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LeBron, Heat tip off East semis against Pacers

A third MVP award hasn't changed the endgame for LeBron James or the Miami Heat.

Fair or not, it's championship or bust for the star-studded Heat, who will square off with the much-improved Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Sunday in South Florida.

The second-seeded Heat had little trouble disposing of the banged-up and often dysfunctional New York Knicks, needing just five games to do so. Expectations are so high in South Beach, however, losing one game to Carmelo Anthony and Company was considered an affront by some observers.

But, it's all about winning 16 postseason games for the Heat, so much so that James, the game's best player who is still searching for his first NBA championship, has taken to wearing a mouthpiece with the Roman Numeral XVI or 16 on it.

James, of course, took a ton of "heat" last season in the NBA Finals when he and his teammates were outplayed by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks as the Mavs defeated Miami for the NBA championship. LeBron's "inability" to close out games on the big stage was the main focus.

When asked about the mouthpiece after the Heat's Game 1 win over the Knicks in the first round, James told Fox Sports: "It's just inspirational. I know this is the biggest part of the season, the second part of the season, so it's just an inspiration for me."

No word if James will change to an "XII" mouthpiece for the Pacers but his quest is down to 12 after Miami finished off the Knicks with a 106-95 win in Game 5.

James, as usual, had a solid all-around effort in the clincher with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

The seventh-seeded Knicks were beset with injuries before and during the series, however, and weren't really a test.

Amare Stoudemire missed Game 3 with an injured left hand which he suffered when he punched a fire extinguisher after a loss in Game 2. Veteran point guard Baron Davis, who was starting in place of the injured Jeremy Lin, suffered devastating knee injuries in Game 4. Also, defensive stalwart Iman Shumpert was lost to a torn ACL in a 33-point Game 1 setback.

"It's really a shame the injuries they went through," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Nobody wants to see it. We want to play teams at their best. We were able to persevere."

On the eve of the set Saturday James was awarded his third MVP trophy in the last four seasons, becoming the eighth player in league history to be honored on at least three occasions.

"This is my ninth year in the NBA," James said during a ceremony at American Airlines Arena. "Less than 10 years ago, I had dreams of being in the NBA. I had dreams of putting on an NBA uniform. I never dreamt about being a Most Valuable Player."

James joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6), Michael Jordan and Bill Russell (5), Wilt Chamberlain (4) and Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Moses Malone (3) on the list of players with at least three MVPs.

"Even though, this is an individual award, it's not an individual award," James added while thanking his family, the Heat organization and his teammates, who eventually joined him on the stage.

"The reason I'm up here today is because of those guys," he said addressing his teammates. "If those guys don't sacrifice what they sacrifice... I wouldn't be up here."

The third-seeded Pacers, meanwhile, finished off Orlando in five games Tuesday to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

"We feel like this is just the beginning of a big run. We're excited about where we're at as a basketball team," Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said.

It can be argued though, that Indiana really wasn't tested either since the Magic were without superstar center Dwight Howard, who was lost to season- ending back surgery, for the entire set.

"That team fought extremely hard the entire series and really made it a challenging series with their style of play, their energy and their effort," Vogel said about the Magic. "My hat is off to them."

Already angling for an edge, Vogel was fined $15,000 on Saturday for calling Miami "the biggest flopping team" in the league and wondering how referees will call the upcoming semifinal series between the teams.

The NBA said the fine was for "comments about how the referees should officiate the Pacers' upcoming series with the Heat."

The only playoff meeting between the Pacers and Heat came in 2004 in the East semifinals with Indiana winning in six games. Miami won three of the four encounters this season, however.

"We've played some great ball against them," James said. "I think we gave them more problems than they gave us. It's going to be a great series."