The goals were divergent: The Indiana Pacers spent the entire season chasing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference; the Miami Heat spent the season making sure they would be healthy, rested, reinvigorated for these Eastern Conference finals.
The inevitability of it all was the destination: During All-Star Weekend, Heat forward LeBron James told Pacers coach Frank Vogel, “looking forward to seeing you in May.”
Sunday, that destiny becomes reality, when the Heat play the Pacers at 3:30 p.m. in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series that will determine which of the two advance to the NBA Finals against either the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder.
“All year long, we’ve been one and two, back and forth, back and forth,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said of the Eastern Conference race. “You play the whole year, it seemed like we could have just got to this point a long time ago. But that’s not how it works. But we’re here now.”
Again. Meeting for the third consecutive season in the playoffs, the Heat beating the Pacers in six games in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals, seven games in last season’s Eastern Conference finals.
Unlike those previous two series, the Pacers this time hold homecourt advantage because of that No. 1 seed.
“If we can’t win on the road, then we’re not the team that we think we are, anyway,” Wade said. “So we can’t concern ourselves with a Game 7. We’ve got to concern ourselves with a Game 1 in their building.”
The Pacers have been on an uneven ride for months. While the Heat have played one game above the minimum eight required to reach this point, the Pacers have littered these past four weeks with ugly losses to the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards.
Of course, if the Pacers are looking for empathy, they won’t find it on the opposite bench.
“You think we cared about that?” Wade said. “We had our own set of problems our years together. We don’t really care of what anyone else is going through on the outside. I know I don’t.”
In this rivalry, the aversion is genuine, the Heat ending the Pacers’ seasons two years in a row only heightening the drama. Wade compared it to the Heat having to finally push past the Detroit Pistons to win their 2006 championship and then the Boston Celtics to start what has been a run of three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, as well as the past two NBA titles.
“There’s similarities whenever you meet guys in the playoffs and you haven’t beaten (them) and you feel that you’re just as good a team as them, but you haven’t figured out how to get over that hump,” Wade said. “But you keep getting your opportunity, eventually you feel you can crack that code.
“I’m sure that they feel this is their year. Rightfully so, they should. But we’ve got a team that feels it’s our year, as well.”