MIAMI — Standing on the cusp of the NBA Finals has tended to agree with the Miami Heat in each of the last two seasons. When the Heat have gotten a game away from the title round, they’ve finished the task as quickly as possible.
And here they are again.
A third straight Eastern Conference title is now just one win away for the reigning champions, though if the way this series has gone so far is an accurate indicator, that win will hardly come easily. The Heat — without suspended forward Chris Andersen — will visit the Indiana Pacers tonight, leading the best-of-seven East finals 3-2 and in position to close out their new rivals on their own floor for the second straight season.
“We’re desperate, too,” Heat forward and four-time NBA MVP LeBron James said Friday. “We’re desperate to get back to the NBA Finals. So both teams are desperate in their own sense of they’re trying to keep their season alive and we’re trying to advance.”
The teams have alternated wins and losses through the first five games, and if that trend holds, then it’s the Pacers’ turn to prevail tonight and send the series back to Miami for a winner-goes-to-the-finals Game 7 on Monday night.
If the Heat — who have won each of their last six potential series-closeout games, including two in the 2011 and 2012 East finals — win, then the championship round against the San Antonio Spurs will begin in Miami on Thursday.
“You can’t start thinking about opening up the invitation,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s over there. You can’t even think about that.”
The Pacers saw their season end a year ago on their home floor, at Miami’s hand, in Game 6 of a second-round series. So Indiana’s biggest source of motivation on Saturday may be the desire to avoid the indignity of watching Miami advance in Indianapolis for a second straight season.
“Game 6 will really determine how much we’ve grown, because we’ve been in the same ditch, I guess, being in the same predicament,” Pacers star Paul George said. “Going 2-2, losing in Miami, then coming back home and losing at home. So we’ll see where we’re at. We’ve done well all year, especially in the postseason, dealing with adversity and overcoming games where we didn’t play as well as we wanted.”
The shirts in Indiana say “Gold Swagger” for a reason. Even down 3-2 against a team that hasn’t lost back-to-back games since early January, the Pacers still have plenty of confidence, and it starts with a coach who came into the series insisting his club had genuine belief that it could knock off the champions.
“It’s not just false talk,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said.
“There’s a reason I’m confident. I like to tell these guys that I’m not an optimist. That’s what my image is. I’m a realist. And when I look around at what I see in the room when I’m talking to this team, and what I see on the court, and the level of execution that we’re capable of ... it gives me real confidence in this basketball team. Our guys understand it’s not just happy talk.”
Adjustments were made by both sides before today, of course. But at this point, it’s more than likely that the sides are out of ways to tactically surprise one another.
“It’s about effort,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. “It’s about who wants it more, who wants to get that offensive rebound, who wants to get that blocked shot, who wants to get the loose ball. We just have to come out with more determination. It’s not anything the coaches can tell us, it’s about what’s in here. It’s lose or go home right now.”
Sometimes, it’s not even about what happens on the court.
The Heat were losing 44-40 at halftime on Thursday in Game 5, when veteran Juwan Howard — who appeared in seven games for all of 51 minutes this season after being re-signed by Miami — went on a shouting spree in the locker room. James followed that up with a fiery, slightly profane speech of his own, and Miami went on a 30-10 run not long afterward that served as a springboard to victory.
“His purity, respect level, the credibility that he has, it resonates with our guys and specifically it resonates with the guys in the locker room,” Spoelstra said of Howard. “They hear what he says. It means something. And it was raw communication. We’re at that point right now where it has to be real, has to be raw, has to be eye-to-eye. These are desperate times. There’s no looking back. It’s either us or them.”
James said Friday that he couldn’t even remember specifics of some things he had yelled the previous night.
“Absolutely not,” James said. “You just let the game speak for itself, I guess.”
Vogel said he expects that reserve forward Tyler Hansbrough, who sprained an ankle in the second half of Game 5, will be available on Saturday. Andersen, the backup big man who is 15 for 15 from the floor in the series and has made his last 18 shots overall, was suspended Friday night for shoving Hansbrough twice in the second quarter, then not backing away quickly enough for a referee who stepped in.
Dwyane Wade’s aching right knee is still limiting him and Chris Bosh’s numbers are nowhere near what the Heat would want right now, so the defending champions aren’t exactly at their best, either. Still, the Pacers know that the challenge they’re facing now — needing to go 2-0 against Miami in a three-day span to get to the finals — is enormous.
“One game at a time,” George said. “We have to come home and play a good game. Everybody is going to have to step up and play a huge role. I know in the back of their mind they want to get the job done and be finished. So we’re going to have to come out and bring it.”
Or else, the Heat will be finals-bound, one more time.
“The close-out game,” Heat forward Shane Battier said, “is always the toughest.”