought Oden along this season, but placed the 7-footer in the starting lineup for good two weeks ago. Gearing him up for a clash against the Pacers, the Heat played Oden a season-high 15 minutes on Monday.
The last time Hibbert and Oden faced off as starting centers was seven years ago in the NCAA Final Four. Hibbert was a senior at Georgetown; Oden a freshman at Ohio State. The Buckeyes won the much-anticipated meeting to advance to the title game, but Hibbert surprisingly outshone the future No. 1 pick -- scoring 19 points (9-of-13 shooting) to Oden's 13 (6-of-11).
Seven years has done a lot to the Roy Hibbert vs. Greg Oden rivalry. (Getty Images/2)
The next seven years sent Hibbert and Oden on radically different paths, neither of which could have been predicted at that Final Four. Oden battled countless injuries in Portland, playing just 82 games in five seasons, while Hibbert has undergone a physical transformation and developed into an All-Star center and favorite to win the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year award.
Bu the two were reunited again on Wednesday in Indianapolis, the home of Hibbert's Pacers and the real home of Oden, who went to Indy's Lawrence North High School. The homecoming for Oden marked a pretty incredible comeback, but it would be spoiled in the opening six minutes. Hibbert, possibly inspired by going against the proclaimed "Hibbert Stopper," went into attack mode. With a series of hook shots, jumpers and even a nifty up-and-under, Hibbert lit up his college contemporary, scoring 13 (6-of-8 shooting) of his 21 points in the first quarter.
Oden sat on the bench the rest of the game after his rough opening stretch as Haslem and others had more success in slowing Hibbert. It's great to see Oden's playing NBA games again, but as of right now he doesn't look like a solution for Miami's Hibbert problems.
• Miami's many vices. The Heat are now 5-8 since March 4 and managed a season-low 83 points against Indiana on Wednesday (their previous low of 84 was also against the Pacers, on Dec. 10). They are banged up and underperforming, a devastating combination even in the depleted Eastern Conference.
To give you an idea of how bad the Heat have been the last three weeks: Their net rating is worse than New Orleans', their offense is less efficient than Memphis' and their defense is more porous than Sacramento's. Wade is banged up, Bosh is getting bullied and the team's list of reliable contributors is suddenly down to one.
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Luckily for Miami, that one is pretty good. But as the loss to the Pacers reminded us, the Heat can't skirt on talent alone against Indiana. They'll need the other two stars of the Big Three to step up. They'll need contributions from their supporting cast. And they'll need their offense and defense to return to top-10 form come conference finals time, when the Pacers will likely stand in their way of pulling off a three-peat.