Indiana will give LeBron James and the Heat all they can handle.
LeBron James has repeatedly resisted calling the Indiana Pacers one of his chief rivals.
James has some standards before an opponent meets that classification, and facing that opponent in more than one playoff series is a start.
Talk alone won't suffice.
Listen to what James said earlier this season, after a shootaround in Indianapolis, about the teams' second-round series last spring: “Chris (Bosh) got hurt, they took a 2-1 lead and (were) really excited about what was going on and were talking a lot. They felt they were the better team, and we took control of the series. … But they’ve been talking a lot. I read a lot of clips that they’ve had before the season that said they were better than us, and they should have beat us, so we’ll be ready.”
That was prior to a regular-season game, one that James and the Heat still lost. Miami then won the teams' only meeting in Miami, to finish the season series at 1-2.
"We felt all year we were in the top two in the East," Pacers forward David West said. "Things have been building toward this."
Indiana clearly feels good about its chances, even with its leading scorer from last season and postseason, Danny Granger, sidelined the rest of the way after knee surgery.
What can we make of the rest of the matchups?
All quotes for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post.
Chris Bosh will try to take Roy Hibbert outside.
Prior to the Miami Heat's second-round encounter with the Indiana Pacers last spring, there was a near-consensus among those previewing the series: Chris Bosh needed to be big.
It wasn't long before the Heat were presented with a big problem.
After scoring 13 points in 15 minutes, Bosh badly strained an abdominal muscle on a dunk attempt during the first half of Game 1.
And while the Heat rallied to win that game without him, they scored just 75 points in each of the next two contests, experimenting unsuccessfully with a number of frontcourt combinations, including three forgettable starter's minutes from Dexter Pittman.
Miami is deeper now, but that doesn't diminish Bosh's importance.
"He’s a wild card for us," LeBron James said. "The way he’s been rebounding this postseason and shooting the ball gives us another dynamic this postseason."
The shooting, especially, will be important in this series to pull Roy Hibbert away from the basket. Hibbert averaged 3.2 blocks in 37.5 minutes in the just-completed series against the New York Knicks, after which Frank Vogel said he was the "best rim-protector in the NBA."
Hibbert has also improved offensively as this season has progressed. So Bosh will get help, not only in guarding him, but in making him move his feet. James and Dwyane Wade need to attack Hibbert to get him in early foul trouble. Last spring, the Pacers outscored Miami with Hibbert on the court, but he averaged just 32.4 minutes.
Bosh by a bit, if he can bring Hibbert out to the edges.
Udonis Haslem will be one of many to take a turn on David West.
There was a time, back before all the injuries, when David West and Udonis Haslem would spend a little more time in the air.
During the 2010-11 season, however, West tore up his knee and Haslem damaged his foot. Both are healthier now than they were last postseason, but neither will awe anybody with elevation.
Haslem will try to box out, grab a few loose balls and knock down the occasional baseline jumper. Lately, the Miami Heat co-captain has earned more of his teammates' trust as an offensive outlet, and his 63.4 percent postseason shooting has been one of the team's pleasant surprises.
Even so, he'll only play about 16-20 minutes, with nearly all coming at the start of the first and third quarters before Erik Spoelstra turns to others in crunch time.
West, on the other hand, will play in any and all critical situations for the Indiana Pacers, because of his strong voice and steady hand. On a young team, the tough-minded veteran is the unquestioned leader.
Miami is more concerned with his scoring ability, which proved to be prodigious during the regular season. In three games against the Heat, West averaged 22.7 points on 65.8 percent shooting.
He did it by physically carving out space and craftily getting off his shots.
"We’ll have several people guarding him," Spoelstra said. "He deserves that respect."
Shane Battier, LeBron James and Chris Andersen all will have an opportunity. At the start, though, it will be Haslem, trying to keep West from hurting Miami too much.
LeBron James will test how far Paul George has come.
LeBron James has worked out with Paul George, mentored Paul George, praised Paul George.
On March 10, though, he decided not to guard Paul George, suggesting to Dwyane Wade that he do so.
"So I just took the assignment," Wade said. "I just think the biggest thing was, he just wanted me engaged early, from the start, and very aggressive.”
“It threw us off a bit,” George admitted.
It did, but we're not likely to see it often in this second-round series.
No, for the most part, the NBA's Most Valuable Player will often be face to face with the NBA's Most Improved Player.
It should be quite a show, on both ends.
Some would argue that George is already James' equal as a defender, posting the highest defensive win share number (6.3) in the league, while James finished tied for eighth (4.8).
"He's very athletic, with long arms, and his anticipation is very good," James said.
You can anticipate George's length giving him trouble at times, in a way few other players can.
And yet, you can anticipate James giving George more on the other end, since the Pacers forward, five years younger than James, isn't yet a polished offensive product, as evidenced by his 40.8 percent shooting against Miami this season.
George is an All-Star, well-deserved. James, of course, is all-world.
Expect that gap to show.
Dwyane Wade has the experience advantage, but Lance Stephenson has healthy knees.
Lance Stephenson played plenty on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse floor last May, when the Miami Heat were in town to face the Indiana Pacers.
But it mostly happened after the playoff games ended and the Heat had left the building. Stephenson, still fresh from a night on the sidelines, scrimmaged with some friends, trying to get a sweat.
He doesn't figure to need the exercise this time, since he'll match last spring's series total (seven minutes) in the first quarter of Game 1.
He'll get it in a matchup with Dwyane Wade, a player nine years older and significantly more accomplished.
The question is whether Wade will be Wade.
The Heat had reason to be encouraged by Wade's play in the final five minutes of Game 5, when he showed explosiveness on both ends. Wade certainly was encouraged by it, saying that it was the best that his bruised right knee has felt since the playoffs started.
Stephenson was spectacular in Indiana's Game 7 win against the New York Knicks, with 25 points on just 13 shots, plus 10 rebounds.
Certainly he has now earned more respect than LeBron James showed him last spring when, after Stephenson was caught on camera giving James the choke sign, James said this: "Lance Stephenson? You want a quote about Lance Stephenson? I’m not even going to give him the time."
Stephenson's coach, Frank Vogel, will give him time on the court.
But it's not yet Stephenson's time to surpass Wade—if Wade is Wade.
George Hill isn't dynamic, but he makes the right plays.
There was a big-game feel at AmericanAirlines Arena on March 10.
The Indiana Pacers had done more than beat the Miami Heat in the teams' two earlier meetings, both at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They had beaten the Heat down. And this would be the last chance, prior to the playoffs, for the Heat to restore some order to the recent rivals' relationship.
So, naturally, it was Mario Chalmers who paced them.
Yes, Chalmers, the point guard who hadn't scored in double figures in any of the Heat's past six games. The five-year pro who sometimes irritates Heat fans and teammates with his inconsistency,
Chalmers played a near-perfect game, making 5-of-6 shots from deep, 2-of-3 from inside the arc and 7-of-7 from the line. He was a plus-30, with seven rebounds and just two turnovers.
No one should have been surprised. Chalmers has a history of rising to the occasion. That's why he has his jersey retired in his high school and collegiate gyms.
So it would be silly to count him out now, even after he backslid some during the Heat's first two playoff series.
And there's no question that he outplayed George Hill during the season series, with Hill averaging just 6.3 points on 33.3 percent shooting. He outplayed him during the second-round series last spring, too.
Still, Hill has been more reliable and productive this postseason.
So the matchup starts as a draw, and Chalmers gets another chance to prove doubters wrong.
Miami's bench core, with help from LeBron James, has been great of late.
Shane Battier knows he doesn't fit the mold: "I’ve heard it my entire life, too small, too slow, too good looking. Somehow I’ve found a way to keep on going and be successful."
As the Miami Heat's second-round series starts against the Indiana Pacers, the gentleman swingman finds himself part of the Heat's eclectic bench, along with fast-rising point guard Norris Cole, all-time sharpshooter Ray Allen and reclamation project Chris Andersen.
During the postseason, that quartet—which usually plays with either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade—is a plus-6.9, the best of any Heat group that has averaged at least 10 minutes.
Cole and Allen are a plus-7.9 together.
That comes after they were minus-0.4 together during the regular season.
Battier needs to shoot better (down from 43 percent to 26 percent from behind the arc in the playoffs), and Allen needs to avoid getting exposed on defense.
Still, Miami's second unit, significantly upgraded since last season, holds a major edge compared to an Indiana Pacers reserve unit that ranks among the least impressive in the league.
Not a single Pacers reserve has a positive plus/minus during the playoffs. D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi and Sam Young are asked to do little more than not squander leads that the starters have provided.
The best way to put this in perspective?
You can argue that Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis, Joel Anthony and James Jones, who rarely play, are superior to Indiana's primary subs.
As long as LeBron James is playing at a high level, Miami figures to be too much for Indiana.
The fake controversies began before the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals did.
Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel, responding to a question about getting revenge against the Miami Heat, simply said this: "It's exciting, but this is not about getting back at Miami. If you're in the final four, you're competing for a championship. You're competing for a championship, and they're just the next team that's in our way. And that's how we're approaching it."
Nothing inflammatory about that.
Still, the media somehow translated it back to Heat players as a slight, and LeBron James' response ("We’re not just another team") certainly added some spice.
Here's how Chris Bosh put it: "We’re not expecting them to call us the best team in the world. They’re coming into this series trying to beat us so they’re going to do and say everything they can to put themselves in the right mind."
Do they have the right roster and formula to upset Miami?
Not quite. Not yet.
Indiana will try to bludgeon the Heat on the boards, and if Dwyane Wade has an injury setback, it might have a better shot on the perimeter. But the Heat are still too deep, too connected and too strong—and most of all, James is still too much.
Heat in 6. Again.