Midway through the season, the Pacers made two roster moves despite the risk of altering the chemistry of a team that had the league's best record at the time. Team president Larry Bird signed Andrew Bynum and traded locker-room cornerstone Danny Granger for Evan Turner to try to bolster the bench. This was after Bird revamped the Pacers' bench in the offseason because he felt it was a major culprit in the the Pacers' loss to the Heat in last year's conference finals.
This attention is not a one-way street.
In the waning seconds of the Pacers' victory over the Heat in December in Indianapolis, several Heat players shouted at their opposition.
"We'll see you in eight days."
"I'll see you in Miami next week."
In the slog of the NBA season, where players rarely are aware of who is on the schedule the following week, knowing the time and place of the next meeting means plenty, and is a signal of respect -- even if it is said out of dislike. (The Heat, by the way, did indeed avenge the loss the next week.)
But if you want to fully comprehend what the Heat think about the Pacers and truly grasp how much they consider them, just look at the more basic. After two years of winning the championship by playing a version of small ball and playing without a true center, the Heat have altered their ways.
Not only did they sign Greg Oden last summer as a means to better handle Pacers center Roy Hibbert, but Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has slowly and steadily been changing his entire championship style. The Heat team that faces the Pacers Wednesday doesn't even resemble the one that came to Indiana in December, when Hibbert scored 24 points.
The Heat now play most of the game with a true center on the court, be it Oden or Chris Andersen. Chris Bosh, who had gotten used to playing out of his natural position by playing center the past two seasons, has largely returned to power forward, in part so the Heat will have a better size matchup against West.
"The competition for us has changed, and it's gotten better, and we had to change, too," Spoelstra said, explaining his strategy shift and clearly referring to the Pacers. "We can't pigeonhole ourselves into believing that the blueprint for winning last year will work again this year. We had to open ourselves up to playing differently to handle the challenges."
Spoelstra said that the board in his office in Miami resembles the Russell Crowe character from the movie "A Beautiful Mind" these days. He's always working on a problem set, and this season, that means the Pacers.
Debating the semantics of the term "rivalry" can indeed be tedious. But this is not; these X's and O's and personnel changes and preparations are men at the top of their field getting ready to compete at the highest level with the other men at the top of their field.
It's rare for it to work out this way in the NBA because the season is so long and the variables are so numerous. Even now, with the Heat and Pacers virtually locked into the top two seeds in the East, it's dangerous to assume they'll see each other for a third straight season in the playoffs. Much has to fall into place for that to actually occur.
Of course, the Heat and Pacers know this, and yet they can't help themselves. They can't help but stare at each other from across the ring.
"I miss the Pacers," Bosh said. "It's coming down to a photo finish."