The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat meet for the second time on Dec. 18. Overall, the Heat and Pacers are scheduled to meet four times in this regular season -- although everyone expects them to meet six or seven more times in mid-2014. But while everyone waits for another Miami-Indiana Eastern Conference Final, the Heat and Pacers just have another regular season game to get through tonight first.
Of course, whenever the Heat and Pacers meet these days, it isn't just another regular season game. While they weren't really rivals before their second round series two years ago, they have now been lumped together as the biggest rivals in the NBA. Some of it may be by default, since Indiana is the only Eastern Conference team that seems to be a remote threat to Miami this season.
While the Pacers are 20-4 and two games better than the Heat so far, the only win that really says anything about Indiana was its 90-84 triumph over Miami on Dec. 10. The Pacers recovered from a slow start to heat up in the second half, proving that they have the edge over the two-time champions in Indiana. Given that they lost Game 7 of the last Eastern Conference finals in Miami, it makes it all the more important for the Pacers to have the best record in the East.
Yet Indiana could sweep Miami through the regular season and have the best record, and it would still be the underdog in a conference final. As long as the Heat have two straight NBA titles and two straight playoff victories over the Pacers, that psychological edge will not go away.
Miami can struggle for a while, like it did in the first three playoff games against Indiana in 2012, as well as their first six playoff battles together last postseason. But once the Heat turn the switch on, as they did in Games 4-6 against the Pacers in 2012 and Game 7 seven months ago, they cannot be stopped yet.
The Pacers can't prove they can stop a full throttle Heat team until next May. They may not even be at full strength tonight, since LeBron James has a sprained left ankle. Yet if this game goes better than Indiana's last visit to Miami, it will have to help in some way.
The rematch commences at 7 p.m. est on ESPN.