Heat, Pacers are ready to rumble

Udonis Haslem

At some point every day the challenger thinks about the champion, sizes him up, prepares for the struggle and imagines victory.

The champion does not consider the challenger every day, sometimes feigning ignorance about his existence. But over the months, when he trains and studies, the movements and plans of the champion are inevitably aimed at those trying to take his title.

The growing tension of the buildup to a championship boxing match often is as exciting as the fight itself, one of the reasons various networks have struck gold with the behind-the-scenes documentaries of boxers' prefight regimens and trash-talking. This zone is such a competition aphrodisiac that manufacturing a faux one is a central tenet of the WWE's business model.

Of course, when it happens naturally it is so much more intriguing, and the stakes more authentic. It doesn't always happen this way in the NBA, and that's too bad, because it's terrific for all parties, from the business partners to the players to the fans.

The recipe for the heavyweight bout has unfolded perfectly this season, with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat coiling in their corners for months now like fighters itching for a shot at each other. It's even set up a perfect meeting Wednesday in Indianapolis, where the winner will have the edge in claiming home-court advantage for the ultimate fight they've been eyeing since last summer: a rematch of the Eastern Conference finals.

The Pacers have spent the season calling out the Heat and brashly braying their intentions. The Heat have spent it dismissively waving their hands at them, literally posing with their gold belts, yet obviously adjusting their style because they recognize the threat.

"I don't like when players are saying it's a rivalry or not a rivalry or coaches are saying it's a rivalry or not a rivalry," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "That is for others to decide."

Indeed, talk of rivalries and the thin facade of manufacturing them for the purpose of creating attention can be tiresome. So let's ignore the remarks of the players, coaches and fans who have postured their way to this matchup. Let's pay attention to something more important, something real and revelatory.

If you want to understand how the Pacers and Heat feel about each other and appreciate what is at stake as their potential third postseason meeting beckons in May, don't look at their words. Just look at their actions.

On the first day the Pacers assembled for training camp, they set the goal of getting a possible Game 7 rematch against the Heat on their floor by earning the best regular-season record. They didn't keep this private, they made it public. They eyed the Heat in the standings every day. They memorized the four dates when they played the Heat. When they watch "SportsCenter" they look at the Bottom Line to see the Heat score. When they look at the box scores, they go to the Heat's first.

"We've been thinking about them since the summer," Pacers forward David West said. "We felt like we felt we needed that challenge. We wanted to put that pressure on ourselves because we wanted to maximize every day of the season."

"I don't know anyone," Vogel said, "that doesn't feel differently when they're trying to knock off the champs."

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