MIAMI — LeBron James insists it’s not a rivalry.
Not yet, at least.
The Miami Heat superstar might not want to mention that to the Indiana Pacers, in town today (6 p.m. ET on NBA TV) for a showdown between the hottest team in basketball and the last team to beat them, 37 days ago.
So while the eyes of the basketball world are fixed on the AmericanAirlines Arena to see the two best teams in the Eastern Conference square off, James isn’t ready to call this a rivalry?
“It’s Boston, Chicago more than Indiana,” James told reporters Saturday. “We’ve only had one series with those guys. So I would say it’s Boston … Indiana is not a rival at this point.”
The Heat are trying to stretch their franchise-best run to 18 straight wins. The Pacers are a wicked 4-0 on the road since the start of February and winning by an average of 19.5 points away from home. Something has to give. Both teams are motivated, eager to send a message to the other and operating with a clear understanding of what the final regular season matchup between the two of them means for the future, based on their recent history.
After a rugged playoff series last season, blood was spilled on both sides, and two wins by the Pacers in Indiana earlier this season, there is plenty of history to work with. The Heat have this one final chance to remind the Pacers and the rest of the NBA that they’re not on the same level as the reigning champs.
But they’ll have to do it by knocking out a Pacers team that specializes in pounding the opposition.
“We play with a little bit of chip on our shoulder and a little bit of swag,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. “I mean they get a lot of the calls. They’re the superstar team. We just take it personal and try to go at them.”
The Pacers, from head coach Frank Vogel on down the bench, use every perceived slight as motivation. And James dismissing them as a rival is sure to add fuel to the fire of a team that plays with a relentless desire to impose their will on the opposition. The Pacers smashed the Heat in their previous two matchups, outrebounding them by a wide margin (17.5) and holding the Heat under 100 points in both games.
While the Heat have imposed their will on every other team they have faced this season, they have not been able to match the physical edge the Pacers bring to the party.
“They’re as chippy as any team in the NBA,” said Heat forward Shane Battier. “There always are a couple of extracurriculars in there. We don’t back down from anybody.”
No one is suggesting anything outside the realm of good, hard-nosed competition being played with a playoff intensity. But if there is blood to be spilled, even just a drop, this is one game where no one should be shocked to see it happen.
“Each game is its own challenge,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is one that everybody gets what they want: the fans get a game they think is compelling, Indiana wants to play us, and we want to compete against them.”