MIAMI — Standing on the cusp of the NBA Finals has tended to agree with the Miami Heat in each of the past 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 a 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 will visit the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night, 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, it’s the Pacers’ turn to prevail Saturday and send the series back to Miami for a winner-goes-to-the-Finals Game 7 on Monday night.
If the Heat — which has won each of its past six potential closeout games, including two in the 2011 and ’12 East finals — win, then the championship round against the San Antonio Spurs will begin Thursday in Miami.
“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 Saturday may be the desire to avoid the indignity of watching Miami advance 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. “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 will be made by both sides before Saturday. But at this point, it’s more than likely that the sides are out of ways to tactically surprise each other.
A play here, a play there, that might be the difference. And that sort of thinking is shared by both sides.
“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. ... It’s lose or go home right now.”
Miami forward Chris Andersen was suspended for Game 6 after his altercation with Indiana’s Tyler Hansbrough in Game 5.
Also Friday, the NBA upgraded Andersen’s foul to a Flagrant 2, which would have meant an automatic ejection had it been called at the time.
Andersen knocked Hansbrough to the floor from behind with 9:02 left in the second quarter, then shoved him backward after Hansbrough got up. The NBA added that Andersen “resisted efforts to bring the altercation to an end.”