Sure, there was less at stake than when these two teams met in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Even with a playoff atmosphere surrounding two elite, hungry teams, Wednesday's 97-94 Heat win over the Pacers was still just a regular-season game in the middle of December.
But the night's theme played like a broken record. LeBron James (ankle) was the hobbled question mark, just as Dwyane Wade (knee) was in the postseason slugfest. Indiana had a chance to close out the game, but it was Miami again making the plays that mattered most.
Forget what the standings say; the path to the podium still runs through South Florida.
The Pacers (20-5) can strong arm opponents with a typically impenetrable defensive wall. Indiana owns both the league's best defensive rating (94.6 points per 100 possessions) and its lowest field-goal percentage allowed (41.5).
With a Defensive Player of the Year candidate at the rim (Roy Hibbert) and another on the perimeter (Paul George), this team can silence attacks inside and out. The Pacers have size, strength and a somewhat elusive trait in the world of professional sports—heart.
But effort isn't enough to survive on the championship stage.
The Pacers brought their lunch pails to AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday. They turned Miami's top-flight collection of shooters (38.0 three-point percentage, eighth overall) into an off-pitch volume attack (5-of-21, 23.8 percent).
But the Heat have more than the long ball up their sleeves. They possess a selfless, efficient offense that can hit from all angles.
Miami shot 48.1 percent from the field, a shade below its standard-setting 51.0 percent mark on the season. The ball flowed seamlessly from one hand to the next, as Miami assisted on 21 of its 37 made field goals (56.8 percent).
That wasn't the story at the other end of the floor. It hasn't been all season.
Indiana's offense went through hot and cold stretches, largely dependent on George's (25 points, 8-of-16) and David West's (23, 8-of-15) ability to create for themselves. The Pacers dished out just 13 assists on 32 field goals, a lower percentage (40.6) than their already underwhelming season total (56.6, 19th).
The Pacers found enough success to create some separation—they led by as much as 15 in the second half—but once again faltered in crunch time:
Heat outscored the Pacers 26-18 in the 4th, 12-2 over the final 3:09. Indiana missed its final five shots.— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) December 19, 2013
Indiana's forced shots and careless decisions kick-started Miami's late-game surge.
A Lance Stephenson miss turned into a Dwyane Wade breakaway dunk in just five seconds. It took 5.5 ticks for James to corral a miss by George, race down court and spot a wide-open Ray Allen for a transition triple.
The Pacers had the ball and just a one-point deficit with 25 seconds left. But George Hill forced a pass to a well-covered Paul George, James came up with the steal and seconds later Allen was headed to the stripe for a pair of coffin-closing free throws.
"We weren't able to make enough plays down the stretch," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, via NBA.com's Zachary Paul. "I think that their ability to get run-outs late in the fourth quarter gave them easy buckets. It was the difference for them."
Indiana's inability to create easy scoring chances all but decided this outcome. The Pacers are loaded with scrappers and fighters, but this roster has a glaring need for a playmaker:
In postgame locker room, #Pacers echoed same thoughts: too much stagnation with the offense really hurt them down the stretch— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) December 19, 2013
What's even worse is that their Eastern Conference rival is overloaded with creators. Three different players on the Heat tossed out at least three assists—George was the only Pacer to clear that mark—and that didn't include Wade (who averages 4.8) or Norris Cole (3.4).
Indiana might be a better defensive club than Miami, but the Heat are the best two-way force in the business.
There are so many elements of excellence to point to with the Heat, but perhaps their most amazing trait is the way they avoid the panic button.
This team's flipped enough switches to know that they're rarely out of a game, regardless of what the scoreboard says. Miami's bounce-back ability is incredible, mesmerizing, awe-inspiring—but hardly surprising.
"It shows we're a team that's been there before," Wade said, per Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press (via the Miami Herald). "No matter what the score is we always feel we have an opportunity to win the game."
Indiana can say all the right things. It can talk about how it has the tools to beat Miami, how that postseason meeting could have ended differently had Game 7 been held inside the Circle City.
But those words can't exist outside of the hypothetical.
The Heat can speak from experience. They've been to the championship stage, each of the last three seasons, in fact. They know how far their talents can take them; there's evidence of that fact waving from the rafters at each one of their home games.
They also understand the type of challenges that the Pacers can present. Style points get thrown out the window when Indiana's on the schedule. Things are always going to get ugly.
"I was encouraged by our ability just to stay focused and show resolve," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, via Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "A lot of times against this opponent it has to be like that, where it's not smooth."
Wednesday's game was far from smooth. The Heat couldn't buy a three-point basket. They couldn't keep George or West off of the scoreboard or away from the foul line (both attempted eight free throws).
But Miami did what it always does—it found a way to win.
The Heat took their attack inside, outscoring the oversized Pacers 50-31 on points in the paint. They harassed the Pacers' ball-handlers, forcing 16 turnovers in the process, turning those into 19 points and fueling their 21-9 edge in fast-break points.
Indiana's absolutely a threat to Miami's three-peat bid. The Heat wouldn't admit as much before the contest, but it was more than apparent to anyone who watched the game—or heard the post-game chatter:
Bosh: "This was one of the best, if not the best, win this year."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) December 19, 2013
But make no mistake about which team is the favorite in this matchup.
These teams will meet again. The stakes will be higher then.
Which team will come out of the Eastern Conference this season?
Pressure to perform can crush a roster. But it's just business as usual for the Heat; that pressure has followed them ever since the Big Three came together in the summer of 2010.
The Pacers belong on this elite stage. But belonging and actually finding success are two completely different things.
Miami knows the difference. It's came down on both sides of the coin.
But Indiana's still learning the process. A process that will keep the odds against it until proven otherwise.