The Heat face the Pacers' formidable front

Dwyane WadeAP Photo/Michael Conroy

Think Miami had trouble with Roy Hibbert and Indiana's frontline? Now add David West to the mix.

MIAMI – The Heat cornered the market on using free agency to get superstars in 2010. Their Eastern Conference rivals were forced to go a different route and they have, generally looking to answer the Miami star challenge with size.

The Chicago Bulls signed Carlos Boozer and brought over Turkish big man Omer Asik last year to add to Joakim Noah in the middle. The New York Knicks have picked up Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler over the last two years. The Indiana Pacers, with their turn at using cap space to make over their roster this year, recently added David West to their already strong frontcourt.

This trend promises to be a fitting challenge for the Heat as this season unfolds. Miami does not play a true center and generally prefers to use lineups filled with versatile wing players who often pose as big men. This is often effective because teams have problems matching up with the Heat’s athletes. But it doesn’t work all the time, height still matters.

The Heat may get their first real size challenge of the season Wednesday night when the 4-1 Indiana Pacers visit. Along with the former All-Star West, the Pacers have 7-2 center Roy Hibbert and energetic power forward Tyler Hansbrough, who appears to be at the start of a breakout season. Between the three of them, they average 37 points and 26 rebounds a game.

This will be the best front line the Heat will have seen yet this season with more to come among their chief rivals.

Miami’s struggles with zone defense have been the buzz in the wake of their first loss of the season on Monday against the Atlanta Hawks. Dealing with that, no doubt, was the focus of coach Erik Spoelstra’s work in the brief window he had before seeing Indiana. However, the Pacers almost never play zone. Coach Frank Vogel is a disciple of former Pacers coach Jim O’Brien, who is certainly old school, and generally doesn’t really believe in large doses of gimmick defense like Atlanta used.

The Pacers’ game plan likely will be to try to use that advantage up front to win. As good as the Heat have been – even after their 92-point output against Atlanta they still lead the league in many offensive categories – rebounding has already been a trouble spot at times.

Last week the Heat were able to pull out last-second wins over the Charlotte Bobcats and Minnesota Timberwolves thanks to some heroics by Dwyane Wade and some strong overall offense from LeBron James. A reason those games were so close, though, was rebounding. The Bobcats and Wolves have been two of the best rebounding teams in the league in the early going and they collected 27 more rebounds than Miami in those two games.

Overall, the Heat rank in the middle of the pack in rebounding thus far with James and Chris Bosh’s numbers being flat from last season. Wade’s have dropped off dramatically as he looks to get out and run more. To run, of course, the Heat need the ball. The second time the Heat played Charlotte, a few days later, they were more focused on the issue and won the rebound battle. It helped lead to scoring 32 more points than the first meeting and a blowout.

With Hibbert, West and Hansbrough, the Pacers are also near the top of the NBA in rebounding. That and some strong defense – Indiana has held its opponents to 89 points a game thus far – is the basis for their strong start. Though the schedule has been rather kind and has yet to include a playoff team from last season. This is not a fact that has been lost on the Pacers, who admit they have gotten a chance against lesser competition. That will end now as the game with the Heat starts a stretch of challenges that include the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Hawks in the next few days.

The Heat, meanwhile, are stewing after their first loss of the season and will leave on a five-game road trip that will take them to both coasts immediately after Wednesday’s game. Typically those factors would inject some urgency.

With both teams getting an off day before the game, an increasing rarity in the NBA these days, the stage is set for an intriguing early-season battle among teams that could end up playing a playoff series against each other.