The rivalry between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers developed quickly and intensified even faster. When the two teams met in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals few thought that the Pacers would hold their own against the Heat. Naturally everyone was shocked when the Pacers jumped out to a 2-1 series lead. Although the Heat would eventually win the series, the roots of a new rivalry were planted.
Nearly two years later, the rivalry is in full bloom, both on and off the court. The Pacers made public their goal of clinching the best record in the East, thus ensuring home court advantage during the playoffs. No doubt they are still stinging from a Game 7 loss on the road during the 2013 conference finals. In fact over the past two seasons the home team has won 14 out of the 19 matchups between the Heat and Pacers.
Yesterday’s 84-83 victory by the Pacers wrote another chapter in this passionate, physical rivalry. A game that featured multiple hard fouls, trash talking, and even an ejection, displayed the toughness and determination that has exemplified this rivalry. Over the past two seasons, the teams have played each other close, with Miami holding a slightly better head-to-head record at 10-9. Heat fans are quick to (correctly) point out that the playoff series count is 2-0, but the Pacers are hoping to narrow that gap this season. Each team has made specific roster adjustments. The Heat signed Greg Oden to give them a stronger inside presence. The additions Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley didn’t hurt either. The Pacers upgraded their bench, trying to get more offensive production from Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, and Evan Turner.
Many expect the Heat and Pacers to meet in the Eastern Conference finals. Brooklyn, Chicago, and Toronto are trying to stay in the mix, but the conference’s top two teams are focused squarely on each other. ESPN has capitalized on this, and #BeastsOfTheEast soon was trending on Twitter, not to mention showing up on every television screen. The disparity between the East and West doesn’t help either, since 9 Western Conference teams have a higher winning percentage than the current 3-seed in the East. While Boston is in rebuilding mode and Chicago adjusts to the length of Derrick Rose’s injuries, Miami and Indiana have risen to the top of the East. Don’t expect them to give up any ground. Miami’s health and endurance have come under question this year (refer to Dwayne Wade’s hamstring exit after futilely chasing Evan Turner’s breakaway layup at the end of the 4th quarter), but they always know how to turn on the intensity come playoff time. If the goal is to keep the Big Three together, they will still be in the mix for championships. Meanwhile the Pacers have assembled a strong core of players, coupled with the league’s top defense. Paul George has blossomed into a superstar, and his cast of fellow starters have improved every year. This young team is about to reach their prime, and their eyes are set on championships. The Heat and Pacers should meet in the conference finals, not just because they are clearly the two best teams in the East, but because they simply will not let anyone else stand in their way. Both want their chance to send a message: the Heat to remind us who are the defending champs, Pacers to prove they belong with the league’s elite. After one more regular season matchup, the two will gear up for what promises to be an outstanding playoff series. It shouldn’t be any other way. In fact, why not have it out right now: a best of 7, neutral court, half Miami fans/half Indiana fans, winner gets whoever survives the battle for the West.
Every play from last night’s contest displayed the high intensity and passion that it takes to win a championship. Just look at the last two minutes. Evan Turner, replacing the ejected Lance Stephenson, makes two critical layups. An injured Wade has to leave game (which also cost the Heat an important timeout, given their clock management down the stretch). After James barely misses on a go-ahead 3-pointer, David West(?!) of all people connects from outside the arc, sending the capacity crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse into a frenzy. Not to be outdone, Chris Bosh cuts the lead the one with a 3 of his own. George Hill somehow misses two critical free throws, and Bosh heaves up the would be game winner that didn’t even touch the rim. How’s that for a two-minute warning? The Heat and Pacers have as many as 8 more matchups this season. If you want a preview, just watch the last 2 minutes of last night’s nailbiter. Then think of what they will do with another 384. AN