INDIANAPOLIS -- What, the Miami Heat worry?
Friday night the Indiana Pacers outclassed the Heat -- at least that was coach Erik Spoelstra's verb choice -- for a second time in a month with a 102-89 victory. The Heat are now 0-5 against top Eastern Conference rivals the Pacers, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls this season. All of those losses have been by double figures.
And the Heat don't care.
"We're not worried about that," LeBron James said with a shrug. "We don't put too much into losing a game or winning a game, we want to get better from those games. We don't need victories versus top teams to prove what we're capable of doing. We don't need them. We'd love to have them, but we don't need them."
What say you, Dwyane Wade?
"I would love to win every game against all the top teams," Wade said. "Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. All you need to do during the regular season is work your game."
Save the indignation, the Heat say. James quickly will point out, and he did, his team got swept by the Bulls two years ago in the regular season and beat them in five in the playoffs. That year they lost three of four to the Boston Celtics and beat them in five, too. James also offered that the Heat are 3-0 this season against the Brooklyn Nets, who are currently tied for fourth in the East.
The predictive value of regular season wins on the playoffs is historically irrelevant, and no one who has studied or watched the league much would argue. The Heat's pedigree and level of experience is vast and they aren't patently incorrect in evaluating the results thus far with what amounts to a shrug and a wave of the hand.
Nonetheless, the Heat's title defense so far is hardly calling to mind greatness. Especially with their 11-11 road record and the fact that their most effective big man Friday night, Chris Andersen, is currently on a 10-day contract.
More specifically, the Pacers are showing some legitimacy as the top underdog contender to knock the Heat off their East perch. Indiana boasts two important traits that would be needed to theoretically beat Miami four times out of seven.
They have good size on the interior -- most notably David West and Roy Hibbert -- and that gives the Heat problems. In the two games they've played this season, the Pacers have a whopping plus-28 rebounding edge. On Friday, West tore up every defender the Heat put in front of him en route to 30 points on just 15 shots.
The Pacers are also an excellent defensive team. In fact, they could make a case they're the best in the league. They lead the NBA in field goal percentage defense and defensive efficiency. The Heat, who are one of the league's top offenses, have failed to cracked 90 points in both meetings this season.
Beyond those two factors, there are also some intangibles. The Pacers have some bad blood with the Heat, dating to last season's playoffs, when the Heat rallied from being down 2-1 to win in six games.
That two-week dance resulted in two Heat players getting suspended for dirty hits, a pregame shoving match and the Pacers forcing Lance Stephenson into a public apology for giving James a "choke" sign. Friday, James and Stephenson got into it again with James putting his forearm in Stephenson's chest after some more trash talk.
The Pacers' struggle is scoring, as they rank 28th in the league in offensive efficiency. Considering their trouble putting points up, it is a true accomplishment they are 28-19 in early February. But they are expected to get a boost in that department when leading scorer Danny Granger, who hasn't played a game this season because of a knee injury, makes his return in the near future.
The odds in Vegas won't be changing, but this is a résumé of a contender -- at least what qualifies in the East.
"We match up with [the Heat], and I think we have some familiarity with them from the playoff series," West said. "They're one of the best teams in the NBA so it's good to beat them. But we can't overreact."
The Heat will not be overreacting, either. If they are reacting at all, it is behind closed doors. Spoelstra showed the Heat long clips of the previous loss in Indiana before the game on Friday in a strategy to warn his players. The Heat did play with high intensity and focus, which hasn't always been the case on the road this season, but they were flatly outexecuted and outplayed by the Pacers.
In fairness, both of these games were in Indiana, where the Pacers are excellent and have now won 13 in a row. But in equal fairness, the Pacers have dominated the champs both times.
The Heat have taken notice, but won't be losing any sleep.
"Whenever you beat a team twice it's natural [to have confidence]," Spoelstra said. "We're not afraid of that. We have to get better against them. We'll have to bring more. That is our hope, and that is what will happen."