MIAMI -- Several times around the start of these playoffs, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra insisted that the postseason path his team would wind up navigating had the potential to be more challenging than the route they took to the NBA championship a year ago.
He's apparently correct, probably to his own chagrin.
The defending NBA champion Heat are in a bit of trouble. They can't get enough rebounds, can't get Dwyane Wade on track, can't get consistency out of Chris Bosh -- and will likely see all those story lines either grow exponentially or basically disappear Thursday night, when they host to the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of a super-competitive Eastern Conference finals that's now knotted at two games apiece.
"We have a great locker room of Alpha competitors," Spoelstra said Wednesday. "And so they take this very seriously. We're playing against a worthy opponent and if we don't play well, they beat us. If they don't play well and we impose our identity, we beat them. That's what this is all about. So let's lace 'em up and let's get ready for Game 5." Game 6 will be in Indiana on Saturday night, while the Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs keep waiting to see who they'll face in the NBA Finals starting on June 6.
History says the Game 5 winner when a series is tied at 2-2 has a colossal upper hand, though that's an axiom that the Heat both proved and disproved last season.
When the Heat and Pacers split the first four games of their second-round series last year, Miami rolled to a 115-83 home win in Game 5 and captured the series in six games. One round later, Miami lost a home Game 5 of the East finals to Boston, then went on the road for Game 6 and got a virtuoso 45-point night from LeBron James to stave off elimination before coming home and winning a nailbiter of a Game 7 to advance.
Given all that, it's no wonder why Spoelstra said the Heat aren't looking back at any series as a blueprint for how the final acts of this one should go.
"We don't need confidence to go into any game," James said. "We're a confident bunch. We're excited to get the opportunity to go back to our home and play Game 5." Confidence is not exactly in short supply around the Pacers right now, either.
Indiana came into the series saying -- and believing -- that it could find a way to oust the team that was virtually preordained as a champion entering these playoffs. That hasn't changed.
"We've got to be at our best," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said Wednesday. "Our intensity, our determination, our focus, we've got to keep getting better if we're going to beat this team." The statistical trends probably aren't surprising. The Heat have scored 402 points, the Pacers 394. The Heat have shot 47 percent from the field, the Pacers 46 percent. The Pacers have shot 37 percent from 3-point range, the Heat 34 percent.
Miami is better at forcing turnovers, the Pacers are better at rebounding. Miami has forced Indiana into 14 more turnovers in the series, but the Pacers are outrebounding the Heat by 10 boards per game. Pacers center Roy Hibbert is averaging 12 rebounds; Bosh has grabbed 13 rebounds -- total -- in the series, or as many as Miami guard Ray Allen has despite being half a foot shorter and playing 32 fewer minutes.
"We know what they run, they know what we run," Hibbert said. "So I guess it's more about who wants it more." Hibbert has had no match in this series. Miami plays without a true center, and Bosh often ends up in the same general spots on offense as a guard would. So at 7-foot-2, Hibbert almost seems like he has permission to do whatever he wants in the paint, and has picked the right time to play the series of his life.
"We don't want to go home," Hibbert said. "Miami is one of the best teams, along with San Antonio, and we know we have an uphill battle and we trust each other and love each other and that's just grown, that love for each other. This is probably the first team I've felt like that about because last year even there were some guys were not all about winning." That can't be said now.
"We understand that the champs are going to come back and be ready to play at home," Pacers star Paul George said. "And we need to be ready to come out and play well." Game 5 was a cavalcade of mistakes for the Heat, who had their second-worst shooting night of the entire season at 39 percent.
James fouled out for only the fifth time in his career, though Miami was clearly miffed at some late-game calls. Bosh went 1 for 6 with only three rebounds. Wade, that aching right knee still apparently an issue, missed 10 of his 15 shots. And despite it all, the Heat still had the lead in the final minutes.
"We missed an opportunity to go up 3-1," Bosh said. "But we did get home-court back. We did our job. We have to come out and play with a lot of passion." Wade, who's averaging an uncharacteristically low 13.4 points in his last 10 games, was more succinct: "Our whole team has to do more," he said.
Being in a 2-2 series isn't the right time for Heat panic over now being in what amounts to a best-of-three, or Heat lament over anything that isn't going their way, Spoelstra said. At one point Wednesday, he took his left fist and right fist, banged them together to make a point, and insisted that the series will simply be won by the team that does enough to deserve a chance at facing the Spurs for the title.
"Our guys have respect for the other team in that locker room," Spoelstra said. "We know nothing is earned easy in this series. We've got to work for it. Being home doesn't guarantee anything."