After a heated matchup with the Chicago Bulls in the conference semifinals, it seems as if the Miami Heat could be in for exactly the same thing with the Indiana Pacers, which are coming Wednesday to kick off the Eastern Conference Finals.
If you recall, the Pacers gave the Heat a mild scare in the conference semifinals a season ago, taking two of the first three games and starting the talk about the Heat potentially getting eliminated before ever getting a chance to vindicate themselves for the 2011 NBA Finals loss.
Miami won the next three games decidedly, and it went on to play the Boston Celtics in the conference finals (where the same basic story played out) and eventually won the title.
We've already watched as the Heat burned through the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round (much as they did against the New York Knicks last season) and got an early scare from the Bulls before dispatching them in five games.
Now it seems as if we're on track for a similar scene to the one that played out against the Celtics last season.
Indiana and Miami have a history of not liking each other, and the Pacers play the same defense-centric game that the Celtics played in 2012. Boston even claimed the top-ranked defense last season as Indiana does now.
As far as the Pacers and Heat go, there's more than just a hard-fought series and a few scrums to talk about between the two over the past year.
During a Game 3 beatdown at the hands of the Pacers, LeBron James was shooting a technical free throw on Indiana's side of the floor.
In an attempt to throw him off and give a bit of a call-back to the Reggie Miller days, then-benchwarmer Lance Stephenson threw up the choke sign as LeBron clanked the freebie off the rim.
Juwan Howard gave Stephenson a bit of a knock later on in the game and had a word with the young fellow before the following game.
Stephenson apologized for the immaturity of the gesture afterwards (although it wasn't really an apology to James), and James had his own thoughts when asked: "Lance Stephenson? You want a quote about Lance Stephenson? I'm not even going to give him the time. Knock it off."
As if that weren't enough, Dexter Pittman took it upon himself to get a bit more revenge for the Heat, delivering a heinous elbow to Stephenson's throat in the waning seconds of Game 5.
Well, Stephenson is no longer the benchwarmer that he was a season ago. In fact, it was his 25-point outburst that gave Indiana its deciding win over the Knicks Saturday night, and his defense is very much a part of Indiana's biggest advantage over Miami.
To put the icing on the cake before this series tips off, Frank Vogel's generic coach-speak may have upset James just a bit as well.
Vogel talked about the prospect of playing the Heat, dismissively saying (as any normal NBA coach would), "They're the next team that's in our way and that's how we're approaching it."
James' response Sunday afternoon seemed to show that he was a bit irked by what Vogel said, according to Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports Florida):
He said we’re just another team in their way. We’re not just another team. We’re a great team. We’re very confident. We’ll be ready for them. But if we’re just another team, you really don’t prepare for just another team. We’re not just another team. You got to be prepared for us.
While there's definitely a bit of history between these two teams, there's nowhere near the level of contempt between the two that the Bulls and Heat displayed in the second round.
The Bulls went out with a chip resting on each player's shoulder, just as they approached every game in the playoffs.
Chicago's point of attack was to keep Miami from getting comfortable on the court and take the Heat out of their element every step of the way by out-hustling and generally being more physical.
That's not necessarily the same style of defense that Indiana plays.
While there is an obvious amount of physicality, especially from David West in the post and Stephenson a bit around the perimeter, the Pacers play defense through schemes and outrageous strength and athleticism.
It seems reasonable to expect a certain level of animosity between the two teams, possibly with a bit of Stephenson trying to prove a point. However, teams generally don't have to find a reason to get amped for the conference finals.
Will there be incidents between the two where things overheat and become physical? Most definitely.
It's the last step before the NBA Finals. If things didn't get physical, then something would just seem wrong.
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