INDIANAPOLIS -- At their core, the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat believe in some of the same values in how to go about winning. Actually, you could say they’re both sort of trendsetters that other teams have started to try to imitate.
But outwardly, they certainly couldn’t present a more different image. And that is what makes their growing rivalry such an interesting drama to watch.
The Heat and Pacers are far and away the best two teams in the Eastern Conference and overwhelmingly favored to face each other for a third consecutive playoffs. They have, it is generally viewed, the two best players in the East in LeBron James and Paul George. They have signature systems they largely invented to feature their advantages: the Heat with their pace-and-space offensive machine that churns out points, and the Pacers with their defensive funnel to the middle and their rock-solid basket defenders who smother opponents.
They both highly value consistency and long-term stability, are led by presidents who are Hall of Famers who influence everything that happens in the organization, and are coached by former video coordinators who took the elbow-grease path to the top and have become hugely respected for it.
So why do the Pacers believe these regular-season games with the Heat, the first of which is tonight (NBATV, 7 ET), are important -- and the Heat largely prefer to dismiss their importance?
“A lot of it is rhetoric,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We just want to build on what we’re doing and that’s the next game we want to build on.”
“We’re going to do everything in our power to get home-court advantage over them during the season," Pacers forward David West said. "It’s something we have focused on from the very beginning."
“We’ll let that take care of itself, we’ll just try to win as many games as we can and see when the seeding is at the end,” James said.
“We’re trying for the No. 1 seed,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re really going for it.”
In the past two seasons, the Pacers have beaten the Heat eight times. Five of the wins came in the playoffs. There is no mystery between these teams. The Pacers know that their defense and rebounding game plan against the Heat’s spread offense can work. It just hasn’t quite worked enough.
The difference last season, the Pacers believe, was they didn’t have Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on their home floor. They were 8-1 at home during the playoffs (the loss was in Game 3 of that series to the Heat) and they’re already 9-0 at home this season. Without permitting argument, the Pacers believe if they can get another shot and they can start and finish the series at home, they will end the Heat’s three-year dominance in the East.
The Heat have won at least one road game in all 12 playoff series they’ve played since coming together in 2010. They won three playoff games in Indiana in the past two seasons, in fact. They have won a conference finals and a Finals series where they did not have home-court advantage going in. That’s the sort of record that would make any team feel confident no matter the schedule of any series.
But they also have needed to win three Game 7s to get their past two titles, and all three of those were at home. Most would agree that if the situation were reversed, the Heat probably wouldn’t have two gold trophies.
“At the end of the day, you would love home court throughout the playoffs,” James said. “We’ve been on both sides of that fence and we’ve handled it both ways. It’s always challenging to go on the road to start a series.”
Still, though, the Heat are willing to sacrifice games along the way so they can work on building themselves up. Dwyane Wade already has sat out six games this season and likely will sit out many, many more. At the end of the season, the Heat have found good success by resting James and Chris Bosh and probably will aim to do so again.
The younger and generally healthier Pacers have not, and based on everything they’ve said, don’t seem to be planning on resting players as long as they avoid the sort of major injuries that any team with title hopes must dodge.
All of which only adds to the edge in these four potentially very valuable regular-season games, which the Pacers see as more than just symbolic.
“I don't think that team is that much better than us. I don't know if we're that much better than that team,” George told the Indianapolis Star. “I think we're quite even."