Posted May 26 2012 3:09PM
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Boston Celtics appear to be too old and creaky. The Philadelphia 76ers, precocious and premature. The New York Knicks? Clearly not ready for prime time, extinguished properly in five games.
The Indiana Pacers, of all the opponents the Miami Heat have faced or still might face in the NBA's Eastern Conference side of the playoffs, were just right in terms of posing problems and putting the defending conference champions to the test. Gold Swagger? Skip the Fieldhouse slogan. The Pacers were the team the Heat wanted and needed if they were going to get back to The Finals.
So much is setting up nicely for the Heat at the moment: They earned a few days of rest by eliminating the Pacers in six games, definitely more of a breather than their eventual foe -- Boston or Philadelphia -- in the East finals that begin Monday in Miami. Power forward Chris Bosh, who went down with an abdominal strain midway through Game 1, has been healing for two weeks and, realistically, could take another two weeks with the Heat still favored to push through either the Celtics or the Sixers.
Even amid whispers that Bosh might not return at all this postseason, that his injury is more severe or his recuperation more pokey than Heat coaches and teammates want to let on, there is the happy news in Heatland that everything else is falling into place.
Udonis Haslem is done with his one-game suspensions and Dexter Whatshisname soon enough will be available after his three-gamer. Dwyane Wade doesn't look "old" old anymore -- he's more "vintage." LeBron James averaged 30.0 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists against Indiana, was MVP relentless start to finish and tried a fourth quarter on for size Thursday, scoring six points in a minute to snuff Indiana's last late gasp.
Best of all for Miami, its role players have begun to step up in surgical fashion. None of them flashy or across 48 minutes, but in spurts, for stretches, at the most opportune times. Which is what their jobs were when they signed on and how the blueprint was drawn when this three-stars-and-supporting-cast roster was built.
In Game 4, it was Haslem late, hitting mid-range jump shots from seams opened by Wade and James and their two-man, 70-point barrage. In Game 5, it was Shane Battier early, then again after halftime, ending the Heat's drought from 3-point range by hitting 4 of 5; his 13 points paled next to the Big Two's combined 58, perhaps, but they would have topped anyone on Indiana's half of the boxscore.
Then on Thursday, in Game 6, it was Mike Miller, the veteran swingman now known as a baling wire-and-duct tape bundle of owwies. Painful to watch as he drags himself around the floor, Miller was precise with his shots, hitting four 3-pointers, again thriving in the space created by Wade's remarkable first half (26 of his 41 points) and James' 28-7-6 performance.
There were others in the clincher: Center Joel Anthony good for five points, three rebounds and two blocks, Mario Chalmers with 15 points. What was obvious as the Heat players dressed in a calm visitors' dressing room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, their series work complete, was that they have adjusted to Bosh's absence and -- while still saying all the right things about their hurting pal -- are moving on.
"You can't be a championship team unless you're a true team," Battier said afterward. "For as much fanfare as LeBron, Dwyane and Chris get, everyone in this locker room knows we need a total team effort. So when we get those contributions, those are contributions other teams aren't counting on. And those make us tough to beat."
The Pacers would so load up on Wade and James that Battier, Chalmers and Miller repeatedly found themselves 10 or 15 feet from the rim with no white jerseys close. Sometimes Indiana would rotate in time, sometimes it wouldn't. Whenever the Pacers adjusted, the two Dobermans romped some more.
"When we came here, it's not like we forgot how to play basketball," Miller said. "When we get opportunities, we've got to help ... There are times we've been really good at it and times we've been poor."
Wade scored 99 points in the final three games against the Pacers, all Miami victories. James scored 98. That meant the other 114 of their 311 total came from other sources, none of them Bosh, and that's about the ratio the Heat needs now: A third, a third and a third.
Meanwhile the Pacers -- the deeper team -- scored 269 on their slide into the offseason. That's the other part of Miami's readiness for what comes next: Its defense is back to its stingy self. The Heat held the Pacers to 40.6 percent shooting in the series and 87.8 points. Miami got outrebounded but only barely (308-298) without Bosh and, for one game, Haslem. It choked off Indiana's acknowledged advantage inside by limiting Roy Hibbert and David West to a total of 36 points in Games 4 and 5 and, while West got loose for 24 Thursday, the Heat held Hibbert to a mere eight shots.
Then there were the turnovers, 22 by Indiana in Game 6 as it threw the ball around like Ricky (Wild Thing) Vaughn and 96 in the six games (to 98 assists).
"People may have questioned our depth," Chalmers said. "But we've got a lot of depth. We've got the two best attackers in the game and we've got some of the best shooters in the game."
Said Wade: "We understand we couldn't do things without their help."
There has been a Downton Abbey feel to this team since it was built 22 months ago, the swells upstairs, the workers downstairs. What makes the house hum is when the folks below fill their roles.
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