By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - The Miami Heat crushed the Indiana Pacers 117-92 to stay in the hunt for a third straight NBA title after a 4-2 series win secured them the Eastern Conference championship on Friday.
Miami, now in their fourth straight NBA Finals, will play either the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder for the championship. San Antonio lead the Western Conference Final 3-2.
LeBron James and Chris Bosh top scored for Miami with 25 points each while Paul George had 29 points for the Pacers.
After narrowly losing out in Game Five in Indiana on Wednesday, Miami knew they could ill-afford another slip-up and they dominated a Pacers team that in the end was no real match for them.
"It is bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals and bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row," said Pacers head coach Frank Vogel.
"But we are competing against the Michael Jordan of our era and the Chicago Bulls of our era and you have to tip your hats to them," he added.
Miami become only the third franchise to reach four straight finals - following the Boston Celtics and the L.A. Lakers.
It was always going to be a lively atmosphere for such a crucial game but the Heat fans were additionally charged up by the antics of Pacers guard Lance Stephenson who has attempted to wind-up James throughout the series and drew attention – and some ridicule – by blowing into James's ear during Game Five.
If Stephenson thought that he could gain an advantage for his team by trying to get under the Heat's skin, his approach badly misfired – his mere presence on court ensuring the loudest support Miami have received this season.
Miami's now traditional slow start allowed Indiana to take an early 9-2 lead but that was the last time they were ahead all night as the Heat, producing unselfish and smart offense, took charge.
Miami led 24-13 at the end of the first quarter with eleven of those points coming from James.
If Stephenson was in danger of becoming a pantomime villain, flicking James in the face between plays, the boos from the crowd had more anger in them after he sent Norris Cole flying with a palm to the face, ruled a flagrant foul.
The score was 33-20 at that point with Stephenson’s 11 points keeping Indiana just in touch but once again his approach had the unintended consequence of raising Miami to another level.
Certainly Vogel felt that his player had been unwise to provoke James into additional motivation.
"I don't think it is ever good to tug on Superman's cape," he said.
The Heat ended the half 60-34 up with 15 points for James on 6 of 8 shooting and Bosh with 13 points - also on 6 of 8 shooting – while Stephenson had not added a single point to his tally.
The second half was purely about Miami managing their lead and they did so with little trouble as Indiana's challenge fizzled out.
Once again Miami had found another gear when they really needed it but they know they will face a much sterner test from their Western Conference opponents in the final.
"We don't take this moment for granted," said James. "We are going to celebrate tonight because this doesn't happen every year."
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)