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."

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."

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