MIAMI — A year ago, when Miami and Indiana faced off in the postseason, there were blood-drawing hits, flagrant fouls, technical fouls, choke signs being directed toward Le Bron James and more than a few sharp-tongued comments.
Here they possibly go again, at least on the comment front.
The Eastern Conference finals between the Heat and Pacers began this Wednesday night and there are signs that the animosity present throughout last season’s Miami-Indiana second-round series has returned this time around.
The first flare-up appeared to arrive Saturday night, when Pacers coach Frank Vogel called the reigning champion Heat “just the next team that’s in our way.”
Predictably, the Heat didn’t seem to take that as flattery.
“We’re a great team,” said James, the Heat forward who won the NBA’s MVP award for the fourth time this season. “We’re very confident. We’ll be ready for them. If we’re just another team, you don’t prepare, you really don’t prepare for just another team. We’re not just another team. You have to prepare for us.”
And away they go.
Pushing, shoving, a few extra words, that’s all typical extra-curricular activity in playoff basketball. With Heat-Pacers last season, there seemed to be more.
Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem were bloodied at times. Haslem targeted Indiana’s Tyler Hansbrough in what was perceived as retaliation for a foul against Wade. And Lance Stephenson — who made the “choke” sign after James missed a free throw in a Game 3 loss — getting leveled by now-former Miami reserve Dexter Pittman in a particularly memorable end to a blowout Heat win in Game 5.
“We don’t need bulletin-board material,” James said.
The Heat took the rare step of practicing on their game court Sunday instead of inside their gym located upstairs and coach Erik Spoelstra called it a “training-camp” workout. And this statistic — Pacers 2, Heat 1 — surely will keep Miami from believing a third straight finals trip is an inevitability, since not only was that the lead Indiana held in last season’s playoff series but it also represents the win totals from this year’s three matchups between the clubs.
“If we’re the same team that we were last year, that won’t be good enough,” Spoelstra said. “Period. Fact. That’s why we’ve spent so much time this year trying to develop habits to improve. We don’t feel we’re the same team that played the Indiana Pacers last year.”
Of course, the Pacers feel the same way.
Indiana took Sunday off after the grind of a six-game second-round series against the New York Knicks and was expected to start its Heat-centric workouts on Monday in Indianapolis before flying to Miami on Tuesday.
“We were up 2-1 last year,” Pacers forward David West said. “We dropped the ball.”
When Indiana beat the Knicks and finished off that series on Saturday night, Vogel and his players were standing in the center of their locker room a few moments after the final buzzer, many of them cheering and applauding.
“I believe we’re just getting warmed up,” Vogel told them.
A few minutes later, flanked by his two daughters in a postgame interview, Vogel talked about the Pacers getting one step further — at least — in this year’s playoffs than they did a year ago.
“Every team that’s on a championship journey takes steps each year, take it a step further than they were the year before,” Vogel said. “We were a first-round elimination team two years ago against the Bulls. Made it to the second round last year, got knocked out by Miami. Just proud of the yearlong effort to take that next step.”
Not long afterward, he was asked about playing the Heat again.
“This is not about getting back at Miami,” Vogel said.
“If you’re in the final four, you’re competing for a championship. You’re competing for a championship. And they’re just the next team that’s in our way.”
His last line was duly noticed by the Heat, who bristled at his claim last season that Miami has the biggest collection of call-drawing floppers in the NBA, a comment that got Vogel fined by the league.
“It’s always good to get some motivation from the other side,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said.
Wade said he had expected to see Indiana find its way to the East finals.
“We know this is a good team,” Wade said. “This team right here, they’re in the Eastern Conference finals for a reason.
I expected to see them here. And I think it’s only right that we see them in the Eastern Conference finals, after the series we had last year.”