Pacers edge Heat in showdown of East’s top teams

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The Pacers and the Heat haven’t been playing anywhere near their best basketball as of late, and whether that’s a product of late-season malaise or simply a combination of fatigue and attrition remains to be seen.

Their matchup on Wednesday was largely more of the same, before the fourth quarter began and the competitive fire began to burn until we got an exciting finish that rivaled those that we witnessed during last year’s playoffs.

It was Indiana that managed to execute enough down the stretch to come away with the 84-83 victory, one whose score reflected just how difficult it was for either team to get what they wanted offensively.

LeBron James poured in 38 of his team’s points, and Dwyane Wade was the only other Miami player to finish in double figures. Greg Oden started the game to try to slow Roy Hibbert, but managed to stay on the court for just over six minutes as the Pacers wisely attacked him from the opening tip.

Roy Hibbert scored at will with Oden on the floor, putting in 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the game’s first 12 minutes. Udonis Haslem started the second half in Oden’s place, and logged an unusual 20-plus minutes in the rotation.

The game was largely indicative of the teams’ lackluster play as of late, until the fourth quarter when things took on a bit of a playoff-level intensity.

Lance Stephenson managed to get himself ejected with a little over five minutes to play after a minor talking incident with Wade, but only because it was his second technical of the game. LeBron received a rare flagrant offensive foul for delivering an elbow to Hibbert on a drive to the basket in the fourth, but that was mainly the referees doing everything possible to keep the peace.

Miami had a chance to win it on the final possession, trailing by one with two seconds remaining. The Heat drew up a brilliant play to get an open look, one that saw the ball inbounded to LeBron before he passed to an open Chris Bosh for the game-winning attempt.

Bosh missed the hurried look from 22 feet out, however, and the Pacers came away with the win.

The final 12 minutes were reminiscent of last year’s epic Conference Finals series between these same teams, but honestly, neither is in a place where it can climb to that level of execution. The Pacers and the Heat both have plenty of issues that need to be sorted out before their playoff rematch; one that is not only likely, but is widely expected.

The Heat and the Pacers will play once more before the regular season is finished — April 11 in Miami, just five days before the regular season is finished. Both teams have lots of work to do before then to prepare for the playoff push, but what this game showed is that when these teams battle, they raise their collective level of performance — primarily, because they understand what’s ultimately at stake.