INDIANAPOLIS — There was nothing soft about Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat.
Wade scored 41 points, LeBron James chipped in 28 and the Heat finished off the Indiana Pacers, locking up a return trip to the Eastern Conference finals with a 105-93 victory in Game 6 on Thursday night.
The Heat wrapped up the best-of-7 series and will face either Boston or Philadelphia in the next round starting in Miami on Monday. Of course, nothing less than an NBA title will make for a satisfying summer in South Beach.
Two series down, two to go.
The Heat rallied from an early 11-point deficit, riding the hot hand of Wade in the opening half. He scored 26 points by the break, tying Tim Hardaway’s 16-year-old franchise record for most playoff points in the first two quarters. James hit consecutive baskets with just over a minute remaining to close it out.
Next up, the Celtics or surprising 76ers. The Heat will get a much-needed chance to relax before worrying about the next opponent, which will be determined in Game 7 at Boston on Saturday.
David West led Indiana with 24 points and all five starters were in double figures. But that balance was overwhelmed by Wade and James.
In a game of spurts, the decisive one came in the closing minutes of the third quarter, the Heat pushing out to their third straight impressive win after falling behind 2-1 in the series.
The Pacers tied it at 66 on Darren Collison’s 3-pointer, but it was all Heat the rest of the period. They closed on a 13-3 run, capped by Mario Chalmers’ buzzer-beating 3 from the corner. Wade, who was on the bench getting his customary breather at the end of the quarter, leaped from his seat as the ball left Chalmers’ hand at the far end, raced along the baseline and pumped his fist when it swished.
As Chalmers raced toward the Miami bench, Wade greeted him near the free throw line with a low-five.
For the most part, D-Wade did his best work while in the game.
He dropped 11-of-16 shooting on the Pacers in the first half, but also made sure the MVP stayed involved, dishing off a behind-the-back pass to James for a thunderous jam.
Indiana clamped down a bit on No. 3 the rest of the way, but he still managed perhaps his most jaw-dropping basket. Darting into the lane, he threw up a wild-looking, one-handed shot that looked like it might go over the backboard, only to catch the top of the glass and drop through, barely touching the twine.
There was none of the nastiness that marked Game 5, when a bunch of flagrant fouls resulted in suspensions for two Miami players, co-captain Udonis Haslem and backup center Dexter Pittman. Pacers president Larry Bird was so disgusted with his team’s performance that he accused them of going “soft.”
That wasn’t the problem this time. This was merely a Miami team on a mission, a mission that began in the summer of 2010 when the Heat signed James and Chris Bosh to join Wade in a seemingly unbeatable Big Three. There was a glitzy introduction and predictions of multiple championships, which left the rest of the league seething and plenty of people cheering when Miami was knocked off in the NBA finals by the Dallas Mavericks last season.
Shaking off that disappointment, James had perhaps his greatest season yet. But it was Wade who took control in the decisive game against the Pacers, delivering the final blow when he split West and George Hill, banking in the shot despite taking a knee from Hill that sent the Heat guard tumbling to the court.
The Pacers simply didn’t have enough to match the Heat, even with the Big Three down to the Big Two because of an injury to Bosh.
Chalmers finished with 15 points, while Mike Miller stepped up to provide some quality minutes, scoring 12 points on four 3-pointers to help fill the void without Haslem, Pittman and Bosh.
When Miller wasn’t in the game, he stretched out along the baseline to cope with his various aches and pains, more comfortable that way than sitting in a chair. When coach Erik Spoelstra called his number, Miller summoned several of his teammates to help lift him up.
The Pacers started out like they were intent on sending the series back to Miami for a decisive game that surely would have had all of South Florida on edge.
West knocked down a short jumper right off the tip, Danny Granger stuffed one off a fast break and the Pacers had their yellow-clad fans in a tizzy when Granger connected on a 3-pointer to make it 13-3 before the game was 5 minutes old. Another basket by Granger, this one a turnaround jumper, gave the Pacers their biggest lead at 19-8.
But Miami wasn’t going to roll over that easy. Miller made the first of his 3s in the closing seconds of the first quarter, and Wade took over from there. He started the period by banking in a 12-footer, then made another short jumper to leave the crowd stirring uneasily. Miller followed with another 3 — and just like that, it was all tied up.
Yet another 3 by Miller, this one a good 5 feet beyond the arc, gave Miami its biggest lead of the half, 41-35. Back came the Pacers, who went to the locker room with a 53-51 lead and hope of extending their season for at least one more game.
Turns out, they were down to their last half.
NBA NOTEBOOK: When Clay Bennett was seeking a leader for his team that would one day become the Oklahoma City Thunder, he picked a rising star from a San Antonio franchise on the verge of winning its fourth NBA championship in a decade.
It was the start of a process that would model Bennett’s franchise after the Spurs, leading up to their meeting in the Western Conference finals starting Sunday night.
The standards that led to San Antonio’s success rubbed off on Sam Presti, who got his start as a video intern for the Spurs before rising through that organization and eventually getting hired by Bennett as general manager of the relocating Seattle SuperSonics.
He recognized the importance San Antonio placed on humility, sacrifice and a family atmosphere and has tried to instill those standards in the Thunder.
“I think everyone within the NBA has great respect for what the Spurs have accomplished and the standards that they have established in recent years but I think every organization has to have their own identity,” Presti said Thursday.
“Certainly, we’re always going to look to try to pull from organizations such as the Spurs in our effort to build an identity and a foundation for an organization in Oklahoma City that has great endurance.”
The similarities are numerous. Each team plays in a smaller NBA market and has a nucleus of homegrown players acquired through the draft, including hidden gems plucked from overseas.
But more than the basketball product, the franchises have a reputation for how they handle their business: no bad-mouthing other teams or players, few scrapes with the law or other incidents and no sense of entitlement.
“I tell guys all the time: Not every guy can come here and play. This isn’t for everybody,” said Nazr Mohammed, who won an NBA title with San Antonio in 2005 and is now a backup for the Thunder.
“The same in San Antonio. That isn’t for everybody. … It’s not even the player, more so the person.”
It may not be no-nonsense, but there certainly isn’t much of it.
“It starts at the top, the way Sam has built the organization and then the players he’s brung in to match that system. It’s amazing to have these young guys around here that understand just the hard work, the family atmosphere,” Mohammed said.
“I’ve been on some teams where you’ve got a bunch of young guys. Family atmosphere is the furthest thing from guys’ minds. Guys are thinking about, ‘When am I going to get my opportunity to get out there and show the world what I can do and get my second contract?’ Here, it’s nothing like that. Guys just want to work, win, get better and they know and understand like veterans that the rest will take care of itself.”
While Presti has tried to foster that San Antonio-style atmosphere, he credits his players and coaches for carrying it out and putting in the work that has led to consecutive Western Conference finals appearances for the second time in franchise history.
The attitude filters down from ownership — Bennett used to represent the Spurs on the NBA’s board of governors — and through the front office, but Mohammed said the key is the franchises’ ability to find players who buy into it.
At the forefront, he sees San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Duncan — both superstars who don’t care about the limelight and only want “to work hard and play basketball.”
“You can preach it around but it’s still got to come from the player because you can get a young guy now who’s unbelievable but if he doesn’t buy into it, he’s going to think his own way and do his own thing no matter what,” Mohammed said.
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said he knew within a week of hiring Presti that he wouldn’t be an intern long. Presti ended up helping persuade the franchise to draft point guard Tony Parker, who has developed into an All-Star and the Spurs’ leading scorer, on his rise through the organization.