MIAMI (AP) — For most of the season, the Miami Heat were chasing the Indiana Pacers.
On Friday, they just blew by them.
Control of the Eastern Conference again belongs to the Heat, after LeBron James scored 36 points and the two-time defending NBA champions opened the second half with a 16-0 run on the way to beating the Pacers 98-86 — a win that vaulted Miami a half-game ahead of Indiana in the race for a No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
“This is not the biggest game we’ve played in our four years together,” James said. “It’s always great to have competitive games like this in the regular season. I mean, we’ve played Game 7 in the Finals before. It doesn’t get no bigger than that.”
True, but this had plenty of meaning.
Miami (54-25) leads the Pacers (54-26) by the slimmest of margins in the East race. The Heat play at Atlanta on Saturday, at Washington on Monday and then close at home against Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Win them all, and the road to the East title goes through Miami, again.
“We know what’s going on out there,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “We know what’s going to happen. We’re in the middle of trying to put everything together for ourselves and I think today was a good step forward for us.”
Mario Chalmers scored 13, Udonis Haslem added 11 and Bosh and Ray Allen each scored 10 for the Heat, who had lost two straight and were looking up at Indiana for much of the season in the East standings.
Paul George scored 22 for Indiana, which got 18 from David West, 12 from Luis Scola and 11 from Lance Stephenson. Pacers center. Roy Hibbert had only five points and one rebound, grabbing it with just over 2 minutes left in the game.
“We’re still a good basketball team,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “I think we’re taking steps to get ready.”
The Pacers — who sat their starters against Milwaukee on Wednesday in an effort to rest for this one, and have insisted throughout this season that they wanted the No. 1 seed after losing a Game 7 in Miami to close the East finals a year ago — still play Oklahoma City and Orlando.
“As of now it’s not in our hands,” George said, “and we’re perfectly fine with it.”
After a few minutes of the third quarter, this game wasn’t in Indiana’s hands, either.
Chalmers opened the 16-0 barrage with a 3-pointer, James hit a pair of free throws after taking a hard foul from West in transition, and a steal and layup from Toney Douglas forced the Pacers to call time down by 10.
Miami was just getting started.
James got fouled by Stephenson and turned that into a three-point play, and consecutive putbacks by Haslem off misses by James at the rim pushed Miami’s lead to 17 with 8:13 left in the third.
That led to Indiana’s second timeout of the quarter.
And a couple of minutes later, the Pacers were up to more timeouts taken since halftime (three) than points scored (two). Indiana’s first field goal of the half came when Bosh was called for goaltending on a shot by Luis Scola with 6 minutes left.
“We just stalled out,” West said.
Hibbert, the 7-foot-2 center who has simply toyed with Miami plenty of times in the clubs’ recent meetings, played 16 first-half minutes with basically nothing to show for his time. He went into the break with no field-goal attempts and no rebounds — the first time he’s ever logged that many minutes in a half without at least one shot or board.
“We’ve got to get more from him,” Vogel said.
Miami’s lead was eventually as much as 23, and it was 76-54 when the Pacers started to make things look interesting.
Indiana scored 13 straight points, getting within 76-67. But Evan Turner was whistled for a technical after arguing a non-call from two possessions earlier, Allen made a free throw to end the Heat drought, and that started a 9-0 rebuttal run by the Heat.
Rashard Lewis ended that spurt with a dunk, good enough to earn him a chest-bump from James moments later, and Miami was up by 18 again. A few minutes later, the game was over, the standings had flipped and Miami was on top.
“I would love to see us play with this intensity, to our identity, tomorrow night,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “If we do that, the results seem to take care of themselves.”
NOTES: Miami kept Dwyane Wade (hamstring) out for the ninth straight game, and Greg Oden was still sidelined by back spasms. ... Haslem is Miami’s all-time leader in offensive rebounds, grabbing the 1,506th of his career in the second quarter. ... From the Department of Go Figure: Miami went 0-4 against Brooklyn, Indiana went 4-0 against Brooklyn, so the Heat and Pacers went 2-2 against each other.