Heat become the aggressors in series

The Indiana Pacers started it. The Miami Heat decided to finish it. And now Game 6 of their playoff series will continue with the Heat in the driver’s seat but two of their players serving suspensions.

The latest twist in this bloody, hard-fought, smack-talking series came Wednesday night, when the NBA announced that a trio of hard fouls in the Heat’s Game 5 win had been upgraded to flagrant-2 fouls and that two Heat players will miss games as a result.

Dexter Pittman’s vicious leveling of Pacers role player Lance Stephenson in the final seconds of the game earned him a three-game suspension. Udonis Haslem, who has played a crucial role in giving the Heat a 3-2 series lead, will miss Thursday’s game. His cheap shot on Tyler Hansbrough earned him a one-game suspension.

Hansbrough will not miss any time for his hard foul on Dwyane Wade, in large part because he at least made an attempt to go for the ball.

There’s no way to understate the cowardly cheap shot Pittman leveled on Stephenson, a little-used player who made a choke sign from the bench after LeBron James missed a free throw in Game 3. There’s no doubt Haslem’s play on Hansbrough was an attack on an opposing player who had given Dwyane Wade a hard foul earlier in the game.

Pittman got what he deserved, though it’s unlikely to matter. He hardly plays, and that foul and the subsequent suspension may be the most memorable thing he’ll do in his career. But missing Haslem will affect the Heat, and the fact he lost control enough to get himself booted from a key game speaks to the nature of this series, to the Pacers’ strategic error and to the Heat’s desperation to avoid another collapse.

All series, the Pacers have been openly disrespectful of the Heat. Early on it seemed to work. They ran out to a 2-1 series lead, they mocked LeBron, they coerced Wade into the worst playoff performance of his career, and little-known names like Danny Granger picked up technicals in three straight games for getting in the face of Miami’s ubiquitous stars. The Pacers acted with a fearlessness and reckless abandon – physically, mentally, everything – toward the Heat that put them in a position to put Miami down for good.

As this little-guy-picking-on-Goliath soap opera played out the Heat at first seemed ill prepared for the physical play and mental warfare.

But there’s always a risk in cornering a wild animal that feels threatened – and it turns out there’s even more risk in cornering, taunting and pushing around a cornered, desperate basketball team anchored by two of the game’s best players.

Sometimes that desperation takes forms you aren’t ready for.

First, and finally, LeBron James unleashed his inner-MVP in a playoff performance for the ages: His 40 points, 18 rebounds, 9 assists, two blocks and two steals in Game 4 knotted the series and changed everything.

Before that, Wade was crashing into opposing players with cheap shots of his own and playing awful basketball. But during LeBron’s great game Wade found his groove. Before that, the Pacers were pushing around the Heat. After that, the Heat pushed back much more viciously – cheap shots included – with a resolve and recklessness of their own that left the Pacers suddenly stumbling and dazed.

Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird told the Indianapolis Star early Wednesday, after his team’s beatdown in Miami, that he "can’t believe my team went soft."

He’s right they went soft. He’s wrong to be surprised.

The Heat are a desperate team, and they are accustomed to hatred and hardship – some of their own making, some not. It’s no wonder that getting punched in the nose would trigger a much more violent, forceful response.

Granger defended his guys by getting chippy and talking some smack. Haslem and Pittman defended their guys by getting dangerous and physically attacking. I don’t endorse it. I’m not saying it’s OK. And I’m not saying Haslem’s absence Thursday night won’t give the Pacers a much better shot to get to a Game 7, where anything can happen.

I am saying that you don’t poke the bear without understanding it might go off. LeBron went off with his exceptional play, as did Wade. Haslem went off with a burst of anger that warrants suspension but that also shows the Heat are in this thing with all they’ve got, blood included.

Wednesday night’s suspensions are the right call and a reminder that if you go after players’ health you’re going to miss games. But the suspensions are also a reminder that if you go after the Heat – with your play, or your mouth, or your physicality – you must understand they’re going to come right back at you with as much or more intensity.

The Heat are desperate. Now that the Pacers finally understand that, we’ll see how they respond: Soft, or hard enough to finish what they started.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.