While the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers both have visions of NBA title rings dancing through their heads, their missions this regular season are very different. The Heat want to coast through these first 82 games while maintaining its health. The Pacers want to get the No. 1 seed and prove to the league that they are the best team in the land.
The Heat made their statement, the Pacers want to make one of their own. You make statements with statement games. This is one of them. For both Indiana and Miami.
See, many people have already anointed Indiana as the best team in the East. They are more complete, they say. More driven, they say. Better defensively and they can rebound, they say. So what does LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the like have to say?
Tuesday night at 7 p.m. on NBATV will be the first time Miami and Indiana meet since last season’s Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals. This is the biggest rivalry in basketball. This isn’t a Chicago Bulls-Heat rivalry filled with disdain, or like the Celtics of old vs the Heat filled with resentment laced with a bit of jealousy. James vs George has more effect on the league than James vs Durant showdowns.
And so we come down to this. James vs George—who share a mutual respect as the two best two-way players in the NBA. The Hibbert black hole vs the space of Miami. The old-school expertise of Frank Vogel vs the new-school erudition of Erik Spoelstra.
And still, the game counts as just one in the standings. By Wednesday morning, Miami will either be 17-5 or 16-6. Indiana will be 19-3 or 18-4. Neither team will shift in the standings regardless of outcome, and that outcome does not dictate nor foresee the outcome of future meetings. But the outcome is not what matters here. Where the outcome meant everything the last time these teams met, the outcome might be the least important aspect of Tuesday night’s game
It is the process, instead, that matters. How do these teams approach each other. Does Indiana still have a healthy respect for their elders? Or does a now more-swaggy team approach the game with arrogance. Likewise, does Miami show respect by playing its best ball?
There is a balancing act, too. Both teams anticipate meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals—a rendezvous that is virtually unavoidable. Vogel can’t give away his plan for stopping Miami’s spread offense and Spoelstra can’t give away his plan for stopping Hibbert.
It isn’t as simple as putting George on James and putting Oden on Hibbert. Both coaches surely spent time this offseason rethinking that series. Both have used it as motivation for the regular season. Indiana wants, no, needs to get home-field advantage so that they may avoid last season’s disappointment. Miami wants, no, needs, to stay healthy so that they may avoid the struggles they faced in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals.
This is a game within a game. And the winner of one does not necessarily win the other.