But it’s clear that the Indiana Pacers' hard-fought victory on Tuesday night also represented more than a game against the Charlotte Bobcats or the Toronto Raptors would. The Pacers knew better and were eager to show on their home floor that they belong on top of the East.
Yet amid all the hype and analysis leading up to this matchup between the only elite teams in the East, let’s not forget that the back-to-back champs know a thing or two about postseason success. They also know a December game is what it is.
By the time the playoffs start, it will have been three years since the Heat have lost a playoff series. Whether it was against the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics or the Pacers, the Heat’s regular-season record against their East rivals meant as much as the 0-0 start to each of their playoff series.
The Heat lost all three regular-season games against the Bulls during the 2010-11 season before beating them 4-1 in the playoffs. They lost to the Celtics three out of four times in the regular season in both 2010-11 and 2011-12 and then proceeded to defeat them 4-1 and 4-3, respectively, in the playoffs.
Miami has also eliminated the Pacers the past two years in the postseason, winning the regular season series 3-1 in the 2011-12 season but losing two of three games against Indiana last season.
Even with this latest loss, the Heat are just three games behind the Pacers in the standings with 60 games left in the season.
They will certainly make a run for the No. 1 seed, but they will nevertheless continue their cautious approach with the knees of both Dwyane Wade and Greg Oden as well as limit the minutes of their starters when they can. LeBron James and Chris Bosh are averaging career-lows in minutes even as Wade takes the occasional game off during his recovery from offseason knee treatment.
With such a weak East, the Heat can count on a deep and talented bench to help get them through the regular season at their pace.
It's certainly a wise approach given the fact that they have older players who are integral to their success. Their postseason record of 46-21 in the Big Three era is certainly impressive, but it also reveals how their core has practically played another season of basketball during the last three years.
The Pacers currently own the league’s best record in their quest to finish the season with home-court advantage. Judging by the poor start from the rest of the East and Derrick Rose's latest injury, the Heat and Pacers are virtually certain to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. In what would be their final hurdle to get to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance and a possible three-peat, does Miami really want to play in Indiana in a likely Game 7?
It’s no secret that the Pacers have improved each year with a bona fide star in Paul George and a very talented center in Roy Hibbert who both give the Heat big problems. But as well as the Pacers have played, they will still be perceived as underdogs until they can actually beat the Heat in the postseason.
Let’s not forget that regular-season success and the top seed didn’t ultimately mean much for the 2011 Bulls when they lost Game 2 at home in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champions.
The rematch is scheduled for next Wednesday at the AmericanAirlines Arena. How the Heat will respond in that game will reveal more than anything they say in the locker room.
We will see if LeBron covers Paul George in the second half or if the coaching staff will resist the urge to throw Greg Oden in the mix for at least a few minutes to see how he measures up to Hibbert. We’ll also likely see Michael Beasley play and how he impacts this matchup.
No matter the actual significance of a December NBA game, these two games at the very least provide a tantalizing sneak preview of the next Eastern Conference Finals in what will be another memorable deep run in the playoffs for the Miami Heat.