Though the customary "it's just another regular season game" saying was repeated to the press after today's Miami Heat practice, there was little doubt that the team was primed and focused to not just collect their 18th straight victory but also get some measure of revenge against the Indiana Pacers.
"No," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra denied while shaking his head, though he then did admit there was some importance. "I mean, every game has significance, particularly with us. It's a storyline out there and we obviously want to play well. We haven't played well against them in two games and we haven't been able to put together complete games, they've outplayed us and they deserved to win. So we understand what the deal is."
When pressed on why his team has so far been outplayed by the Pacers, Spoelstra didn't hesitate to respond. "They got to their game more often, more consistently than we get to our game. That's why this is a compelling matchup and that's what everybody wants to see. We have to play to our identity. Everybody knows what our identity is, everybody knows what their identity is and they got to it more consistently."
What exactly is the identity of the Pacers? Shane Battier described it as "chippy". When Wade was asked the same question he declined, claiming he "left school for a reason". He then smiled and shook his head when told of Shane's one word description.
"Yeah, see? Look who you're talking to. He's still going to school," he joked. "But yeah, we played them in the playoffs so whenever you play a team from the playoffs, especially when you're playing for something, there's going to be some chippy moments."
LeBron James for his part only halfheartedly agreed with that assessment.
"The play at a slow pace, grind it out. Shane says 'chippy game', which is fine," he said with a shrug. "They have some bruisers. It's cool to go against the competition, I love playing against some of the best teams in the league so it should be fun."
Pacers forward David West has had his way against the Heat, scoring 30 points with 7 rebounds and 5 assists in their last matchup - a February 1st victory. He did plenty of damage in the paint, managing to make all 6 shots he attempted within 5 feet of the basket (according to NBA.com). LeBron today though praised his defense, along with the rest of his teammates.
"He's very athletic, (he's got) long arms. His anticipation is very good but he also has a lot of help behind him. They have the number one defense for a reason. They have Roy Hibbert protecting the rim and they got a lot of guys that's protecting him as well. But he's a really good defender, he's one of the best that we have in our game today as far as his anticipation, length, his speed and his quickness."
Wade also recognized the importance for the Pacers of Hibbert's continued improvement in his game.
"He's gotten better. He's a big guy and he understands how importance he is to that team defensively by clogging up the middle. So they've been number one, number two all year in defensive for a reason and rightfully so. When you have a big guy like that guarding the rim, it helps a lot. It helps with when you're able to put pressure on the ball. I've played with big guys like that before.
"So you've got to find ways as an offensive team to still be effective and use what they do against them, and that's what we were able to do last year and we'll figure it out again."
The Pacers have beat the Heat twice by a combined 23 points and in fact were the last team to beat the champs way back on February 1st. The Heat now have the best record in the league, with a renewed effort on defense. Only five losing teams were even able to score 100+ points against them during their franchise record winning streak. As for the Pacers, they sit at the second seed in the East by only losing four games during that same span since the beginning of February.
If the Heat really need any further motivation to keep their current winning streak intact, then this is the perfect team to come pay a visit to the AmericanAirlines Arena and give them a good fight - no matter if the game is "chippy" or not.
"I'm built for whatever game presents itself," LeBron asserted. "I'm built for a chippy game, physical game, finesse game, fast or slow game, I take the game as it comes."