Heat Check: Miami blitzes Indiana in second half for crucial victory

Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) is pressured by Indiana Pacers forward Evan Turner (12) during the first half.

Steve Mitchell/Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI — If the playoffs turn out to be like this for Miami, Heat fans will very happy.

The Heat used an early third-quarter 20-2 blitz to grab control of both the game and the battle for the Eastern Conference No. 1 seed with a 98-86 victory against the rival Indiana Pacers at AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday night.

LeBron James scored 36 points for the two-time defending champs, who led by as many as 23 points in the third quarter.

Miami (54-25) took a half-game lead over Indiana (54-26) in the conference race. The Heat have three games remaining (at Atlanta, at Washington, vs. Philadelphia). The Pacers have two games left (vs. Oklahoma City, at Orlando).

Miami and Indiana split their four regular-season games. A tie would give the top seed to the team with the better conference record — Indiana fell to 37-14 in the East; Miami improved to 34-15.

Box score

Udonis Haslem had 11 points and nine rebounds for the Heat, who played without guard Dwyane Wade and center Greg Oden for the ninth straight game. Miami improved to 18-10 without Wade.

Haslem also helped limit Pacers center Roy Hibbert to five points and one rebound. He had one point and no rebounds in the first half as Miami took a 45-42 lead.

The Heat opened the third quarter with a 20-2 run that built a 65-44 advantage with 5:51 left in the quarter. Indiana missed its first eight field-goal tries and committed three turnovers during Miami’s run.

Although both teams had been struggling — Miami had won 10 of its previous 21 games, Indiana eight of its previous 20 — the game had been expected to be a playoff precursor. The Heat showed the ability to raise their game, while the Pacers continued to limp down the stretch.

Indiana got no closer than nine points in the fourth quarter.

The Heat outscored the Pacers in the paint 44-26.

Haslem became Miami’s all-time offensive-rebounding leader when he grabbed his 1,508th with 5:52 left in the second quarter.

THE TURNING POINT

The first 5:51 of the third quarter, during which the Heat turned a three-point halftime lead into a 21-point cushion.

THE DIFFERENCE MAKER

Udonis Haslem, who returned after missing the previous two games due to a stomach virus and neutralized Hibbert.

STAT OF THE GAME

Indiana committed 16 turnovers that led to 20 Heat points. Miami had nine turnovers (12 Pacers points).

WHAT’S NEXT

The Heat will play the Hawks at Atlanta at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

You can follow Charlie McCarthy on Twitter @mccarthy_chas or email him at mac1763@bellsouth.net.