Heat vs. Pacers, right on schedule

MIAMI -- LeBron James takes pride in studying NBA coaches and executives in much the same way he scouts opposing players, so he’s definitely done his homework on Frank Vogel over the years.

Last season, Vogel was caught by surprise when the Miami Heat’s four-time league MVP approached him during a break in a game at Indiana and congratulated him for receiving an extension. Vogel earned the new contract in large part for leading the Pacers through a hard-fought loss to the Heat in six games during the second round of the 2012 playoffs.

But Vogel was likely far less surprised when James approached him again during All-Star weekend in New Orleans last February with another message. Vogel coached the East team and had just wrapped up a pregame meeting with James and the other All-Stars.

“I told Frank Vogel during All-Star, ‘You know, I’m looking forward to seeing you again in May,” James recalled Friday of that conversation with Vogel. “Throughout the regular season, you felt like we were the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. And even though we both had our struggles, you felt like if both sides took care of business, we’d see each other. Both teams took care of business. At the end of the day, teams that want to win championships have to do it the hard way.”

The event linked to that save-the-date notice from James to Vogel has arrived.

When it’s mid-May in the Eastern Conference, it could only mean one thing: Miami and Indiana are bound to be on a collision course at some point during the playoffs. The Heat and Pacers open their rematch of last year’s conference finals with Game 1 on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (3:30 ET, ABC).

It’s the third consecutive year the teams have met in the postseason. James rallied the Heat from a 2-1 series deficit to beat Indiana in six games in 2012, then knocked off Boston in seven games in the conference finals and Oklahoma City in five games to win his first title in Miami.

Last year, the Pacers advanced a step further but lost Game 7 of the conference finals to the Heat in Miami. James and the Heat then rallied from a 3-2 series deficit in the Finals to beat San Antonio for their second consecutive championship. So it came as no surprise to Heat that their biggest rival in the East once again stands in their path to a potential third straight title.

Both teams have struggled down the stretch of the season since James delivered that message to Vogel. The Heat lost 14 of their final 25 games and placed a higher priority on preserving rest for key players such as Dwyane Wade and Chris Andersen, who were in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries.

The Pacers were 12-13 from March 1 to the end of the season as they battled chemistry problems on the court and rumors about their personal lives off the court. But the Pacers still held off Miami for the No. 1 seed they proudly and publicly coveted since their playoff run ended last season.

Despite their sporadic play in recent months, the Pacers have had some of their strongest games against the Heat and have split the four-game regular-season series. Considering how Miami has been such a source of frustration for Indiana these past few years, Wade can empathize with the enemy.

Wade said Friday the Heat felt the same way about the Pistons after they lost Game 7 to Detroit during the 2005 conference finals after acquiring Shaquille O’Neal at the start of the 2004-05 season. Wade’s series was derailed by a rib injury, which only added to his frustrations heading into that offseason.

A year later, the Heat beat the Pistons in six games in the conference finals and then got past Dallas in the NBA Finals to win the franchise’s first championship in 2006. A few years later, Wade’s Heat team as well as James’ teams in Cleveland were repeatedly denied by Boston’s core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen over a period of three years when the Celtics were the team atop the East.

Considering the circumstances, Wade was asked Friday if he could relate a little with the Pacers’ plight.

“I can relate a lot,” Wade said. “After we lost in Game 7 to Detroit, that was my whole workout (motivation) that summer. It was all Detroit. It was all the way they played us. It was what they did. When we finally got back to that moment, no matter what we went through during the season, we didn’t want to be denied again.”

It’s a case of the hunted never forgetting the hunger that drives the hunter.

“We haven’t been champions our whole life,” Wade continued. “We understand the other side. That’s why we take no shortcuts. That’s why we take nothing for granted. We know there are always hungrier guys that are in the position we were in before. And you would do anything to get to the position we’re in now as champions.”

Taking stock of the natural progression Indiana has made the past two years, Wade can understand why the Pacers are confident they’re due for a breakthrough against the Heat.

“If you keep getting your opportunity, eventually, you feel you can crack that code,” Wade said of the Pacers. “And I’m sure they feel that this is their year, and rightfully so. They should. But (we’ve) got a team that feels it’s our year as well. It couldn’t get any better than this, when you talk about the Eastern Conference finals. You’ve got a team everyone wants to see if they have learned from their experiences of losing from last year. And you have another team you want to see if they can continue and make history and go to our fourth straight finals. It’s great storylines.”

The winner of the series gets the happy ending and a trip to the Finals.

The loser stumbles into a summer of uncertainty, and may not return intact next season.

How the Pacers and Heat got here no longer matters.

And after all of the turbulence, tweaks and turmoil they’ve endured the past 12 months, the teams have come full circle and meet again as if time stood still.

“A bunch of people have been paying attention to what’s happened lately,” Heat center Chris Bosh said. “But they’re still the No. 1 team in the East. This is what everybody wants. We knew we were going to have to beat the Pacers to get to where we want to go, and vice versa. With all that said, we’re here.”

The paths they took to get here weren’t easy.

But it’s Heat and Pacers in May.

Right on schedule.