MIAMI - Standing on the cusp of the NBA Finals has tended to agree with the Miami Heat in each of the last two seasons. When the Heat has gotten a game away from the title round, it has finished the task as quickly as possible.
A third straight Eastern Conference title is now just one win away for the reigning champions, though if the way this series has gone so far is an accurate indicator, that win will hardly come easily.
The Heat - without suspended backup forward Chris "Birdman" Andersen - will visit the Indiana Pacers tonight, leading the best-of-seven East finals 3-2 and in position to close out their new rivals on their own floor for the second straight season.
On Friday, the NBA suspended Andersen for Game 6 for his altercation Thursday night with Tyler Hansbrough, leaving Miami without one of its best big men.
"We're desperate, too," Heat forward and four-time NBA MVP LeBron James said Friday. "We're desperate to get back to the NBA Finals. So both teams are desperate in their own sense of they're trying to keep their season alive and we're trying to advance."
The teams have alternated wins and losses in the first five games, and if that trend holds, Indiana would send the series back to Miami for a winner-goes-to-the- Finals Game 7 on Monday night.
If the Heat - which has won each of its last six potential series-closeout games, including two in the 2011 and 2012 East finals - wins, the championship round against San Antonio will begin in Miami next Thursday.
"You can't start thinking about opening up the invitation," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That's over there. You can't even think about that."
Indiana coach Frank Vogel said he expects that reserve forward Hansbrough, who sprained an ankle in the second half of Game 5, will be available tonight.
Andersen, who is 15 for 15 from the floor in the series and has made his last 18 shots overall, was suspended for knocking Hansbrough to the floor from behind in the second quarter Thursday, then shoving him backward after Hansbrough got up. Anderson also did not back away quickly enough when a referee stepped in.
NBA commissioner David Stern, speaking with NBC Sports Radio, said he thought Andersen should have been ejected. Officials called a Flagrant 1 foul, but it was upgraded by the NBA to a Flagrant 2 foul for a one-game suspension.
"I don't know what he was doing," Stern said. "A serious review of his activities is called for."
The Pacers saw their season end a year ago on their home floor, at Miami's hand, in Game 6 of a second-round series. They don't want that to happen again.
"Game 6 will really determine how much we've grown, because we've been in the same ditch, I guess, being in the same predicament," Pacers star Paul George said. "We've done well all year, especially in the postseason, dealing with adversity and overcoming games where we didn't play as well as we wanted."
The shirts in Indiana say "Gold Swagger" for a reason. Even down 3-2 against a team that hasn't lost back-to-back games since early January, the Pacers still have plenty of confidence, and it starts with a coach who came into the series insisting his club had genuine belief that it could knock off the champions.
"It's not just false talk," Vogel said. "There's a reason I'm confident. I like to tell these guys that I'm not an optimist. I'm a realist. And when I look around at what I see in the room, and what I see on the court, and the level of execution that we're capable of … it gives me real confidence in this basketball team. Our guys understand it's not just happy talk."
Dwyane Wade's aching right knee is still limiting him, and Chris Bosh's numbers are nowhere near what Miami would want right now, so the defending champions aren't exactly at their best.
"The close-out game," Heat forward Shane Battier said, "is always the toughest."
• What: Pacers at Heat, Game 6
• When: 5:30 p.m.
• TV: TNT