Pacers may be Heat's top rival
Miami • The two early-season blowout losses to the New York Knicks were one thing. That was being beaten over the top with 3-pointers. Gimmick basketball. A style that rarely has succeeded in the playoffs.
But the two lopsided losses to the Indiana Pacers? That was different. That was, as LeBron James called it, "smash mouth," being outrebounded by more than 17 a game. And that very much is playoff basketball.
That's what makes Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena arguably the most important game left on the Miami Heat's schedule. It is the latest chance during the regular season to somewhat even that score, with this the Heat's lone home game against the Pacers in the three-game season series.
"We're well aware," coach Erik Spoelstra said, "that they've absolutely pounded us and beaten us up."
More like kicked sand in the Heat's faces.
"Now it's our turn, being at home, to come out and take care of business," guard Dwyane Wade said.
A week ago, the Heat took care of business with a statement victory at Madison Square Garden over the Knicks. Now the Pacers arrive.
"Whatever team has beaten us, especially since the [All-Star] break, we've tried to redeem ourselves," Wade said.
The last time the Pacers were in South Florida was a wild Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals, a game that featured a vicious flagrant foul from Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough on Wade, with power forward Udonis Haslem and since-dealt center Dexter Pittman earning suspensions for retaliatory fouls.
"It was a physical game. We won," said James, declining to revisit such moments, with the Heat eliminating the Pacers the following game.
For the Pacers, the motivation comes on several levels.
"Being able to prove we can beat them is something we came into the year with the mind frame with, because of how that playoff series ended," Pacers power forward David West said. "I think they've got some incentives for this one, so we don't sweep the series."
So there could be blood?
"I'm sure they're going to be playing with a little chip on their shoulder from the first two times we played them," Pacers point guard George Hill said. "We're expecting to take their best shot."
And possibly provide a few, as well.
"Just knowing with that team you can't be the one that lets them hit you first," Hill said. "You have to play with an edge and chippiness."
Nothing less is expected.
"They're as chippy as any team in the NBA," Heat forward Shane Battier said after Saturday's practice at AmericanAirlines Arena. "There always are a couple of extracurriculars in there. We don't back down from anybody.
"Toughness is not just getting in skirmishes, it's making basketball plays under pressure."
Pacers coach Frank Vogel agreed, his team taking the Heat's practice court Saturday after the Heat completed their session.
"I don't know if we're trying to be chippy," he said. "We're just trying to play good, physical basketball.
"We're not interested in any nonsense."
Before last season's playoff series, Vogel got in a preemptive shot when he accused the Heat of flopping.
This time the Pacers entering playing a similar angle, that the Heat get the calls because they're, well, the Heat.
"We play with a little bit of chip on our shoulder and a little bit of swag," center Roy Hibbert said. "I mean, they get a lot of the calls. They're the superstar team. We just take it personal and try to go at them."
And yet James insists it's not personal, practically brushing the Pacers aside as a gnat instead of any type of playoff threat.
Asked if last season's playoff series and this season's results have left the Pacers as a prime rival, James wouldn't bite.
"It's Boston, Chicago more than Indiana," he said. "We've only had one series with those guys. So I would say it's Boston.
"Indiana is not a rival at this point."
But if they want to be, then Heat forward Chris Bosh said that's fine, bring it on.
"You always need somebody you have to beat," he said. "We just can't be by ourselves. It's good to know there are other teams that can beat you out there."
For his part, Vogel downplayed the Pacers' 2-0 season edge.
"They weren't sharp in the two games they played against us," he said. "I'm sure they'll be sharp."
"You don't win 17 straight if you're not tough," Vogel said.
He also said no matter Sunday's result, the Pacers are ready if there's another meeting in the playoffs.
"You need to have confidence you can beat that team," he said. "And we have that confidence."
"They have a chip on their shoulder," Wade said. "Yeah, it's there."