MIAMI (AP) – A few minutes before the Miami-Indiana series begins Sunday afternoon, NBA Commissioner David Stern will hit the court to present Heat forward LeBron James with the league’s MVP award for a third time.
If the scene goes as Dwyane Wade expects, the moment will be more about motivation than culmination for James.
“His goal is to be the best player at the end of the season,” Wade said. “But if he can pick up a little history along the way, I don’t think he’s mad about that at all.”
So the MVP trophy that was awarded Saturday and will be repeated for ceremony’s sake Sunday will be put away, and the chase for another – the one presented to the NBA champions – resumes for the Heat.
The reigning Eastern Conference champions open a second-round series at home against the Pacers, who won the last meeting between the clubs in the regular season after losing the first three matchups.
Some of the time leading up to this series was dominated by talk of how the Pacers insist the Heat flop their way into calls from referees, but the verbal jousting never really took off. The NBA noticed, however, fining Indiana coach Frank Vogel $15,000 on Saturday for “comments about how the referees should officiate the Pacers’ upcoming series with the Heat,” the league said.
And while perceptions might be that the Heat are overwhelming favorites, it certainly bears noting that Miami’s 46 wins were fourth-best in the NBA during the regular season – while Indiana’s 42 wins were fifth-best, suggesting there might not be as big a gap between the clubs as some might think.
“I feel great,” Vogel said Saturday before his team headed to Miami, and a few hours before the fine was announced. “You never know how it’s going to go once you get out there, but we’re as prepared as we have been for any game this year and I feel good about what we can do.”
He should, given the way his club has been playing of late.
Since April 1, counting both regular-season and playoff games, Indiana is 16-4 – the second-best record in the NBA over that span, trailing only San Antonio’s 18-2 mark. The Pacers are scoring nearly 101 points on average in their last 20 games, sixth-best in the league entering Saturday’s play.
In short, the Pacers – who beat Miami 105-90 in their last meeting March 26 – got hot at the right time.
“I think this is what we all live for,” Pacers forward Danny Granger said. “Big stage, big moment, playing a team that everybody talks about. It’s definitely the place you want to be. … I don’t know if it’s about respect. It’s about basketball. It’s about finding out who’s the better team. We’re a good team. They’re a good team. It’s going to be a battle.”
Miami doesn’t disagree with that assessment.
“They’re a much different team in the last six weeks,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We feel we are, too. Watching some of our film from those last two games (against Indiana), it’s not really recognizable. Our energy level at that period of time, but also how we were playing offensively – there’s a lot of different things from our standpoint.”
It will be a different series for the Heat than the first-rounder with the New York Knicks was, for a lot of reasons. Indiana’s starting front line of Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert stands 6-foot-9, 6-9 and 7-2, respectively.
In the teams’ last matchup, Indiana outrebounded Miami 49-33, with those three players doing much of the damage. Not surprisingly, rebounding has been a point of emphasis in Miami’s practices leading up to this series.
“It’s going to be a more physical series,” said Miami’s Chris Bosh, who will see time at both power forward and center in the series. “There will be a lot of fouls drawn, but we can’t worry about foul trouble. Of course, we can’t just foul them. Free throws are a huge part of their offensive efficiency. So we’re going to have to have a fine balance between both. We’ll have to use our fouls wisely but try not to foul in the act of shooting.”
Oddly, one of the reasons Wade feels like Miami should be in position to win this Sunday is because it lost last Sunday.
The Heat had a chance to sweep the Knicks in Game 4 of the first-round series, but Wade missed a wild shot at the buzzer and New York extended the matchup with a two-point win. Miami closed it out at home on Wednesday night.
Obviously, Miami would have preferred to win that game and sweep the series. But Wade says the benefit to playing a fifth game in that series was that Miami didn’t have to sit around for a week and wait for the second round. The Heat were off Thursday, practiced Friday and Saturday, and Wade figures they’ll still be sharp for Game 1 against the Pacers.
“The best thing for us was to keep playing and stay in our rhythm,” Wade said. “You want to kind of stay in the flow of things. And we’re ready to get back out there. It’s going to be a special day, an opportunity to share what LeBron and this team has worked for all year long with our fans before the game and we’ll go from there.”
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