INDIANAPOLIS – Statement games? The Indiana Pacers know all about statement games.
They’re otherwise known as Game 7.
That’s the only statement game that doesn’t end with a “but…” And as the saying goes, via “Game of Thrones”: Nothing someone says before the word ‘but’ really counts.
In other words, it meant everything last season that, in their regular-season series in 2012-13, the Pacers (twice) and the Heat (once) won their home games by double digits, but …
Indiana, Boston and Chicago — in the years each went on to face Miami in the Eastern Conference finals — got the best of the Heat in statement games by a combined 8-2, but …
And the clash Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse between the East’s only two purebreds (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV)looms large for playoff positioning four months from now, but…
See? There’s always wiggle room. As far as punctuation, these statement games are best suited for ellipses or even question marks.
Remember, the Pacers won two of the three meetings last season but, when it really, really counted, lost to Miami in seven games in the East finals last spring. The Celtics in 2011-12 and the Bulls in 2010-11 experienced the same, unsatisfying arc, going 3-0 and 3-1 respectively but failing to repeat such mastery in May when a trip to The Finals was at stake.
If anything, it was as if Miami went to school on the regular-season meetings that sorta, kinda meant something and put it all to use later when the games meant everything. To the point you wonder if Pacers coach Frank Vogel might be better off sandbagging the series that starts Tuesday, continues Dec. 18 in Miami and picks up again with games on March 26 and April 11.
Considering that these two rivals could end up meeting 11 times before one (or none?) of them closes in on the Larry O’Brien trophy, do you really want the Heat — or the Pacers, as the case may be — to see, scout and game-plan everything before the postseason?
Too late, apparently.
“If they play big, if they play small, we’ve seen it all and they’ve seen everything we do,” Vogel said in anticipation. “It just comes down to execution.”
Miami’s LeBron James spit out the “statement game” label when it was offered to him, opting instead to call this one “a marquee game.” “I don’t really get too much involved in regular-season matchups, especially early, in December,” he said.
Parsing things further, it’s possible for this game to matter more than most without necessarily making any be-all-and-end-all statements. As a yardstick, fine. As a grudge match over who deserved November’s Player of the Month award, James or Paul George? OK. As something to add to the database, sure.
But let’s be honest, this game means more to Indiana than it means to Miami. As the NBA’s defending champions twice over, the Heat has earned the privilege of navigating the regular season a la San Antonio, pacing and probing themselves to tackle again the task they know so well in the playoffs.
Whatever the outcome of this first meeting (and eventually the regular-season four), they’ll mean more to Indiana than they will to Miami because the Heat have demonstrated the ability time and again to hit “Reset.”
“We understand they’re going to be worked up and probably marked [Tuesday's game] on their calendar as soon as the schedules came out,” Heat forward Chris Bosh told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Can’t worry about that. We just come out and play ball, we do our thing.”
Miami, 16-5 and wrapping up a wintry, four-game Midwest trip, has won its past two since embracing a challenge from coach Erik Spoelstra to rebound and defend more like champions. Indiana, 18-3, is home finally from a five-game, 10-day trip on which it went 3-2, with losses at Portland and in the finale Sunday against the Thunder.
Notice all those numbers in the preceding paragraph? That’s where the real impact of this game and these teams’ series will be felt. Statement games are built off words. This one has more to do with math: the Pacers are determined to finish with the East’s, and ideally the league’s, best record to secure homecourt advantage in the postseason. So call it an equation game.
“We’re trying to earn the [No. 1] seed,” Vogel said. “We feel like we’re one of the best teams in the NBA. The head-to-head matchups are going to be important to earn the one-seed. It does carry a little more weight than most regular season games, so we’re approaching it that way.”
That ambition has been credited for the Pacers’ white-hot start and their ability to tackle each game with a laser focus. Meanwhile the Heat, just two games back but already five in front of the next-nearest East competitor, would be happy to use Indiana as a rabbit and let it bust a gut driving hard and glancing over its shoulder ceaselessly from now into April.
Now that we’ve defused all this, you’re still going to be watching, right? Same here. Four times.