- Michael Wallace, ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- LeBron James insists he's not concerned about his safety on the court, but vows to brace for more hard fouls on Thursday in Game 6 of what has become a brutally physical playoff series between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.
"It may have gotten to that point. For me, it's always at that point," James said Wednesday after the Heat wrapped up practice and prepared to travel to Indiana. "I'm always in protect mode. For me, in the playoffs or the regular season, there are teams trying to go for me. It's happened. I'm not saying guys are playing dirty, but certain guys say if you hard foul LeBron, get him off balance, he'll stop being aggressive and things like that."
After winning consecutive games to overcome an early 2-1 series deficit, the Heat are looking to close out the Pacers in Indiana and advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the second consecutive season. But James and his Heat teammates know they'll likely have a fight on their hands.
Maybe even literally, considering how rough the play has gotten in the series over the past few games. James and Heat guard Dwyane Wade have attempted 46 and 45 free throws, respectively, through five games against Indiana.
What already had been a particularly physical series through the first four games turned ugly during the Heat's 115-83 victory in Game 6, which included three flagrant fouls -- two of which clearly seemed to be committed in retaliation for actions taken earlier in the series.
Haslem has been suspended by NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson for Thursday's Game 6 and Pittman has been suspended for three games. Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough, who also committed a flagrant foul on Heat star Dwyane Wade, had his foul upgraded to a flagrant foul 2 from a flagrant 1, but avoided suspension.
James, who won his third league MVP award this season, said suspensions might not drastically alter the rugged tone of a series that has included a total of 234 personal fouls, five conduct-driven technical fouls and four flagrant-1 penalties that were being reviewed by the league office Wednesday for potential disciplinary action.
James said he's been a target for hard fouls throughout his nine-year NBA career, and doesn't think the Heat-Pacers series is any different. James pointed out one particular play late in the third quarter Tuesday, when he accused Pacers forward David West of attempting a cheap shot.
West was called for a foul on James with 9.6 seconds left in the third quarter as James was making a move to the basket with the Heat ahead 74-55. James braced for the contact as the players collided. He then made both free throws.
"I was laughing because he really tried to foul me pretty good. I seen it before it happened," James said of West, who complained immediately after the game that an unnamed Heat player had tried to attack his surgically repaired left knee. "I'd seen what he was going for. I started laughing because [West] was the one on the floor and I was the one still standing. He tried to get me."
James said the intensity and aggressive play in the Heat-Pacers series doesn't come close to the physical brand of basketball he faced in Cleveland during a series against the Washington Wizards a few seasons ago. He also pointed to a series between the Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons in 2007 as another when rough play may have crossed the line.
"They made it a point of emphasis to take me out of the game," James said of the Wizards during their playoff rivalries with Cleveland. "I'm used to it. But it's a fine line."
James, named to the NBA's All-Defensive first team on Wednesday, is averaging 30.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists in nearly 42 minutes this series against Indiana. If the Pacers' hard fouls and face-to-face confrontations are bothering James, he's determined not to show it.
"We all protect one another," James said. "We don't do anything that's retaliation or anything that's dirty. We just want to protect each other out on the floor no matter what's going on. We're not here to fight. We're just here to play basketball."
LeBron James insists he's not concerned about his safety on the court, but he vows to brace for more hard fouls Thursday in Game 6 of what has become a brutally physical playoff series between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.