Goal or not, Heat back atop East


MIAMI --  LeBron James had one complaint about the way he played Friday in a comfortable victory against the Indiana Pacers that pushed the Miami Heat back into first place in the conference standings with three games left in the regular season.

"I definitely wanted to have more than one assist," James said.

Maybe he did.

But there was absolutely nothing passive about James' approach to what set up as the most pivotal game of the Heat's season. For as much as James and the Heat attempted -- before and after the result -- to downplay the significance of Friday's 98-86 win, their actions told a different story.

Consider the evidence.

James was almost uncharacteristically aggressive from the outset and scored 10 of the Heat's first 12 points on a night when Dwyane Wade missed his ninth consecutive game and 28th overall this season. And James capped his night by taking complete joy in isolating himself against rugged Pacers forward David West in the final minutes and drawing a sixth foul to disqualify him from the game.

Between that start and finish for James, the Heat completely dismantled the team that's been their biggest nemesis in the Eastern Conference for the past two seasons. A game after Pacers coach Frank Vogel gave his struggling starting five the night off during a win in Milwaukee, that same unit responded with essentially a collective no-show against the Heat.

Point guard George Hill was held scoreless and didn't even attempt a shot in 33 minutes.

Shooting guard Lance Stephenson and small forward Paul George combined to commit eight of the 16 turnovers that Miami converted into 20 points, with most of the damage inflicted during a 16-0 spurt early in the third quarter that put the Heat in control of the game.

West was frustrated by foul trouble most of the night, and Roy Hibbert, who has been a 7-foot-2 tower of terror for Miami in recent encounters, was diminished to five points and one rebound in 34 minutes. Perhaps the biggest dagger the Heat delivered to Indiana's fragile psyche was the way they simply dismissed what transpired Friday as sort of just another night of work.

The Heat's message was that this wasn't personal against the Pacers and that there wasn't necessarily any additional motivation to overtake them for the No. 1 seed and the right to own home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs. Miami, which moved a half-game ahead of Indiana in the standings and controls its own destiny, wanted to get back to playing Heat basketball.

Three losses in their previous four games, including setbacks on consecutive nights to Brooklyn and Memphis, sent the Heat into Friday's showdown with the Pacers desperate to emerge from a funk.

"Coming off two losses, we definitely wanted to play better basketball, being back on our home floor versus a very, very good team," said James, who finished with 36 points in 35 minutes against Indiana. "And this was a good response."

James then quickly tempered his response and placed the game in perspective when he was asked to describe how meaningful it was for the Heat to get a big win as they prepare for the playoffs. Two days earlier, in the aftermath of Wednesday's loss in Memphis, James said facing the Pacers on Friday with first place at stake was "going to feel like a Game 7" in the postseason.

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