MIAMI -- Several times around the start of these playoffs, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra insisted the post-season 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 storylines either grow exponentially or basically disappear tonight, when they host to the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of a super-competitive Eastern Conference finals that's 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 wait 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 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 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 -- 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 per cent from the field, the Pacers 46 per cent. The Pacers have shot 37 per cent from three-point range, the Heat 34 per cent.
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 centre 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."
At 7-2, Hibbert has had no match in this series.
-- The Associated Press