MIAMI -- The Indiana Pacers have coveted the Miami Heat’s undivided attention all season.
And if they didn’t gain it completely over the first four games of the Eastern Conference finals, they certainly have it now after stubbornly avoiding elimination by any means necessary -- and at all costs -- to force Game 6 on Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
After racking up $40,000 in player fines over the past three days for flopping violations and complaints about officiating, the Pacers have officially become a clear nuisance to the Heat. Add in the reaction to Indiana guard Lance Stephenson’s shenanigans that have included blowing into the ear of LeBron James during the Pacer’s 93-90 victory Wednesday, and it would be an understatement to say Miami is annoyed.
At this stage, the Pacers fall somewhere between pesky mosquitos invading a picnic and a group of petulant children acting out at a toy store in the mall.
“It’s the Eastern Conference finals,” Heat center Chris Bosh said Thursday of the irritant Indiana has become. “I’ve never seen anything like that at a level of basketball like this. I treat it like the kids, for all of us who have kids. If they throw a tantrum on the floor, just leave them alone and they’ll stop. We just have to concentrate on what we’re doing and leave all those other extra-curricular activities alone.”
Bosh missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds on Game 5 that would have ended the series and advanced Miami to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season. Now back home for Game 6, the Heat get another shot to rid themselves of their Pacers problem.
But much like any pest, the Heat know these Pacers won’t go away easily.
And a strong case can be made that Indiana is a more dangerous threat now that, as the No. 1 seed in the East, they escaped what would have been a demoralizing and more embarrassing ouster on their home court. With James coming off the worst playoff game of his 11-year career, an outing reduced to 24 minutes, five fouls and a career-low seven points, Miami enters Game 6 with a Game 7 mentality.
Despite everything that went wrong the previous game, the Heat took some solace in knowing they overcame several challenges to still have a shot to win it at the end of Wednesday’s game. But the three-point loss produced three key concerns Miami worked on Thursday to address.
With James sitting for extended stretches of the first three quarters, the Heat didn’t attack the paint and the rim nearly enough and finished with just eight free-throw attempts. With reserve center Chris Andersen, Miami’s leading rebounder and most active big in the series, sitting out a second straight game with a bruised thigh, the Pacers corralled 16 offensive rebounds to extend possessions.
But the most disturbing stat for the Heat was seeing Indiana convert Miami's 17 turnovers into 21 points.
In other words, Stephenson’s sideshow may have gotten under Miami’s collective skin. But the Pacers were far more productive as a team in knocking the Heat out of rhythm after they won three straight games to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
That, in part, explains why James seemed to be more annoyed with questions after Thursday’s practice about Stephenson’s actions than he is with the feisty guard’s play during the games.
“I’m not going into [Game 6] worried about Lance or his antics,” James said. “I’m just trying to win a game. For me, I move on and that’s why I’m able to stay to the grind I’m in and be better the next day.”
James said several factors contributed to the Heat’s loss beyond picking up his fifth foul early in the third quarter. Pacers forward Paul George torched Miami for 37 points and six steals in his best game of the series, and Roy Hibbert and David West combined 29 points and 22 rebounds.
“We just didn’t get to the free-throw line,” James said, voicing similar concerns that George expressed after games in Miami earlier in the series. “We were aggressive, we shot the ball well. We just didn’t get to the line. I feel like we played well enough to win. They made some big shots. It’s the two best teams in the Eastern Conference for a reason. They’ll make adjustments. We’ll make adjustments.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra suggested that any tweaks at this point in the series would be minimal, and primarily mental. From a personnel standpoint, Andersen remains questionable for Game 6 and the Heat likely will continue to rely on smaller lineups to stretch the floor with shooters.
Miami was 15-of-31 from 3-point range in Game 5, with six different players knocking down at least one from beyond the arc. The shooting display was highlighted by a breakout performance from Rashard Lewis, the once seldom-used veteran who was 6-for-9 on 3-pointers.
If the Heat were haunted or frustrated by the one 3 that didn’t fall at the end, Spoelstra wanted his team to use Thursday’s light practice and film session to dissolve any hard feelings or lingering issues.
“I wanted that frustration and anger and emotion today,” Spoelstra said. “[Friday], it’s [about] clear heads. We didn’t want to leave it all to [Friday]. It still comes down to the main thing being the main thing. It’s two contrasting styles. Who can get the game on their terms? Can we impose our identity on the game and play it more on our terms?”
The Heat aim to find answers quickly and keep the Pacers from gaining more confidence and traction.
Fewer than four percent of teams in NBA history have rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. A Heat loss sends the series back to Indiana on Sunday for Game 7 -- the exact scenario the Pacers have targeted since their Game 7 of the conference finals last year in Miami.
A victory sends the Heat back to the Finals, where they attempt to become just the fourth franchise in NBA history to win three consecutive championships. If the last game was filled with bizarre moments, expect the intensity and desperation to reach even higher levels with so much at stake Friday.
“We’re at home to close out a series -- that’s the best scenario for us,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “So we’re in a good position. We’ve seen it all, they’ve seen it all. Everyone has their own tactics and antics. What we have to do, what we’ve always done, is focus on the task at hand, focus on basketball.”
That means focusing like never before on these attention-seeking, pesky Pacers.