The Indiana Pacers had to stare down “big brother” last night as they tried to defend their home turf. Lebron James and the Miami Heat rolled into Bankers Life Fieldhouse looking to trim Indiana’s conference lead to a single game while making sure that the Pacers understood what the real pecking order in the Eastern Conference was. It did not happen. The Pacers knocked off the Heat 84-83 to clinch the team’s second straight division title and take a three-game lead over Miami for the best record and home field advantage in the Eastern Conference.
The Pacers, who had lost seven of their last 12 games going back to a March 4 98-96 home defeat to the Golden State Warriors, now hold a 2-1 series lead over the Heat, with both teams defending their home courts in their victories. It was an important win for Indiana. Not only did it come against the defending NBA champions, but it was a much needed jolt to begin a difficult season-ending stretch that includes six of 10 on the road, where the 52-20 Pacers are a scant 19-16. As for their four remaining home games, they will not be a cakewalk either as two of them are against Western Conference powers San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
After the game, Pacers’ guard George Hill said that the team hoped the victory would help them get back on track. He said that it was an important step in the right direction to playing the type of basketball that coach Frank Vogel’s team wants to play at the tail end of the season.
This was not a case of the Pacers simply wanting this game more than the Heat. The two Eastern Conference front-runners have circled each other on the schedule since December. Miami had an opportunity to move within a game of the conference lead and also get an all-important road win against the Eastern Conference leaders. Of course, the Pacers had the opportunity to clinch the division title, and put some breathing room between themselves and the defending champions. They used toughness and defense to do both. Following the loss, Miami players harped on the physicality of play and, in essence, blamed the officiating for the loss.
Miami forward Chris Bosh said that Heat players were the victims of punches and clothes lines at the hands of the aggressive Indiana defenders. He said that officials were routinely calling normal fouls when flagrant fouls should have been called.
Bosh was referring to some hits that teammate Lebron James received during the heated contest. The superstar forward was the victim of two hard fouls from the Pacers that Miami players were confident warranted flagrant status. In both instances officials reviewed replays of the contact, but ultimately decided that the fouls were within the realm of normal game play.
James was visibly frustrated after the game. He said that the referees call the game how they see fit, but sometimes calls do not go your way. Miami actually held a 29-21 advantage in free-throw attempts over the Pacers for the game, but they were whistled for one more foul (22-21) than the reigning Central Division champions.
Indiana and Miami will meet again in the series finale on April 11. This time it will be on the Heat’s home court with possibly much more on the line. The Pacers clinched the division title in Indianapolis, but the team that wins in Miami could be looking at clinching the Eastern Conference and the home court advantage that goes along with it.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika