The last time Miami and Indiana met in the postseason, a trip to the NBA Finals was on the line and both franchises were clear championship contenders.
Don’t tell either club that their looming first-round meeting isn’t just as vital.
The fourth-seeded Pacers and fifth-seeded Heat will face off starting Tuesday in an Eastern Conference first-round matchup. The rosters are almost entirely different from what they were in those 2014 East finals between the clubs, when the Miami trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were matching wits with Paul George, David West and Lance Stephenson.
But there’s a good amount of animus this year as well: A season-long feud between Heat forward Jimmy Butler and Indiana’s T.J. Warren will stoke the fire of this one, as will a good amount of confidence coming from both sides.
“I really think we have an opportunity to beat this team,” Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “It’s definitely going to be a tough series. They’re a very good team but we’re a very good team. So, we’re going to rise to the occasion and we’re going to take care of business.”
The Heat are hopeful of getting Derrick Jones Jr. available for the series. Jones left Friday’s seeding-game finale between the clubs on a stretcher after an awkward collision left him with a strained neck. Jones was much improved within a few hours.
“It’s going to be super-competitive,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It always is with our two organizations.”
Indiana is in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season and trying to avoid a fifth consecutive first-round exit. The Pacers haven’t won a playoff series since 2014, part of the run that ended against Miami in that season’s East finals.
Miami has reached the postseason for the ninth time in Spoelstra’s 12 years as coach, but the Heat have won only one series since the end of the “Big 3” era. They’re 3-1 all-time in postseason matchups with the Pacers, losing in 2004 and winning in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
If there’s a going to be a first-round series where games aren’t always of the end-to-end, high-scoring variety, this might be the one. Defense has almost always come first with these franchises and this year was no exception: Indiana ranked sixth in field-goal percentage defense at .446, and Miami was seventh at .448. Indiana was third in points allowed at 107.5, Miami 10th in that department at 109.1.
While T.J. Warren has earned high praise for his play this season, especially within in the NBA bubble, it’s another T.J. that often torments the Heat. T.J. McConnell never has a problem getting up to play Miami, and his leadership of Indiana’s second unit could be a big key in this series.
Besides the obvious — having an elite player like Jimmy Butler prepared to create issues at either end of the floor — there are two players who have fared particularly well against Indiana this season. Duncan Robinson made 14 3’s against the Pacers (only two players had more this season) and Bam Adebayo shot 65% from the field in three games against Indiana. Expect Adebayo to play a good amount of point-center, especially with the Pacers missing a key defender in Domantas Sabonis.
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