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 consecutive 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 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 Most Valuable Player LeBron James said on 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 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 past 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 had their season end a year ago on their home floor, against the Heat, in Game 6 of a second-round series. So the Pacers’ biggest source of motivation might be the desire to avoid the indignity of watching the Heat advance in Indianapolis for a second consecutive 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 behind 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,” Pacers 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, of course. But at this point, it’s more than likely that the sides are out of ways to tactically surprise one another.
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. 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 the Heat — went on a shouting spree in the locker room.
James followed that up with a fiery, slightly profane speech of his own, and the Heat 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.”