Evan Turner replaced the ejected Lance Stephenson and came up big for the Pacers down the stretch on Wednesday.
Turner put in the go-ahead basket with 1:30 remaining, David West drained a clutch 3-pointer and Indiana survived Chris Bosh’s airball at the buzzer to hold off the Miami Heat, 84-83, in a highly anticipated duel between the Eastern Conference powers.
The Pacers clinched the Central Division title with the win and now own a three-game lead over the Heat for the East’s top seed — a crucial advantage having lost Game 7 of the conference finals in Miami last year.
Paul George led the way with 23 points and eight rebounds, Roy Hibbert scored 21 and Stephenson and West netted 15 and 13, respectively, for Indiana, which had dropped three of four coming in.
“It’s one game…but this is one step closer to playing good basketball to end this year up,” George said.
LeBron James filled the box score with 38 points, eight rebounds and five assists but committed six of Miami’s 19 turnovers as the Heat fell to 4-5 over their last nine games.
The buildup to this showdown lasted three months after defeating one another on their home floors in December, and the finish lived up to the hype.
A tight fourth quarter saw a little bit of everything — an elbow to the face, blood, mean-mugging and ejections — not to mention these burgeoning rivals trading 8-0 runs in crunch time.
James scored on the first possession of the fourth to give the Heat a 70-63 lead, but Miami went nearly seven minutes without making another shot.
George threw down a monster two-handed slam over James to pull Indiana within 70-69, and it was even at 72-72 before Stephenson scored consecutive baskets.
The second, however, proved costly.
Stephenson drove hard to the left and got a runner to fall in traffic while falling to the hardwood. Miami immediately called timeout to regroup, and as Stephenson headed back to the bench, he stared down Dwyane Wade before pounding his chest towards an energetic crowd.
The antics resulted in a technical foul, Stephenson’s second following another altercation with Wade in the third quarter, and the Pacers were suddenly without their starting point guard for the final 5:01.
Wade made the subsequent free throw, and James quickly drained an open 3- pointer to end Miami’s field goal drought to start an 8-0 run that put the Heat in front, 80-76, with 3:23 to play.
Hibbert, who took a James elbow to the mouth earlier in the quarter and briefly visited the locker room with blood on his jersey, split a pair at the foul line to make it a three-point game, and a pair of Miami turnovers led to buckets by Turner.
The first came in transition, as the midseason acquisition cashed in on a James giveaway with a pump-fake and easy layup. After West forced Mario Chalmers out of bounds along the sideline, Turner spun in the lane and put in the go-ahead layup.
James missed from long range at the other end, and West, with the shot clock winding down, drained a dagger 3-pointer at the other end.
“We didn’t execute down the stretch,” Wade said. “That hurt us.”
A Bosh triple with 2.9 seconds to go followed by two missed free throws by George Hill gave Miami a chance to steal a win, but Bosh’s rushed try from just above the right elbow fell well short.
Hibbert, after totaling seven points in losses to Memphis and Chicago, nearly doubled that production in the first quarter alone with 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
The All-Star center abused Greg Oden during a personal 7-0 run midway through the frame, capping it with a reverse layup that gave the Pacers a 14-8 lead.
The hosts led 23-17 entering the second and opened up a double-digit lead, 40-30, following a Hibbert jump hook with 3:39 remaining in the half.
Miami answered with the next nine points, and James scored the final bucket for his 20th point of the half and a 45-44 Heat lead heading to the break.
Tempers flared briefly in the third when Wade pushed Stephenson after the Pacers guard pulled at the arm of Chalmers. Double technicals were issued, and while Indiana led at the time of the incident, it was the Heat who ended the frame with a bang.
James, Rashard Lewis and Norris Cole each hit from long range during a quarter-ending 15-4 run that gave Miami a 68-63 advantage.
Notes: West’s 3-pointer was his fourth of the season. He was 3-for-12 from long rage entering the game … Ray Allen missed the game because of a stomach virus and his status for Miami’s games against Detroit and Milwaukee is questionable … The Heat fell to 36-5 this season when holding an opponent to under 100 points … James was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul for the elbow he landed on Hibbert … Indiana is an NBA-best 33-4 at home … Wade, who missed the previous two games due to a sore Achilles and knee, scored 15 points while Bosh had eight on 3-of-11 shooting … Miami has 12 games remaining, two more than Indiana … These teams meet again on April 11 in Miami.