Fighting for East top spot
MIAMI -- For the last six weeks, Indiana and Miami haven’t exactly looked like NBA title contenders.
The Heat have lost 11 of their last 21 games.
The Pacers, they’ve dropped 12 of their last 20.
And both teams are still way ahead of everyone else in the Eastern Conference standings. They’ll meet Friday to decide who moves a giant step closer to having the No. 1 seed on their half of the NBA playoff bracket, Indiana (54-25) entering with a half-game lead over Miami (53-25).
"It’s going to be intense," Heat forward Chris Bosh said. "It’s going to be a hard-fought game. There’s something at stake. It’ll pretty much be the playoffs and I think it’ll be a great atmosphere. ... We expect them at their best. Everybody we play, we expect them at their best because that’s what we get."
Neither team will clinch the top seed Friday but the winner gets full control. Indiana would beat Miami in tiebreakers if necessary, so the Pacers would lower their magic number for the East top seed to one with a victory. The Heat would move a half-game ahead if they win, plus could deal Indiana another blow in a wild week.
The Pacers got embarrassed at home by Atlanta on Sunday, which prompted coach Frank Vogel to sit his starting five out of the entirety of Indiana’s game Wednesday at Milwaukee. The Pacers’ reserves beat the NBA’s worst team 104-102, and that combined with Miami’s loss at Memphis sent Indiana back atop the East.
"It’s huge for us," said Pacers guard Chris Copeland, who hit the game-winner against Milwaukee. "Obviously it gives some of our banged-up starters an opportunity to rest and heal up. It’s big for our confidence, for the second unit. This is going to take 15 guys to make a run at this thing."
It’s not like either team needs a reason to get up for an Indiana-Miami meeting.
Emotions run high whenever these teams play and the Heat needed seven games to beat Indiana in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. Hosting potential Game 7’s is a perk that comes with holding the No. 1 seed, though not everyone in this series finds that essential.
"It’s a great luxury," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "That’s all it is -- a luxury. It’s not a necessity. You want to be playing well, and you want to be healthy."
And the Heat are not.
Dwyane Wade has missed the last eight games with a hamstring injury that started as a cramp late in the last Miami-Indiana matchup on March 26. Greg Oden’s back spasms have kept him off the floor since that night. Udonis Haslem -- vital to Miami’s plans for defending Indiana center Roy Hibbert -- caught a flu bug, and Chris Andersen has a sore knee.
It’s unknown if any of them will play Friday.
"It’s not controlling our destiny about the No. 1 seed," Miami star LeBron James said. "We want to get healthy. That’s all that we care about, going into the postseason healthy. ... Once everyone comes back, then we can get everything rolling."
The only way Indiana and Miami could play this year after Friday would be in an East finals rematch.
"The way it’s set up," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, "I’m sure that’s the way people wanted it to be."
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