Miami, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The road to the Eastern Conference title appears to be headed through South Beach.
LeBron James scored a game-high 36 points and the Miami Heat surprisingly blew out the rival Indiana Pacers, 98-86, on Friday in the finale of the season series between last year's conference finals combatants.
The outcome did not determine the East's top seed, but Miami now controls its own fate with winnable games against the Hawks, Wizards and 76ers remaining. Indiana, which sits a half-game behind the two-time defending champions, hosts the Thunder before a road tilt against Orlando ends its regular season.
Despite being without Dwyane Wade for a ninth straight game because of a hamstring injury, the Heat pulled away courtesy of a lopsided third quarter.
James scored 13 of his points in the frame, which saw the Heat turn a three- point halftime cushion into a lead that grew to 23 points.
"The third quarter was too much for us to overcome," Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said. "Give the Heat a lot of credit, their defensive pressure was extraordinary and they played a terrific basketball game."
Mario Chalmers finished with 13 points, five rebounds and five assists, while Udonis Haslem netted 11 points with nine boards in the resounding win.
The crushing loss added to Indiana's recent swoon, one that included Vogel benching his starters in a lead-up game to Friday's clash. Paul George and David West were the only starters to respond with double-digit scoring efforts, totaling 22 and 18 points, respectively.
Roy Hibbert was limited to five points on 2-of-6 shooting, and the 7-foot-2 center only grabbed one rebound in nearly 34 minutes of playing time.
A back-and-forth first half was a distant afterthought when Miami opened the third quarter with 16 consecutive points.
Chalmers got things started with a 3-pointer, Haslem chipped in with two putbacks and James scored seven points during the game-altering run. James' deep jumper with a hand in his face and a foot on the 3-point line stretched the Heat's lead to 61-42, deflating the Pacers to the point of calling three timeouts in the first six minutes of the quarter.
"The first half was a heck of a half ... Our defense was on point, with the deflections, the pressure, the rotations. In the second half, we just continued with that pressure and finally broke it open," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said.
The margin grew to a healthy 23 points later in the frame, and one final Indiana push -- a 13-0 surge that bled into the fourth quarter -- cut the deficit to a manageable nine points at 76-67.
Miami, though, answered with nine in a row with James on the bench, and the hosts cruised over the final eight minutes.
The Pacers, inept on offense during a 4-8 stretch over their previous 12 games, came out of the gate and made seven of their first 10 shots.
James kept the Heat close with 14 points in a first quarter that had seven lead changes and five ties and ended with Indiana in front 25-23.
Both defenses showed up in the second quarter, with Miami forcing seven turnovers and Indiana limiting the Heat to 36.8 percent shooting. Still, the Heat got to the foul line 10 times and made eight free throws to head into the break with a slim 45-42 advantage.
Indiana holds the tiebreaker over the Heat should they tie due to splitting the four-game season series and holding a better conference record ... Haslem's first offensive rebound moved him past Alonzo Mourning for first place on the Heat's all-time list with 1,506 ... The Pacers have been outrebounded in seven straight games, with Miami owning a 40-31 edge on Friday ... The Pacers have lost six straight regular season road games to the Heat and have not won in Miami since Nov. 22, 2010 ... Miami forced 16 turnovers and only committed nine.