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Heat and Pacers renew rivalry as Indiana attempts to claim crown

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

This was the last time the Indiana Pacers had a championship advantage over the Miami Heat.

Yes, Indiana won two out of three regular-season meetings last season, but that was before they were considered legitimate threats to Miami's throne. That was before last spring's epic seven-game series in which the Pacers just didn't have enough to quite get by, before that moment in Game 1 when the Pacers almost shocked the world and stole Game 1. Who knows how history unfolds if Frank Vogel had kept Roy Hibbert in for that play?

From there on out, the Pacers were playing catchup. And catch up they did, consistently coming back to tie the series after each Heat win. But unlike Miami in its NBA Finals Game 7 vs. the Spurs, Indiana was never able to win back-to-back games, and lost in Game 7. That Game 1 moment was the Pacers' best chance to steal momentum in pursuit of unseating the mighty Heat.

On Tuesday, the rivalry is renewed. Make no mistake, this is a rivalry. LeBron James can question it all he wants, but no team combines the necessary ingredients like Indiana -- a serious title contender that matches up best with Miami, and most importantly, seriously dislikes the Heat. There's a mutual distaste between these teams that goes back years.

The common narative between Indy and the Heat says that the rivalry began last year, but in reality, this goes back to their 2012 second-round series. The Celtics took the Heat to seven in the East finals, but if you were paying attention, it was always Indiana that made more sense as the team that could knock off the Triad's run to the title. In that series, the Pacers were first learning what they were capable of, that their size, toughness, depth and versatility matched up with Miami, that they could pound it inside and that unlike Chicago, they weren't reliant upon one diminutive star to do it all.

In that series Danny Granger got into it with LeBron James, Lance Stephenson mocked Miami (far too soon), and the hard fouls began. Last year was the validation that not only could Indiana be a thorn in Miami's side, but a legitimate threat. When the Heat prevailed in Game 7 last spring, it was taken as fait accompli. In truth, Indiana sneaking out that game and advancing to the NBA Finals wouldn't have surprised all that many who were paying attention. The series was awfully close to a coin flip. Miami just happened to have home court, which helped that coin tip maybe just a bit.

There's a reason Indiana stated from the get-go it wants that Game 7 on its home court. That's not just a "we want as good a season as we can get" goal. What that statement says is "We know in our hearts we can beat this team if we get Game 7 on our home floor."

There are teams that match up well with the Heat. San Antonio isn't one of them -- the Spurs were simply that superb last year, all the way until 28 ticks left in Game 6. Chicago matches up and gives Miami fits. The Bulls are annoying. The difference is their lack of an extra gear. They can't push beyond how they usually play. They are who they are, which is tough and dangeous with Derrick Rose.

But Indiana combines the best elements of every team that can match up. The Pacers' size gives the Heat fits, both with Hibbert protecting the rim and David West scoring tough baskets inside. Paul George is the perimeter defender you need against LeBron and the perimeter scoring weapon to draw James' attention and open up opportunities for others.

And coach Frank Vogel has managed to put together the blueprint needed at both ends. They've cut down on isolations and midrange jump shots, the plays Miami's defense wants you to fall into, and increased their 3-point spacing and interior attack. They know how to force James into being a scorer and not a playmaker, the best chance at limiting the devastation he leaves in his wake.

They give hard fouls, they make tough plays, they never quit, they remain consistent. They combine elements of Dallas (runs to answer deficits the Heat create), San Antonio (spacing and perimeter versatility) and Chicago (tough, physical defense and size). They've gained experience these past three years. George has become the MVP-caliber player you need to rely on in the playoffs, but they're also not hamstrung by needing him to be exceptional on every play to survive offensively.

Tuesday night is a chance to make a statement for both teams. Yes, nearly every night is another chance for Miami to assert its dominance, smack down a pretender and showcase its continued reign. But Indiana is a team that pushed the Heat as far as you can last year, and then got better. The Pacers are the top team in the East. It's a home game with a bloodthirsty crowd (despite Indiana's attendance issues, they'll be up for this one, you have to think). And already, the questions are out as to whether this Miami team has the focus, the depth, the defense to three-peat, something that hasn't been done in a decade.

For Indiana, it can't prove anything Tuesday. A loss doesn't kill the Pacers' chances, and a win certainly doesn't make them the favorites. Such is the NBA regular season and the gap between it and the playoffs. But if their incredible early season run has been cementing them as the real deal and not a flash in the pan from last season, if their impressive West Coast road trip was proof of establishment, Tuesday is the Pacers' chance to gain an early, if ultimately inconsequential advantage. Taking the kingdom means gaining every piece of confidence you can.

And beyond all that, it means beating a team Indiana legitimately hates, more than Garnett's Celtics, more than Rose's Bulls, more than Durant's Thunder, Dirk's Mavericks or Duncan's Spurs do. It might not be personal, but it is philosophical: small-market hard work and commitment to principles vs. the flash, shine and glow of free-agency superstardom. It's etched in their faces and their play.

Maybe it means nothing, but victory over Miami can only help the Paces in their quest to understand how to claim the kingdom as theirs.

 
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