1. For Heat-Pacers, Stakes Keep Getting Higher
MIAMI -- Paul George looked straight at veteran official Joey Crawford and screamed "that's bulls---" as Indiana Pacers teammate David West stomped past him in a rage, shaking his head as he headed to the locker room.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat strutted off the floor as their crowd yelled in full throat, that energy having fed them on a 12-2 run for a rather emotional charge to win from behind.
The Heat's 97-94 victory Wednesday was a classic home win that's seen regularly in the NBA. The home team gets a late run as the visitors freeze up a little under the noise and the pressure. The visitor's margin for error shrinks and they start to rely on getting whistles as a semi-crutch. But momentum and human nature work against them. It's right there in the script.
It was the exact reminder of why these Heat-Pacers games are so important in the regular season, because whoever gets home court in a potential playoff series between these teams might end up as the winner of the whole thing.
Yes, there's a long way between now and then, and once you get in a playoff series there's an untold number of variables. But, whoa, is the edge of starting and finishing on your home floor awfully important when it's close. And the Heat and Pacers are close, last season's seven-game series and the two tight meetings in the past eight days proving that.
George was furious LeBron James wasn't called for a foul as James moved into him on a potential tying 3-pointer in the final seconds.
"I thought it was a foul," George said. "Nothing was called. We lost the game."
George probably did expect the call, because in Game 1 of the conference finals last season he got a foul called on Dwyane Wade in the last seconds of overtime on a 3-point attempt. He made all three to give the Pacers the lead. But James ended up winning it with a buzzer-beater.
Last month, George drew a foul on a 3-pointer from Iman Shumpert that forced overtime at a game in New York that Indiana eventually won.
Both those games were on the road. By the law of averages, George might go another five years before he gets another call like that on a game-deciding 3-point attempt. Bottom line, though: Never count on getting a foul on the road. And while the Pacers were huffing and puffing about it, it was their mistakes and how the Heat exploited them in that run to close that game -- not a call or two -- that doomed Indiana.
The Pacers have been so vocal about the need to finish ahead of the Heat in the standings -- "We look at it as if we're playing the Heat every night because we expect them to win every night and we've got to win to keep ahead of them," Pacers center Roy Hibbert said -- they've done what seemed impossible.
They actually have drawn the Heat into the fray at a time when they usually are still in their version of an extended training camp. Last year, it basically took an act of Congress, or at least a presidential visit, for the Heat to get very excited about anything before mid-January.
Yet all of the Pacers' talk about their obsession with the top seed had James going through 48 hours of constant treatment on his mildly sprained ankle because, he said, "I would hate to sit this one out."
There is no opponent in the league other than the Pacers that James would've been so determined to play a regular-season game against in mid-December. It would've been a no-brainer game off for James against any other team in the league right now.
After James had 24 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists on that ankle, he declared this about a game before Christmas Day had even arrived: "It's the type of win that we needed and we wanted."
Wade, meanwhile, called in his personal trainer Tim Grover from Chicago following the Heat's loss in Indiana last week so he could do extra workouts. He has responded with his best three-game run of the season, culminating in a 32-point showing Wednesday that featured him looking as healthy as he has since the Heat's 27-game win streak last season.
These are acts of a team that cares about playoff seeding from a team that typically doesn't reveal that it really cares about anything months before the payoff is even due.
It even brought out some classic Heat bench drama, as James leapt out of his seat to scream at Mario Chalmers during a huddle in the third quarter. The Pacers had a double-digit lead at the time and a defensive miscommunication had given George a free 3-point look that he buried.
The video was striking, as Chalmers stood over James, responding to the blame James had clearly assigned him just as he fired up out of a chair with the apparent intention of going at Chalmers' chest. Udonis Haslem grabbed James' arm and pulled him back, which was only the second most impressive reaction in the moment. The other was that Chalmers seemed not to flinch when one of the most intimidating frames in the world charged at him.
"In the heat of the moment, you don't want to be caught sitting down," is how Chalmers described the scene after the game while wearing a T-shirt that read "Brotherhood."
James, who famously yells at Chalmers on a regular basis, tried to defuse the matter by apologizing to Chalmers on the court a few minutes later. Then he did so formally afterward, saying, "I was wrong, I told him that and we moved forward."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra spun it positively, saying he liked the communication and the fire and such. It was pretty typical for Spoelstra in these situations, which seem to happen to the Heat now and again.
"I'm just glad it wasn't me and Spo this time, you guys would've blown it up even more," Wade said.
What he was referring to, a Wade-Spoelstra tiff, took place in Indiana during a timeout two seasons ago, but it was during the playoffs. It seems the Pacers' challenge even has the Heat's bench confrontations on a postseason scale for these high-value games.
The Pacers had a 15-point lead in the second half despite Hibbert being in foul trouble all night and their struggles to deal with Wade and James. George had another fantastic effort with 25 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists as he again played James to a relative draw and did so while not coming out of the game for a break in the second half.
But the Heat made a key lineup change, playing without a point guard for the stretch run and playing with a bigger lineup that they hadn't used much this season. Ray Allen got four rebounds in the fourth quarter and hit a 3-pointer that essentially acted as the game-winning shot.
The Pacers didn't help themselves with late-game execution, regardless of how they felt about not getting a needed call.
"They stole the game from us," said West, who had 23 points. "We're not in the business of moral victories. They just got us in the end."
The Heat and Pacers are way, way past the moral stage. James and Lance Stephenson and West and Shane Battier all renewed their own personal rivalries that were born in the past two playoff series with a series of technical fouls and quasi-cheap shots.
The season series is now even at 1-1 and the next meeting isn't until late March. The Pacers' lead in the standings, which was four games recently, is now down to one. And if you think that all seems a little trivial so early in the season, well, just ask James about the matter.
"It's kind of sad we don't play them for three months; this [rivalry is] a really, really good thing," James said. "They bring out the best in us and we try to bring out the best in them. It was fun for the last eight days and now we get on with the rest of our season."
2. Around The Association
MVP: Carmelo Anthony. After roughly five quarters of ineffectual isolations and errant jumpers, Melo came up aces when the Knicks needed him most, scoring eight straight points late in the second overtime to give his team a much-needed -- if certifiably ugly -- road win.
Defining moment: Late in the first overtime, Tyson Chandler collected a Melo misfire and, with the shot clock reset, kicked it out to an open Andrea Bargnani, who let fly from the right wing and missed. The Knicks were up two.
That was ... performance art. Heading into tonight's game, every one of the Knicks' 17 losses was its own unique masterpiece -- a run of avant garde brilliance punctuated by Monday's epic last-second letdown against the Wizards. The encore: perhaps the most admirable attempt ever of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
MVP: Go ahead and include Trey Burke in the discussion for Rookie of the Year after tonight's performance. His career-high 30 points was the most points scored by a rookie this season.
LVP: It was a forgettable game for Victor Oladipo, who shot 1-for-12 from the floor. He struggled to generate offense for himself all night long. His jump shot was off and he couldn't convert at the rim, either.
Defining moment: With the Magic trailing 84-82 with 10 seconds left, Jameer Nelson missed a layup that would have tied the game. Credit goes to Derrick Favors for altering the shot just enough with his outstretched arm.
MVP: Kemba Walker. While Al Jefferson shouldered some scoring load late and Walker missed two late freebies to make it a bit too close, his 29 points on just 18 shots were the difference.
That was ... close. They almost made us watch a second overtime period. After Walker missed a pair of free throws and DeMar DeRozan split a pair, it looked like double free basketball.
Defining moment: With one second remaining on the clock in overtime, Kemba Walker broke free on the inbounds play and nailed a super-clutch jumper to win the game. It doesn't get more defining than that.
MVP: Al Horford had a solid all-around night, contributing 25 points, 10 boards, five dimes and four blocks. It was the third 25-10-5 night of Horford's career.
X factor: Kyle Korver was on fire, hitting 8-of-10 from downtown. He had a season-high 28 points and was a +29 for the game.
Defining moment: The Hawks were the early aggressor in the fourth quarter. The Kings actually led after three quarters, 87-85, but the Hawks used a quick barrage of 3-pointers to take the lead and completely pull away by the time the buzzer sounded.
MVP: Dwyane Wade had more points, but LeBron James was the key Heat player as usual. A robust 24 points, nine rebounds and seven assists accurately state his control of the game, especially in the fourth quarter.
That was ... feisty. Mario Chalmers had a meltdown in the third quarter, with several bad fouls and turnovers. During a timeout, James and Chalmers got into a heated exchange. Chalmers saw no action for the rest of the night.
Defining moment: A disgusted Paul George angrily yelled at the refs for a foul call as his last-second desperation 3-pointer missed. The perceived slight will only ratchet up the heated rivalry's ensuing games.
MVP: After Jared Sullinger drained a 3-pointer to put Boston up by one, Brandon Jennings hit one of his five treys with 21 seconds left, which proved to be the difference. Jennings had 28 points and 14 assists.
X factor: After the Celtics scored a blistering 42 points in the first quarter, Detroit's stalwart interior defense helped cool Boston as the outside shooting fell off. The Celts scored just 18 in the third quarter and 43 in the second half.
That was ... not quite clutch: Boston had two chances to reclaim the lead with 13 seconds left. First, Brandon Bass dribbled away eight seconds before Brad Stevens called a timeout. Then Jeff Green drove at Detroit's best individual defender -- Josh Smith -- and threw up a wild layup. Neither play was likely Stevens' intention.
MVP: Kevin Love began flirting with a triple-double early -- at halftime he need just four more assists. And while he ended up just shy, Love's complete game -- 29 points, 15 rebounds and 9 assists -- was nonetheless impressive.
X factor: Fatigue. Playing their fourth game in five nights, the last of an Eastern swing, the Trail Blazers came out flat. After winning their last two games on buzzer-beaters, Portland simply didn't have the fire.
Turning point: An explosive 38-point second quarter capped a stunning 69-point half for the Timberwolves, who scored 54 of those 69-points in the paint. While the Trail Blazers found life in the third and stormed in the final minutes, the early hole was just too deep.
MVP: Dwight Howard went 11 for 14 from the floor en route to 23 points. Note to Bulls -- you can send him to the line more than once, since he's a 56 percent free throw shooter.
The game was over when ... Houston took advantage of the Chicago's scoring problems, using a 15-1 run to make it 83-66 entering the final period.
That was ... your life, Omer Asik: As he sat in street clothes and watched the only two teams he's played for in the NBA, the Turkish big man awaits word of his likely trade.
3. Wednesday's Best
Kevin Love, Wolves: Another game that shows you should never give up on Love. Love had a double-double before the game was 13 minutes old and went into halftime with 17 points, 11 boards and 8 assists. Love finished 29 points, 15 rebounds and 9 assists in the Wolves' 120-109 victory over Portland.
4. Wednesday's Worst
Roy Hibbert, Pacers:
The one Pacer the Heat never have a real answer for took himself out of the game by being too aggressive. Pacers coach Frank Vogel gambled and lost when Hibbert picked up his fifth foul with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter of a 97-94 loss.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I apologized to him -- but hell, I needed him."
-- Knicks coach Mike Woodson, on Tyson Chandler playing 36 minutes in his first game back from injury in a double-OT win over the Bucks.
8. Not A Moment Too Soon
9. Stat Check
Chris Bosh hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 1:30 remaining in the fourth quarter and Ray Allen's 3-pointer with less than one minute remaining gave the Heat the lead for good in their victory against the Pacers in Miami. It was the first loss of the year for Indiana in a game that it led at any point during the fourth quarter, leaving the Trail Blazers as the NBA's only undefeated team under those circumstances. Following their defeat on Monday, the Pacers have lost two straight games for the first time this season, leaving Portland and San Antonio as the only NBA teams that haven't suffered back-to-back losses.
10. TrueHoop TV
Around the Association
MVP: John Wall. Wall did it all Wednesday night. He set the tone early with his scoring, controlled the pace, then had a tremendous block on Deron Williams late in the fourth. He was the best player on the floor and looks like an All-Star.
X factor: Paul Pierce. Pierce may not last long coming off the bench. He poured in 10 of his 12 shots for 27 points and used his vintage hesitation moves to get in the paint. Without Pierce's effort this would not have been close down the stretch.
That was ... a fun playoff preview? Wall and Williams can light up the gym. Brook Lopez and Marcin Gortat are two of the last remaining low-post centers. Sprinkle in the shot-making of Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Brad Beal, and Martell Webster, and you have a fun series.
MVP: Dirk Nowitzki led a balanced attack for Dallas with 20 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. His jumper at the 3:26 mark of the third quarter ended a 13-1 Memphis run and effectively put the game away for the Mavericks.
X factor: Samuel Dalembert entered the game in the third with something to prove after his first DNP -- Coachs Decision against the Bucks on Saturday. His energy, rebounding and defense helped close out the Grizzlies.
LVP: Zach Randolph had a tough time finishing from anywhere on the floor in Dallas, shooting only 5-for-18 from the field. He missed a number of easy looks around the basket early and was shut down by Dalembert in the second half.
MVP: Manu Ginobili was simply splendid tonight. He swooped into the lane countless times, laying it in, dumping it to the big man or kicking it out to his teammate on the perimeter. It was a vintage Ginobili performance with 24 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds.
X factor: Tim Duncan started slow, but, as is his wont, picked up steam in the second half, and ended up with 17 points, 13 rebounds 3 blocks and 2 steals.
That was ... typical: Stop me if you've heard this before: Spurs struggle with something in the beginning of the game (in this case, seven turnovers in the first quarter), their opponent keeps the game close, maybe even takes the lead for a bit, and then, in the fourth, the Spurs just out-execute the opponent into submission.
MVP: Blake Griffin set the tone early, and carried L.A.'s offense every time New Orleans got close. He even showed his range by draining two 3-pointers. He finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in just 32 minutes of play.
LVP: Jason Smith looked completely outmatched against L.A.'s bigs, as he finished with just two points and a team-low minus-14. Smith always gives full effort, but tonight he was simply overwhelmed by the athleticism of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
That was ... the deciding factor: The Clippers took 36 free throws, while the Pelicans only shot 20. Los Angeles was the more aggressive team all night long, and the Pelicans bailed the Clippers out by fouling them on several jump shots, including two from beyond the arc.