These two teams have struggled lately, fighting complacency, mediocrity and the long grind of the regular season. But, despite polished media responses from players on both sides, this is truly a rivalry, ripe with jealousy, dislike and, at times, violent intensity.
This game has meant more to Indiana all season, an opportunity to secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference and gain any possible edge against the Heat. But Miami, seemingly disinterested through 60+ games, was still only one game back in the loss column - this was a chance to deal the Pacers a significant psychological blow.
The Heat were without sharpshooter Ray Allen, who did not travel with the team while suffering from the flu. But the starting lineup would feature Dwyane Wade (who had missed the two previous games) and Greg Oden, making his sixth start of the season. Oden was signed specifically to deal with All-Star Roy Hibbert, who has a habit of playing his best games against Miami.
Unfortunately, Oden was completely outplayed from the start, as Hibbert scored 13 points in the first quarter. The Heat shot terribly in the first and saw the Pacers up 23-17 after the period.
The second quarter seemed like a microcosm of the Pacers/Heat quest for the top seed in the East. With Indiana playing with frenetic energy and the Heat sluggishly shooting only 9-of-23 field goals, Miami was still able to keep pace with the Pacers. Wade, extremely rusty early in the game, closed the lead to 3 but a Paul George 15-footer and a Lance Stephenson shot from long range pushed the Pacers lead up to 8. But LeBron James and Chris Bosh combined on a 9-0 run for Miami. A Udonis Haslem jumper from the baseline gave Miami a 1-point lead and the half closed with Indiana down, 45-44.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra adjusted the lineup to start the 3rd quarter and Oden remained on the bench while Haslem was charged with limiting Hibbert; a job he did admirably. But the tension that was just below the surface started to bubble over when Stephenson got tangled up with Mario Chalmers and Wade immediately went over to help his teammate (The irony! Only Heat players can yell at Mario!) Both Wade and Stephenson were assessed technical fouls. The argument seemed to inspire Miami and James, who scored 11 points in the quarter to put Miami up by 7.
The final quarter started off sloppy for Miami, giving up two dunks by George and an Evan Turner 11-footer to close the Heat's lead to 1. James, who had been beat up all night, was then charged with a flagrant foul as he drove the lane and inadvertently elbowed Hibbert in the face, sending the big man to the floor and, eventually, the locker room with a bloody tongue. Now tied at 72, Stephenson scored back-to-back baskets, the last of which had him screaming and, possibly, antagonizing Wade. The Pacers erratic guard was assessed a second technical game and was immediately ejected from the game.
Wade hit the technical free throw and a 3-pointer by James tied the game at 76. A Wade dunk (off a great cut to the paint and a good pass by James) and free throws by the infrequently-used Rashard Lewis put Miami up 4.
Hibbert (now back from the locker room) connected on a free throw before Turner, the Pacers' big acquisition at the NBA's trade deadline, scored four quick points to put Indiana up 1. And then David West connected on an impossible 3-pointer from the wing, only his fourth long-range shot all season. Replays showed that West clearly traveled on the shot but no call was made and the Pacers were up, 84-80.
The Heat had gone without a field goal in nearly four minutes when Chris Bosh connected on a 24-footer to close the gap to 1 with two seconds left. The ball was inbounded to the Pacers' George Hill, who was immediately fouled.
Hill, an 83% free-throw shooter all season, missed both free throws and gave Miami a chance to take the lead.
Pacers executive Larry Bird was caught on camera pointing to his chest and saying what looked like the word "heart," perhaps pointing out what Hill clearly lacked at the line.
With time winding down, Bosh put up an off-balance 15-foot jumper that fell short and Indiana secured the win.
The loss puts Miami's record at 48-22 and 3 games back of the Pacers, who now improve to 52-20. The teams meet again on April 11 in Miami.
The game was hard-fought and encouraging, despite the loss. Miami showed a toughness that, with the exception in Monday's win over the Portland Trail Blazers, seemed to be missing for weeks. Also, with our best bench scorer out, Coach Spoelstra was able to rely on Lewis, Haslem and Chris Andersen for valuable contributions. But the Heat's biggest off-season acquisition - Oden - wasn't a factor. Also, Spoelstra kept Michael Beasley and Shane Battier on the bench, a surprising move to say the least.
It's obvious that there's still questions regarding the Heat's roster. With only 12 games left in the regular season, however, there's hardly any time to determine if the answers will lead to a third straight championship.