Goal or not, Heat back atop East

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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.

There was a different take on it after beating Indiana to earn a split of the four-game season series.

"It's not as big as everyone wanted to make it," James said. "For us, it's big because we wanted to play better than we did on that last trip in Memphis. In that sense, it's been a while since we put together a 48-minute game. Tonight, we were as close to 48 minutes as possible."

The Heat will now have less than 24 hours to show just how motivated they are to maintain their grip on the top spot in the East and the right to host a Game 7 in Miami -- should it come to that -- through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Heat benefited from that luxury last season when they beat the Pacers in Game 7 of the conference finals, then went on to win Games 6 and 7 at home against the  San Antonio Spurs to win their second consecutive championship.

"We've played a lot of meaningful games," James said. "This is not biggest game we've played in our four years together. I think it's always great to have competitive games like this in the regular season, but we've played in Game 7 in the Finals before, so it doesn't get no bigger than that."

The Heat face the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday on the second night of a back-to-back set. It's a matchup that could also serve as a potential preview of the first-round playoff series, with the Heat holding the No. 1 seed and the Hawks trying to hold off the New York Knicks for the No. 8 spot.

Before Friday's game, James and the Heat talked about how entering the playoffs as healthy as possible registers as a far bigger priority than battling the Pacers for the East's top seed. Those goals didn't have to be mutually exclusive. While Wade's status remains uncertain for the last three games of the regular season, the Heat got Udonis Haslem back from a two-game absence with a stomach virus and also saw Chris Andersen return after missing recent games with knee and back soreness.

What Friday's win revealed is that pushing the Pacers for the No. 1 seed and getting healthy for next week's opening round of the playoffs no longer has to be an either/or scenario. After playing the Hawks, the Heat finish the season at Washington on Monday and at home Wednesday against Philadelphia.

"I would love to see us play with this intensity to our identity [Saturday] night as well," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "If we do that, the results seem to take care of themselves."

Until then, Miami is perfectly fine just allowing the playoff picture to play out.

The Heat have left the seed talk to the Pacers all season long.

And they see no reason to change that approach now.

"When you're playing the best team in the East at that time, you want to make sure you play as best as possible," Heat center Chris Bosh said. "We have been talking about this 1-seed too much for too long. I'm just looking forward to [Saturday] ... and we'll worry about those things later."

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