MIAMI — Forward LeBron James’ 36 points in the Miami Heat’s 98-86 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Friday night at AmericanAirlines Arena were no surprise.
But forward Udonis Haslem’s gritty performance — 11 points, nine rebounds, numerous charges taken and loose balls retrieved — was an inspiration to Miami.
“That old warrior,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Haslem, who missed the previous two games with the flu. “My personal inspiration as a coach — I love looking at his photo in my office. It’s him getting ready for battle, and he just has this look of intensity.
“These are the types of games where he brings what is necessary. And what was necessary was ball in the air, ball on the ground, 50-50 — he was dominating those areas. He set the tone with four full-body knee-burns, just to let us know how important this game was.”
The win put the Heat back in control of the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and the importance of home court cannot be minimized.
Last year, the Heat needed that home-court advantage, beating the Pacers in a seventh game in Miami.
In addition, the Pacers are 6-1 at home against the Heat since the start of last season. They are 1-6 at Miami during that span. And if the teams were to meet in Game 7, history shows that the home team wins 79.8 percent of the time (91-23).
James, remaining even-keeled as usual, tried to downplay the significance of the top seed. But he admitted he loved the way the Heat played, including the fact that they turned the ball over just nine times.
“We don’t worry about seeding,” James said. “It’s all about how we are playing basketball at this particular time.
“The playoffs start in a week, and this is a great step in the direction where we want to be. We didn’t’ turn the ball over, and that’s been our Kryptonite all season. We did a great job against a very good defensive team.”
Miami used a 16-0 third-quarter run to subdue the Pacers. The Heat led by as many as 23 points in the third and withstood a fourth-quarter run by the Pacers that cut their advantage to as little as nine points.
Forward Paul George led the Pacers with 22 points, and forward David West added 18, but center Roy Hibbert was mostly ineffective with just five points and one rebound.
“Once you get down by 20 points, you are in a bit of a panic mode,” said Hibbert, who made two of seven shots from the floor. “Things felt a little bit rushed sometimes. … I wasn’t really worried about my shot attempts.”
The Heat (54-25) now lead the Pacers (54-26) by one game in the fight for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Miami closes its regular season with games at Atlanta and Washington and a home contest against Philadelphia. If Miami wins all three, it gets the top seed.
The reeling Pacers, who are 8-13 in their past 21 games, close the season with a tough home contest vs. Oklahoma City and then a trip to Orlando.
If the Pacers and Heat finish with identical records, Indiana gets the top seed because it holds the tiebreaker due to a better conference mark.
But the way the Pacers are playing at the moment, it seems like they are destined for second place in the regular season.
That was especially true after Friday, when the bigger and wider Pacers were outscored 44-26 in the paint.
The Heat, a notoriously poor rebounding team, also beat the Pacers on the boards, 40-31.
George, though, said his team is not in a panic.
“The top seed is not in our hands right now, and we’re perfectly fine with that,” he said. “I thought we played well. We just needed to take care of the ball better (they had 16 turnovers) and rebound.”
The Heat, who split the season series with Indiana 2-2, got off to a slow start Friday, trailing 25-23 after the first quarter. The Pacers shot 56.3 percent in the quarter and got 10 points from West.
Miami, which shot 47.1 percent, got 14 points from James. With his 11th point, he reached 2,000 for a ninth season, which tied him with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for third place in NBA history. Only Karl Malone (12) and Michael Jordan (11) have had more 2,000-point seasons.
The Heat took a slight 45-42 lead into halftime despite not shooting up to their standards — 41.2 percent for the half.
NOTES: Heat SG Dwyane Wade (hamstring) and C Greg Oden (back) missed their ninth straight games. … Heat C Chris “Birdman” Andersen (knee) returned after missing two of the past three games. … Pacers C Andrew Bynum (knee) missed his 14th straight game. … Since G Evan Turner made his Indiana debut on Feb. 25, the Pacers had been outscored by an average of 8.7 points per 48 minutes before Friday. With Turner on the bench, the Pacers were slightly outscoring their opponents. … Los Angeles Clippers F Danny Granger is the player the Pacers traded to get Turner. With Granger on the court this season, the Pacers outscored opponents by 116 points. With Turner, the Pacers have been outscored by 83. … Including the Pacers, 137 teams have reached the All-Star break playing at least .700 ball. Of those teams, the Pacers’ post-break record of 13-13 entering Friday was the second worst.
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