The Miami Heat narrowly lost to the Indiana Pacers last night in what felt like the first real playoff preview of the 2013-2014 NBA season, not simply because the two teams are likely to meet in the Eastern Conference finals, but because they both played with all the intensity that the last few playoff series between the two have become known for – that is, at least when it came to the players who were active for the evening.
It wouldn’t be a Heat game in March without at least one core player being held out for rest, as the team’s aging roster is kept fresh ahead of the postseason. While Dwayne Wade has sat out roughly every third game this year, he did in fact start against the Pacers. The shooting guard with whom he typically splits time, Ray Allen, was the one who was deactivated for the game. But while Wade played starter minutes, it was LeBron James who did the bulk of the heavy lifting.
On a night when physical play turned verge on all-out altercation all evening, Wade’s biggest contribution may have been getting sufficiently under Lance Stephenson’s skin such that the latter was ultimately ejected for taunting. At another point in the evening, James was seen plugging his nose to stop the bleeding after receiving a hard foul. But the most controversial moment of the evening game when James himself was called for a flagrant foul, which he protested unsuccessfully.
Heat fans may be left with sufficient room to claim that the game was stolen away from their team. While the free throws and possession awarded the Pacers on LeBron’s flagrant foul was questionable, a call made on Wade was indisputably wrong. He took a three point shot while landing out of bounds, and while replay revealed that he did indeed get the shot off before his foot hit the ground, the refs waved it off. Those three points would have been enough to reverse the outcome of the one-point Indiana victory.
But while the outcome did help the Pacers in standings for playoff seeding, both teams have turned in subpar months of March overall, with neither showing any particular inspiration toward clinching the number one seed. The manner in which both teams came alive and played at a near-playoff intensity last night may end up marking the de facto beginning of the playoff race as the NBA calendar turns to April.