If anyone saw the events of Tuesday night coming, in which the Heat again embraced the villain's role in their second-round series with the Pacers, it was the Bulls. In their final regular-season trip to Miami, the Heat was the aggressor and perhaps went over the line in a string of incidents, including reserve James Jones' flagrant foul on Joakim Noah and subsequent ejection, All-Star guard Dwyane Wade's virtual tackle on longtime rival Rip Hamilton and league MVP LeBron James' unnecessarily hard screen on the diminutive John Lucas III.
While Miami's chippiness appeared to catch the Bulls somewhat unaware, the Pacers established themselves as a physical team in last spring's first-round series, which is why situations like backup big man Lou Amundson's unintentional elbow to Heat counterpart Udonis Haslem in Sunday's Game 4 and Tyler Hansbrough's flagrant foul on Wade in Tuesday's game weren't unexpected. Nor was Haslem's retaliatory flagrant on Hansbrough, although the onus should be on the game officials for not upgrading the call after review and possibly ejecting Haslem.
However, with upwards of a 30-point lead, only deep reserves on the court, the game in hand and the Pacers looking thoroughly defeated in the game's waning moments--recently-named NBA Executive of the Year Larry Bird called his team "soft," but more than an identity crisis, Indiana should be worried about the health status of starting forwards Danny Granger and David West for Thursday's Game 6--massive center Dexter Pittman leveled Pacers guard Lance Stephenson in the throat with a flying forearm. Now, Stephenson being the target is no surprise after he was caught on camera giving the choke sign during Indiana's Game 3 win, but Heat veteran Juwan Howard already confronted Stephenson before Game 4 and to make matters worse, Pittman was caught winking on camera after the dirty deed, which led to post-game concussion tests for Stephenson and could ultimately result in a broken collarbone.
Miami, still without All-Star forward Chris Bosh, looks primed to advance to the conference finals now that Wade has rediscovered his game and James has taken his own to another level. There, they're likely to face an experienced, yet banged-up Boston squad--future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, not to mention defensive stopper Avery Bradley, are dealing with injury concerns--which has the chance to close out pesky Philadelphia in a Game 6 matchup Wednesday, setting up a series between two teams with a chip on their respective shoulders that shouldn't lack for physical play and verbal confrontations.
Meanwhile, the West is comparably tame after the Spurs swept Vinny Del Negro's Clippers and the Thunder dispatched the tumultuous Lakers in a relatively easy five games, giving both teams plenty of time to rest and prepare for what should be a tremendous conference finals. With all of the flaws in the remaining East teams, the two Western Conference juggernauts appear to be head and shoulders above their potential NBA Finals competition, though in the postseason, nothing is set in stone.