Dec 10, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Miami Heat guard LeBron James (6) and coach Erik Spoelstra (right) walk off the floor after losing to the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Miami 90-84. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Miami Heat: What Loss To The Indiana Pacers Means

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“Not much.” That would be the easy way to describe what the Miami Heat’s 90-84  loss to the Indiana Pacers meant last night. But barring an act of God/injuries, last night’s heavyweight matchup was an advanced screening of what we’ll see in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, so it’s worth a closer look. It was a potential statement game for the Pacers that many will undoubtedly exponentially morph into a “changing of the guard” in the East. But for the Miami Heat, in December, the loss doesn’t mean too much.

After all, the Heat had already lost three straight regular season games in Bankers Life Fieldhouse heading into last night’s contest. With the fourth straight defeat, Miami showed once again that their tendency to cruise in the regular season (especially in the third quarter) is still an issue. The “extra gear” that everyone always talks about was on full display for most of the first half and although the Heat denied it was a statement game, they were sure playing like it as they built a seven-point halftime advantage, a lead that actually should’ve been bigger given how non-existent Paul George was through two quarters.

LeBron James doesn’t get caught up in the kind of NBA debates that fans regularly rage participate in on Twitter, but with all the recent “Paul George For MVP” talk of the first month of the season it was no surprise to see him make it his mission to put that argument to rest. Through two quarters, LeBron had 10 points and five rebounds while holding George to two points on 0-for-4 shooting and five turnovers.

But the Indiana Pacers are a third quarter team, which is Miami’s greatest weakness this season. And for some bizarre reason, Erik Spoelstra gave LeBron a bit of a defensive reprieve in the second half, sticking him on the likes of Lance Stephenson and Orlando Johnson. Meanwhile, George feasted on easier/wide open looks thanks to Ray Allen leaving him for weak side help defense. George closed the period with back-to-back 3s to give Indiana a six-point lead heading into the fourth. He tallied 12 points, three assists and one rebound in the third quarter alone … all with LeBron’s defensive talents being wasted.

Look, I get it. Paul George and LeBron James both need short breaks from defending each other every once in awhile to save their energy for the offensive end. Both Miami’s and Indiana’s team defenses are stout enough to hold their own even when LeBron or George are taking easier defensive assignments. But when the Pacers are one of the best third quarter teams in the league and one of the best third quarter players in the league starts going off, wouldn’t that be the time to switch LeBron back on him?

Overall, it seemed like George and LeBron swapped places in the first and second half. Other than a ridiculous fadeaway three in the that pulled Miami within five, LeBron’s fourth quarter was pretty underwhelming. Two missed free throws with six minutes to play would’ve cut the lead to four. A traveling violation with less than 3:30 to play prevented the Heat from cutting into a seven-point deficit. A key turnover almost led to a goaltend. And an air-balled 3-pointer with less than a minute to play put the game away for good. Even though LeBron and George pretty much played to a draw, the lasting image of the game seemed to be how well George played.

No one can say LeBron James isn’t clutch anymore. It’s a tired and overused antic that isn’t supported by statistics. But LeBron wasn’t very efficient in the fourth quarter last night, going 1-for-4 from the field, 2-for-4 from the free throw line and committing three turnovers. But again, it’s December. The Miami Heat don’t particularly care about what happens in December (especially when they go 4-for-21 from 3-point range).

The fact is, this game was more important for the Indiana Pacers. A win for the Heat would’ve just given more fuel to Indiana’s fire and the only message it would’ve sent is that Miami is still dangerous (which no one should doubt anyway). As for the “Paul George vs. LeBron James” argument, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind who the best player in the NBA is by now. Both finished with 17 points, both only played one strong half of basketball and neither took care of the ball or had a particularly great night shooting the ball (five TOs and 6-of-16 shooting for LeBron, six TOs and 4-of-11 shooting for George).

This game doesn’t mean much to the Miami Heat, but it means a great deal to Indiana Pacers fans and LeBron James haters. However, there is one thing that has to be addressed, Heat fans: this win does mean the Indiana Pacers are the best team in the league right now. That may not still be the case in April, which is what the Heat are more concerned about. But the win solidifies that Indiana is a threat, that they are for real and more importantly, the win puts them in a better position to lock up the No. 1 seed in the East.

Calm down, everyone. It’s only one game. But it does put the Pacers in a better position to win the East. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Granted, the Heat and Pacers will play each other three more times before all is said and done. Indiana will be in Miami a week from today for their second matchup and after that, these teams won’t meet again until the end of March. By then, we could be looking at radically different teams and most likely, a playoff-ready Heat squad. But the win does give Indiana a one-game advantage over Miami in the event of a tiebreaker for the top position in the conference. And since the Eastern Conference Finals went to seven games last year, Miami’s path would be easier this time around without surrendering home-court advantage to an improved Pacers team.

Miami has plenty to work on, that’s for sure. Currently they are not the best team in the East, even if they have the league’s best player. Dwyane Wade‘s health is still an issue and so far, only Michael Beasley(!) has given consistent backup support to LeBron. But you can be guaranteed the Heat will be fired up for their next meeting with Indiana a week from now. So before we all go Skip Bayless on the Miami Heat, let’s take a second, breathe, and remember: one game in December does not win or lose championships.

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