Heat one win away
By Ira Winderman
MIAMI -- One win away. One win from their special June place. One win from becoming the first team to appear in four consecutive NBA Finals since the Boston Celtics did it in it from 1984 to 1987.
Yes, work remains even after the Monday night 102-90 victory over the Indiana Pacers at AmericanAirlines Arena that pushed the Miami Heat to a 3-1 lead in these best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
But the momentum in this series is headed in only one direction as the teams head off for Wednesday's Game 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"Certainly, it was much more to how we want to play, and the start helped," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Guys were expending a lot of energy to get after it."
Getting the fast start they had lacked in the series' previous three games, reawakened by the graceful arc of successful Chris Bosh jumpers, the Heat created ample energy on a night sidelined center Chris Andersen was unable to provide his unique Birdman fervor.
"We played the game we wanted to play, from beginning to end, with the pressure and everything," Bosh said.
With LeBron James scoring 32, Bosh adding 25 and Dwyane Wade 15, the Heat had more than enough offense on a night Pacers guard Lance Stephenson and Indiana center Roy Hibbert had negligible contributions, with one point over the first three periods, a Stephenson free throw with 4:34 left in the third.
Stephenson's first basket of the night came with 5:32 left in the game, with the Pacers down 18, going on to close with nine points.
Hibbert did not score, missing all four of his shots, his fourth scoreless game this postseason.
"He got some touch fouls that put him on the bench, and he didn't get in a rhythm," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said of Hibbert.
Said Hibbert of only getting four shots, "I can only control what I can control."
The Pacers exited angered by the disparity at the foul line, where the Heat shot 30 of 34, the Pacers 11 of 17.
"Maybe this was just home cooking," said forward Paul George, who led Indiana with 23 points. "Looking at the stat sheet, we outplayed them. I thought we outplayed them tonight."
Forward David West, who added 20 points and 12 rebounds, agreed.
"I thought we were as aggressive as we've been," he said.
Having spent the previous two days trying to spark verbal exchanges with James, Stephenson at the finish said, "I have no regrets. I can take the heat. I can take the fire."
But George noted afterward, "Sometimes you've got to watch what you say."
Vogel appreciated his team's effort.
"I wasn't disappointed in our fight," Vogel said. "I was disappointed in our result."
Bosh's early breakout triggered what would follow.
"The cool thing about it, his teammates were real aggressive to try to get him going," said Spoelstra, with Bosh 7 of 12 from the field and 3 of 5 on 3-pointers.
Bosh said he felt a freedom after his early conversions.
"I think sometimes it's all about simplifying everything and just getting back to the basics," he said. "As a scorer, you always want to see your first shot go in."
James, who added 10 rebounds, scored his points as a result of his aggression.
"I don't know if I made a play call for him, maybe one post up," Spoelstra said, "but the rest of it was in context of what we do."
What the Heat did largely proved overwhelming.
"The best offensive team in the NBA, they've got great weapons," Vogel said. "They're very difficult to guard.
"We got to go home in Game 5 and protect our homecourt."
The Heat pushed their lead to 23 in the fourth quarter, before a 13-1 Indiana run allowed them to close within 95-84 on a too-little, too-late rally.
Teams that lead a best-of-seven series 3-1 have gone on to win the series 96.4 percent of the time. The last time a team recovered from a 3-1 deficit was the 2006 Phoenix suns against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Heat are 7-0 in series during their Big Three era when holding a 3-1 series lead.
The victory extended the Heat's home playoff winning streak to 10, dating to last season's NBA Finals, tying the franchise record set from 2010 to '11.
A Game 6, if necessary, would be Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena, with the Pacers now 1-8 in their last nine visits over the past two seasons.
The Pacers entered without a three-game playoff losing streak since the 2012 conference semifinals against the Heat, when they lost Games 4, 5 and 6. Now they have to win three in a row from the Heat to survive.
The Pacers entered 7-0 over the past two postseasons in games when trailing in a series, including 3-0 against the Heat.
The winner of this series plays in the NBA Finals against the winner of the Western Conference finals that the San Antonio Spurs lead 2-1 going into Tuesday's road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Heat defeated the Spurs 4-3 in last season's Finals for their second consecutive championship.
Spoelstra was forced to alter his lineup, with Andersen out with a thigh bruise sustained in Saturday's Game 3.
"Those injuries are tricky," Spoelstra said. "He wanted to fight through it, but his range of motion in his thigh isn't great right now."
In order to have Udonis Haslem as the first center off the bench, Spoelstra started Rashard Lewis at power forward in place of Haslem. It was Lewis' first start since Jan. 10 and his first playoff start since May 29, 2010.
"Again, I loved his stat line," Spoelstra said of Lewis. "I get a kick out of it . . . zeros all the way across the board, and he's a plus 14."
Lewis actually had three rebounds, but was scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting, the Heat nonetheless outscoring the Pacers by 14 when he was on the court during his 26 minutes.