The Pacers have been struggling mightily as of late, but their stated season-long goal of finishing the regular season with the best record in the East was still within reach of being accomplished.
Had Indiana won in Miami on Friday, the team would have been on the verge of wrapping that up with only a few games left. But the top spot is now up for grabs after the Heat scored a convincing 98-86 victory, one that put them a game up in the loss column on Indiana for first place in the Conference standings.
Miami was without Dwyane Wade once again, as the team continues to proceed cautiously with him before the postseason begins. It didn’t matter, however, because LeBron James was in attack mode from the very start, scoring 10 of his team’s first 12 points and finishing with a game-high of 36 on 11-of-20 shooting.
Indiana trailed by just three at halftime, but Miami used a 20-2 run to blow things open at the start of the third, as the Pacers went six minutes before making their first field goal of the second half.
When Indiana pushed the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals a season ago, Roy Hibbert was a big reason why. He averaged better than 22 points per game in that series, but managed just five points and one rebound on 2-of-7 shooting in 34 minutes of action in this one.
Hibbert’s inside presence on both ends of the floor had historically been a matchup nightmare for the Heat; with him being reduced to a non-factor, the Pacers simply aren’t well enough equipped to deal with the problems this Heat team poses.
Miami has three games left — at Atlanta, at Washington, and home against the Sixers. Indiana, meanwhile, hosts the Thunder on Sunday before ending the season on Wednesday against the Magic.
The Heat seem to be in the driver’s seat with regards to securing home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Pacers, however, appear to have much bigger issues that still need to be sorted out.