(AP) For the Finals: Pacers, Heat to meet in Game 7
By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
As the final horn in a Game 6 loss to the Indiana Pacers was sounding, LeBron James walked toward several of his Miami Heat teammates to shake some hands and share a couple of quick words.
His message was clear: Get ready for Game 7.
Here comes the ultimate game. To the winner, a trip to the NBA Finals. To the loser, an offseason loaded with regret. It’s that simple now for the champion Heat and the confident Pacers, who meet in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Monday night in Miami _ a perk the Heat earned by finishing with the league’s best record this season.
When it’s over Monday, only one club will be cherishing the outcome.
For the Heat, it’s a chance to move into the finals for the third straight year and keep hope alive of winning a second straight title. For the Pacers, it’s a chance to cap what would surely go into the books as one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history, considering that they finished 16 1/2 games behind the Heat in the regular season.
None of that matters much now. The Pacers have beaten Miami five of nine times this season. They need a sixth, or else it was all for naught.
Monday’s winner will open the NBA Finals on Thursday against San Antonio.
History suggests that the odds are long for the Pacers. Since the NBA went to its current playoff format in 1984, home teams are 16-2 in Game 7’s played in the conference finals or NBA Finals.
Then again, the Pacers were colossal underdogs heading into this series, and if it wasn’t for a last-second collapse at the end of Game 1, they probably would already be East champs.
Indiana headed to Miami with enough luggage for an eight-day trip. If the Pacers win Game 7, they’re headed to San Antonio, with no time to make a return swing through Indianapolis along the way.
The Pacers had an off-the-court distraction to address Sunday. Center Roy Hibbert apologized and was fined $75,000 by the NBA after using a gay slur in his postgame comments on Saturday, along with a profanity to describe members of the media.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said the fine was necessary “to reinforce that such offensive comments will not be tolerated.”
Vogel said he spoke with Hibbert about the matter Sunday, saying “he obviously made a great mistake.”
On the court, though, Hibbert has had nothing to apologize for, dominating play inside while the Heat are struggling in countless ways.
Dwyane Wade’s sore right knee _ which has been an issue for about three months now _ is not getting better anytime soon, and he’s stopped even wanting to discuss how it’s affecting his game. Chris Bosh said he needed to get back in the gym Sunday and regain some lost rhythm. Wade is averaging 12 points on 32 percent shooting in his last three games, Bosh just 6.3 points on 24 percent shooting in that same span.
Said James, when asked about the other two parts of Miami’s Big Three: “I mean, we can state the obvious. They’re both struggling.”
They’re hardly the only Heat players who picked the wrong time of year to go into a slide. Ray Allen is shooting 13 for 46 in this series, Shane Battier is at 2 for 16, and they’re a combined 9 for 39 from 3-point range against the Pacers.
Mike Miller gave the Heat a big second-half boost as they tried to rally from a big deficit in Game 6, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra suggested that Miller could get some time in the series finale.
One roster tweak the Heat will make on Monday: Chris Andersen’s one-game suspension for pushing Indiana’s Tyler Hansbrough is now complete, and the Heat backup big man _ who is 15 for 15 from the field in the series _ will be available for Game 7.
So even on the cusp of elimination Sunday, Spoelstra was decidedly upbeat.
He lauded the Pacers and insisted that this series going the distance is a testament to the level of competition. He said the Heat didn’t mind being pushed to the limit, and that his team would look at being in a Game 7 as “a treasure.”
The Heat had to win a Game 7 in the East finals at home last season, so they understand the pressure that will be there on Monday night. But in his postgame remarks Saturday, James was smiling, laughing on occasion, showing no signs of strain even though a season of the highest expectations is on the brink of ending earlier than anyone would find acceptable.
How he handles everything on Monday will probably determine if the Heat live to play another day in these playoffs.
AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed.