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It's Not Too Soon to Get Excited for Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers Playoff Showdown

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It's Not Too Soon to Get Excited for Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers Playoff Showdown
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The Indiana Pacers feel like they landed a significant blow. The Miami Heat are still waiting for the opening bell to ring.

Somehow, both Eastern Conference powers are right.

Indiana (19-3) needed validation for its South Beach obsession and fuel for its furious pursuit of the No. 1 seed out East. The Pacers picked up both in their 90-84 win over the Heat on Tuesday or at least as much as they could collect in early December.

Miami (16-6) got another reminder that there are problems for the two-time defending champions to solve. But the Heat have traveled this road before. They respect the process and know how many steps are left in the path to the podium.

But the basketball world is the real winner in all of this. Round one of this colossal clash was everything we'd hoped it could be and then some.

The stage is now properly set to enjoy the inevitable rounds to follow.

 

Contrasting Styles

This is how a great rivalry is supposed to look. In fact, it's often the way we try to frame great matchups even when it doesn't apply.

When the Heat and Pacers wage war, it is a true test of wills. As successful as both franchises have been, they've each climbed the power rankings in their own way.

The Pacers are a living throwback to the NBA's past. This team is big, intimidating and all kinds of nasty.

It's also, for the most part, a self-made power. Indiana plucked both Paul George and Lance Stephenson from the 2010 NBA draft. Roy Hibbert landed in the Circle City by way of a draft-night swap in 2008.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Although they didn't know it at the time, the Pacers were forming a club perfectly suited to give the Heat fits.

George is the superstar scoring threat who can keep pressure on LeBron James at both ends of the floor. He scratched and clawed his way to 17 points and four assists on Tuesday, while turning the league's most efficient offensive weapon (and four-time MVP) into a volume scorer (James had 17 points on 16 field-goal attempts).

Stephenson allows Indiana to match Miami's athleticism on the perimeter. He's also a blossoming offensive threat (12.1 points, 4.9 assists) and a relentless defender.

But the prized piece of this equation—at least in this matchup—is the 7'2", 280-pound monster in the middle.

Miami's undersized, positionless system has no counter for Hibbert. It didn't during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals as the big man was ripping off 22.1 points on 55.7 percent shooting. And the Heat stayed at his mercy on Tuesday night (24 points, 10-of-15 shooting).

The only way the Heat can limit Hibbert is by going away from the very thing that makes them great.

"We always stay big and we make teams adjust to us," Hibbert said, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.

It's not that the Heat can't go big. Chris Andersen is 6'10" and 230 pounds of energy. Former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden took his 7'0", 250-pound frame to South Beach this summer, although knee problems have kept him off the NBA hardwood since 2009.

But Miami didn't raise a pair of championship banners over these last two seasons by going big.

Led by a selfless superstar in James, the prized piece of Miami's manufactured dynasty, the Heat can bring offensive waves that hit from all angles.

Efficiency isn't a trend in Miami; it's a way of life. Extra passes (62.5 assist percentage, fifth overall) turn good shots into great ones, preferably ones that come beyond the arc where Miami shoots 38.6 percent (sixth). Forced turnovers become transition chances, and few teams run as effectively as the Heat.

None of that happened on Tuesday. The Heat gunners fired off 17 blanks in their 21 three-point attempts. Miami forced 21 turnovers but turned them into just 20 points.

But there are no panic sirens sounding in South Florida. This was just one of those nights in a very long season.

"It's not a championship game," Chris Bosh said, via B/R's Ethan Skolnick. "Championship game, there is no tomorrow. It's very tough to play like there's no tomorrow when there is."

Still, it's no secret how these two teams feel about one another.

 

Strictly Business

As the conference collapses around it, this Heat-Pacers rivalry is the East's last hope for a saving grace.

Only, it's not a rivalry. At least, not if you're willing to buy James' take on the issue:

Maybe this is just a case of selective memory. The Heat and Pacers should be sick of each other by now.

Miami has ended Indiana's postseason run in each of the last two seasons. The first was a six-game clash in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Next came a spirited seven-game slugfest in last season's Eastern Conference Finals.

Throw in another seven regular-season meetings over that stretch, and that's 20 head-to-head battles between the two.

Had James really forgotten about those encounters? Or was he just unwilling to fuel the media's fire?

The answer became clear early on Tuesday night:

Forty-eight exhaustive minutes later, nothing had changed:

Sometimes the weight of defeat can be overwhelming. Or that competitive edge can prove impossible to turn off.

But no pleasantries at all during an early December regular-season game? And this isn't a rivalry?

Indiana has made its intentions known. The Pacers are gunning for the top seed out East, and their dominant start to the season (plus-9.1 points per 100 possessions, second overall) reflects that urgency.

Climbing to the top of the conference ladder will have to include knocking Miami off of its pedestal. Regardless of whether the Heat are willing to recognize that target on their backs.

That rivalry label doesn't have to fall on this matchup. Not as long as the basketball gods keep delivering us these riveting regular-season battles, which, by the way, we still have three more to savor:

But maybe James and Co. will be willing to up the ante when these teams inevitably meet again the postseason.

With the rest of the East swimming at or below .500, the playoff picture is already a formality:

So, it's OK to start getting excited. Go ahead and plan your vacation time accordingly. Start piling up those sick days in case you'll need them to fully reap the rewards these teams have to offer.

Whatever this is a rivalry or not, it's something the basketball world will not want to miss.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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