Commentary

They are who we thought they were

Recently ticketed for a long offseason, the Heat now look to advance in Game 6

Originally Published: May 24, 2012
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

It isn't over, this Eastern Conference semifinal between the Heat and Pacers that has become the surprise hit of the playoffs. In fact, wrapping up the series in six games became slightly more difficult for Miami with the suspension of Udonis Haslem for Thursday's contest in Indianapolis.

But the narrative in this series has changed immensely, as has the perception of the Heat, since Indiana's dominant performance in Game 3 showed Miami at its most vulnerable.

The Pacers are still the lovable underdogs with the team-first mentality, the mouthy but likable young coach and just the right amount of hostility (well, maybe a touch too much hostility, but that just adds to their charm).

It's the Heat that have experienced the extreme makeover in just the past week.

All of a sudden, we're basically back to where we started this series, with the Heat looking like the dominant force they can be, even without their best big man, Chris Bosh, on the floor.

In a mere six quarters, the Heat have gone from a broken team with a future littered with question marks to once again looking like the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference -- maybe even championship favorites if Bosh heals quickly enough and LeBron James keeps putting up historic numbers. That's quite the turnaround in seven days.

And the Heat can thank the Pacers for initiating that reversal.

It's not all intentional acts from Indiana that has reawakened Miami, but in some form or another the Pacers are responsible for invigorating four of the Heat's most critical players.

As is regularly the case with this year's Heat, it starts with James.

It certainly wasn't Roy Hibbert's intention to injure Bosh in that Game 1 aerial collision that twisted Bosh just enough to strain his abdominal muscle. But it was that very play that would require James to become even more of a supernatural force.

Almost against his own nature, James has been required to be a more aggressive scorer against Indiana. It might've taken him a couple of games to realize where to best find his shots, but the version of James we've witnessed over the past two games has been even more dominant than the one that won the regular-season MVP award -- and that's despite Indiana's obvious intent to be as physical as possible with him.

That has almost everything to do with the absence of Bosh, which seemed like a fortunate incident for the Pacers when it occurred but has essentially turned into Indy's worst nightmare.

"We need LeBron to play part of the role that Chris gave us, to facilitate in the high post, but he also has to be aggressive," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He has to play multiple positions, and he has to give us a little bit of what we're missing.

"The attack mentality has been the biggest thing. Regardless of where he's playing on the court, we need him to be aggressive."

While Bosh hardly lived in the paint, he did manage a good share of the Heat's points in that coveted area.

That's gone, and there isn't another big man on the roster to replace it. Enter LeBron.

"When he puts his head down, he goes, and it's tough to stop him," said Wade, echoing what almost everyone has noticed since the day James entered the league. "He's really been making an effort to get points in the paint."

Of course, it doesn't hurt James' cause when Wade has also been kick-started in this series.

The Pacers' physical style aggravated Wade to the point where he went chest-to-chest with his coach during an all-time awful Game 3.

He managed five measly points, and Paul George's gangly arms weren't shrinking anytime soon, nor was Roy Hibbert.

Only, the Pacers might've been better off if Wade had even an average game that night. Because the lifelong underdog tends to recover quite nicely after poor efforts.

[+] EnlargeTyler Hansbrough
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyDraw blood from Wade? Beware.

Toss in the fact that Tyler Hansbrough drew blood from Wade on that flagrant foul in the first half of Game 5, and it was almost inevitable Wade would do something like score 50 points in a six-quarter span, shaking off any ill effects of a gimpy knee.

"He definitely bounces back after tough matchups, criticism, blood," said Haslem, Wade's teammate for nine seasons. "He's one of the most resilient guys I know. Things like that, challenges that come his way, he doesn't hesitate to meet them head-on and overcome them."

Haslem didn't seem like he'd get a chance to have any say in the Heat's recovery from down 2-1.

During the first-round series against the Knicks, Haslem almost became the forgotten man because New York played Carmelo Anthony heavy minutes at the power forward slot, forcing the Heat to go nontraditional at the four-spot also.

That meant the soul of the Heat for much of his tenure was almost a complete nonfactor. It didn't help that Haslem had easily the worst shooting season of his career -- so bad that it was assumed the foot that was surgically repaired last season was still an issue. Turns out the Pacers, again by no true fault of their own, would help Haslem reintroduce himself to his own team.

After playing 19 total minutes in Games 2 and 3, it seemed Spoelstra finally realized Haslem could play a large part in fixing the Heat's rebounding woes.

No longer were the Heat dealing with a small forward playing a big man's spot. This was traditional size the Pacers were throwing out there, and Haslem still mixes it up with the best of them despite his less-than-intimidating 6-foot-8 frame.

So back came Haslem for 25 minutes in Game 4. And back came Haslem's jumper.

There he was again in Game 5, this time reminding everyone that Wade and James would not be manhandled without repercussion. Even though Haslem has to sit out Game 6 for that retaliatory foul on Hansbrough, he made more of an impact in two games in this series than he has in any two-game stretch all season.

Back came the Heat's soul.

Indiana's size and rebounding proficiency almost forced Spoelstra to find more minutes for Haslem, who wasn't publicly complaining but must've been stewing privately.

"Obviously I know, because I talk to him a lot," Wade said. "UD has been here nine years, he's contributed in key moments, he's a champion. He knew he could help this team. He wasn't making shots for a while, and he understood that, but he still felt he help this team. I think we did a good job of getting him back in his comfort zone a little bit.

"No matter what your body of work is, it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type of world we live in. Everyone needs a reminder."

Shane Battier doesn't live in the same world as Haslem and Wade. He doesn't need the motivation of a bad game or disrespect. He doesn't even accept it when it's sitting right in front of him as an option.

So Battier didn't take his 1-for-12 shooting start to this series as a jump-off point. He didn't require the underdog mentality to improve his defense against the bigger, stronger David West.

"The hay's in the barn at this point," Battier explained, as only he can.

No, Battier's go-to move is reading his favorite sports psychology book, titled "The Inner Game of Tennis," which reminds him, "when you try to control the process, when you try to calculate the process, you start miscalculating the process."

Battier turned to his go-to self-help device, and while he made only 1 of 7 attempts in Game 4, his defense was far more effective on West, who managed only eight points. In Game 5, Battier coupled that frustrating ball-denial defense on West with four made 3-pointers. It was arguably his best performance as a member of the Heat.

"You're disappointed you didn't make shots," Battier said of his slump to start the series. "But if you miss a shot, there's no use crying over it. It's in the past. Same thing with made shots.

"You want to stay in the present as much as possible."

Presently, then, Battier looks like the player Miami knew it signed last summer.

Combine that with the rest of the Heat players who've either rediscovered themselves or found a new gear, and the Pacers have essentially helped unveil the Heat team everyone expected to see all playoffs. And that's without Bosh at the moment.

If Bosh does eventually return in good form, the Heat might even take back their perch as title favorites, either against the high-scoring Spurs or the dynamic Thunder.

It certainly didn't look this way after a demoralizing Game 3 loss, but the bigger, bruising Indiana Pacers may have been exactly what the Heat needed to recalibrate and relocate their championship path.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.