By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI (AP) — Down by 15 early, the Miami Heat could have hit the panic button.
Instead, they found a way to move within two wins of another trip to the NBA Finals.
LeBron James scored 26 points, Dwyane Wade added 23 and the Heat shook off a horrid start to beat the Indiana Pacers 99-87 on Saturday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, taking a 2-1 lead and breaking a back-and-forth trend in the rivalry. The teams had alternated wins and losses in 13 straight meetings — until now.
Miami once trailed 37-22, before outscoring Indiana 77-50 the rest of the way.
“A lot of our situations that we’ve been through where we’ve struggled have been against this team,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s what they do to you. They’re very good. It’s a function of their defense.
“But we had no choice but try to re-gather.”
That they did.
And then some.
Ray Allen added 16 points and led a late-game charge for the Heat, who will host Game 4 on Monday night. And it was the second time this season the Heat rallied from 15 points down to beat the Pacers in Miami — it also happened on Dec. 18.
“Tough loss for our guys,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Thought we competed pretty well, came out of the gates really strong, got off to a good start and then didn’t manage our foul trouble well and didn’t manage picking up their defensive intensity well.”
It’s the third straight series where the Pacers have faced a deficit.
“A ton,” Vogel said when asked how much resiliency the Pacers have left. “It’s very early in the series.”
Paul George scored 17 points for Indiana, shooting 5 for 13 in his return after being concussed late in Game 2. Roy Hibbert had 16 points, David West added 13 and Lance Stephenson scored 10 for the Pacers, who never trailed until early in the third quarter.
Miami started the game 2 for 10 from the floor. The Heat then made 21 of their next 31 shots, including eight straight in the third that gave the two-time defending NBA champions their first lead.
James’ dunk with 7:36 remaining in the third put Miami up for the first time, 52-51. That was the first of nine lead changes in the quarter, before the Heat did what Spoelstra implored his team to do in a pregame locker room address.
“Impose our identity,” Spoelstra said.
Eventually, the message reached the Heat, and their two best players led the way.
“We just want to get better as the series goes on,” James said. “We want to move their defense from side to side. When we do that, we give ourselves an opportunity to get to the lane. And when our shooters get going it definitely adds more space as you saw in the fourth quarter.”
James’ 3-pointer with 1:21 left in the third put Miami up 67-63, then its biggest lead of the night. Wade subbed in for James with 5.7 seconds left because the four-time MVP was dealing with what appeared to be a hamstring cramp and connected on a 3-pointer with 1.4 ticks remaining for a 74-67 lead going into the fourth.
James retreated toward the locker room at that point, stopping halfway down the hallway known as “Championship Alley” while trainer Mike Mancias stretched him out. Meanwhile, Wade — not exactly known for behind-the-arc prowess — opened the fourth quarter with another 3, the Heat were up 10 and the floodgates were opening.
Indiana got to 76-74 before Allen made a 3-pointer, and with that, the tone was set for the final minutes. Allen made three 3s in the final 5:59, the last of those putting Miami up by 15.
“I think we need to stick to what we do,” West said. “We got away from ourselves. We tried to make some stuff on the fly, which is not us.”
The halftime score looked ugly: Pacers 42, Heat 38.
That didn’t even come close to describing how much Miami struggled at times. Here’s one example: After 11 minutes, it was Hibbert 10, Heat 10.
Indiana led 19-5 early and 37-22 midway through the second. Luis Scola scored eight points off the bench in less than three minutes, and the Pacers were rolling.
Or at least, looked like they were rolling.
In the final 6:22 of the half, they had more turnovers (six) than points (five). And Miami took advantage, especially after George went to the bench with his third foul. Wade and James combined for 14 of Miami’s final 18 points in the second, and a pair of short shots by Wade in the final minute helped pull the Heat within four at the break.
NOTES: Commissioner Adam Silver was in attendance, posing with plenty of fans for photos. … Stephenson had nine rebounds by halftime. The Heat, in total, had 11. … Heat F Shane Battier, announced earlier in the day as the winner of the league’s Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year award, got his trophy in a pregame ceremony from 2013 recipient Chauncey Billups. … Greg Oden was active for Miami for the first time since Game 4 of the opening round, with Michael Beasley on the inactive list.
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