Heat to face Pacers in Eastern Conference finals

MIAMI — The Miami Heat had to do it without Chris Bosh last year. They really might need him this time.
The Heat found out Saturday night they will have face Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals, which start Wednesday at American Airlines Arena. The Pacers advanced with a 106-99 win over the New York Knicks to win their East semifinal 4-2.
The Heat ousted Indiana 4-2 last year in a contentious East semifinal. They mostly had to do it without Bosh, who was lost for the series after suffering an abdominal strain late in the first half of Game 1.
But Bosh, who ended up missing nine overall playoff games last spring, has been healthy this postseason. And the Heat certainly will need the center against the big Pacers.
“I was really looking forward to that series and I didn’t get to play,’’ Bosh said of last year. “Hopefully, this time around I hope I can stay healthy and just put my imprint on this series like I wanted to last year.’’
The Heat were able to win the final three games last year against Indiana after falling behind 2-1. A chippy Game 5 featured three flagrant fouls. Heat forward Udonis Haslem then got a one-game suspension for taking out Indiana forward Tyler Hansbrough and then-Miami center Dexter Pittman was sat down for three games for a vicious hit on Pacers guard Lance Stephenson.
Miami figures to need everyone, especially big men, against the physical and more mature Pacers. Indiana is in the East finals for the first time since 2004.
“Anytime you lose in the playoffs, you learn,’’ Heat forward Shane Battier said of the Pacers having gained maturity since last year. “They were an upstart last year. They’re a contender now… They’re a legitimate contender. I think they have the confidence of a contender when last year they might have been overwhelmed.’’
The Pacers showed their improvement by winning two of the three regular-season games against the Heat, the two wins coming at home in resounding fashion. Indiana won 87-77 Jan. 8 and 102-89 Feb. 1 before losing 105-91 March 10 at Miami.
Pacers center Roy Hibbert has been  playing some of the best ball of his career this postseason, averaging 14 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. That’s why the Heat sure need Bosh healthy this time.
The Pacers have a strong front line. Alongside Hibbert, who had 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks Saturday against the Knicks, power forward David West is a two-time All-Star and small forward Paul George became an All-Star this season for the first time.
“They have some experience together,’’ Bosh said of the Pacers, who went 49-32 during the regular season game to win the Central Division title and claim the East’s No. 3 seed. “Their front line is big. They play great offense and stellar defense. They’re one of those teams you really have to move the ball against. You can’t settle for holding the ball too much.’’
The top-seeded Heat believe beating physical Chicago 4-1 in an East semifinal helped prepare them for the also-rugged Pacers. It also doesn’t hurt that Bosh is coming off a strong series.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson