No offense to the unbending Chicago Bulls.
Don't let the Brooklyn Nets take this personally.
Let the Toronto Raptors know it's been fun.
Tell the Washington Wizards it's been real.
Inform the potentially lottery-bound New York Knicks their vacation is free to start earlier than usual this year.
Offer apologies to any and every Eastern Conference team that isn't the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, because the NBA won't be needing them.
It needs the Pacers. And the Heat. Together.
It needs a rematch of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, and it needs it bad.
Terms are non-negotiable, the teams are irreplaceable. It has to be them. It must be the Heat and Pacers. Anyone else, any other combination won't be good enough.
What. A. Game.
Look no further than their recent head-to-head battle for proof.
Both teams entered their third meeting of the season struggling, barley resembling the Eastern Conference steamrollers of December. The Pacers were losers of two straight, and both they and the Heat had dropped seven of their last 12 overall while unsuccessfully wrestling inconsistency and stalled passion.
But they both got up for this one, a game with playoff implications. Perched atop the Eastern Conference, the Pacers have what the Heat want: What the Pacers want.
The biggest reason for the Heat to get the No. 1 seed is to deny it to a team they don't like. Actual advantage is negligible.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) March 25, 2014
Winning wouldn't be about that No. 1 seed for the Heat. Not entirely. To the victor would go bragging rights, and the Heat want those. Where the Pacers are openly fighting, existing only to nab the No. 1 seed, the Heat care more about spoiling whatever their hated rival wants.
So, yes, they both got up for this matchup, each chasing the same thing, albeit for completely different reasons.
In the end, it was the Pacers who emerged from a predictably hard-fought dogfight, scrapping and clawing their way to an 84-83 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, weathering a magnificent 38-point performance from reigning MVP LeBron James.
LeBron dropped 38 and the @Pacers still beat the Heat. What a game. Bring on the playoffs...— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) March 27, 2014
Neither team emerged unscathed, though. Elbows were thrown, chest, heads and shoulders collided and bodies were used as punching bags in between intense stares and taunts.
It was a fitting precursor to their final meeting of this season on April 11.
It was a game the NBA needed now.
It was, as NBA.com's Steve Aschburner points out, a preview of the series the league needs later:
Getting a game like the one at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Wednesday, one that lived up to the hype and then transcended it, has the effect of a palate cleanser at this point in the regular season. Of course, that’s way too genteel a metaphor for what went on – clotheslines and elbows and flagrants, oh my! – unless we sub out the sorbet for a squeegee, a bar rag and some styptic pencils.
The Pacers and the Heat hadn’t faced each other in anger (and that’s no mere cliché in this matchup) since Dec. 10 and Dec. 18, back before the season had gotten much traction. The battle everyone expected, and still expects, them to have as the East’s last two standing was, well, out there somewhere.
These two teams don't like each other, and—at least while on the court—they don't pretend to like each other.
Dwyane Wade and Lance Stephenson were whistled for double technicals midway through the third quarter after engaging in a good ol' fashion, I-don't-like-you-even-a-little-bit shoving match.
Minutes later, midway through the fourth quarter, Stephenson's bravado got the best of him. Immediately after putting in a layup and becoming entangled with Mario Chalmers, he had some words for Wade.
Whatever he said made Wade smile. Or should we say "smirk?" He knew what was coming next.
Stephenson was tossed, removed from a game in which the Pacers needed him.
"I’m a very emotional player," Stephenson admitted afterwards, per the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner. "I play aggressively. I let my teammates down by doing that. I was wrong."
But his emotion felt right. Self-destructive, yes, but appropriate for the stage he was playing on, for the opponent he was waging battle against.
This Heat-Pacers game is the definition of basketBALLS.— Tim S. Grover (@ATTACKATHLETICS) March 27, 2014
Roy Hibbert's brush with James was par for the course too.
James was whistled for a flagrant foul early the fourth quarter after his elbow connected with Hibbert's face, or after Hibbert's face got in the way of his elbow. However you want to put it is fine. That's what happened.
The game fell short of dirty. It was more physical than tainted. Really, really, really physical.
There was an outcome as well, in case volume theatrics made you forget. A truly thrilling outcome that came down to one possession.
Down by one, with only two seconds remaining, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra drew up a play that demanded James hit what would be a wide-open Chris Bosh. Hibbert closed out Bosh's last-second jumper like a man who wasn't smacked in the head with an elbow minutes earlier, and the Pacers won. The game was over.
The bigger picture, though, was only starting to unfold.
Resentment and regret spilled into Miami's locker room afterward.
James, per The Palm Beach Post's Jason Lieser talked kung fu while comparing himself to Blake Griffin, because, obviously.
LeBron on his flagrant: "If I can jump up in the air and elbow someone in the face and finish a play, I must be a kung-fu master."— Jason Lieser (@PBPjasonlieser) March 27, 2014
"I see me and Blake Griffin take some hard hits," James grumbled afterward," per Aschburner. "They call it how they want to call it."
Bosh said some things that are probably going to cost him.
"Our guys are getting punched in the face and clotheslined out there and we’re getting two shots," Bosh said, via Aschburner. "Then we get an offensive foul called—and it’s a flagrant. I guess we really need to decipher what 'flagrant' means. Because I don’t feel they were going for the ball. Especially in those two situations."
Bosh's rant on the destructive subjectivity of flagrant fouls was predictably met with dismay in the Pacers locker room.
"He [James] shot 15 free throws!" West exclaimed when informed of Bosh's comments.
More of this. Please.
This is what fans want, what the NBA needs: A grudge match that transcends the basketball court, that means more to the players than a single win or loss.
Should Happen, Must Happen
Back in December, yours truly predicted the NBA would miss out on a Heat-Pacers rematch.
No, I wasn't pumped full of bubbly or stupid pills. But let's hope I was wrong.
I am Robin Lundberg and I would like to sign up for more Heat-Pacers now.— Robin Lundberg (@robinlundberg) March 27, 2014
For starters, there is no other combination, even if it includes one of the Heat or Pacers, that duplicates the deep-seated animosity or talent level this matchup provides.
The Eastern Conference is still a mess, nearly devoid of legitimate title contenders. Only the Heat and Pacers fall into that category. They are the only two Eastern Conference teams that compare to the powerhouse and superteam collection the Western Conference boasts.
For all the bluster Brooklyn and Chicago are now generating, let's not pretend that's what the NBA wants, nor what it needs.
Even though the Pacers & Heat have been "pre determined" to go to the ECF's…I'm not sleeping on the Bulls OR Nets…— Mike Hill (@ItsMikeHill) March 27, 2014
Physical, hate-teeming contests like these are preferable. The Heat and Pacers have even made them standard.
This rivalry has been almost two years in the making, stewing since 2012 when Miami took down Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals, continuing into last spring when the Heat escaped the Pacers yet again en route to a second straight championship.
Now the two teams here, despising one another, the lone contenders in a conference swarming with mediocrity and second-rate teams, none of which can replicate the profound meaning behind this Pacers-Heat rivalry.
"Everybody's getting what they want," Bosh said before Miami's loss to Indiana, per the Associated Press (via the Indianapolis Star).
Now they want more. The NBA needs more.
Breaking news: NBA planning to have Pacers-Heat on national TV 60 times next season.— David Benner (@PacersDMB) March 27, 2014
Four total points separate these teams through three games. Four. That's it.
Think of the TV ratings. Think of how many people will tune in to watch the Eastern Conference Finals unfold.
Think of how fierce, how closely contested this series would be.
Then try to think of something better, a more suitable Eastern Conference Finals clash.
And then realize you can't.
It doesn't exist.