All signs point to an epic Eastern Conference finals rematch between the Heat and Pacers, as the East's top two teams have already separated themselves from the rest of the pack by more than seven games. The 2013 conference finals were decided in Miami's American Airlines Arena when the Heat blew out the Pacers 99-76 in Game 7 to advance to the Finals. That loss has clearly stuck with the Indiana organization, which is seeking its first Finals appearance since 2000 and its first NBA title.
Entering Thursday's action, Indiana possessed the best record in the NBA, a status that, if maintained, would guarantee home-court advantage in a potential match-up with Miami and throughout the postseason. That their 2012-13 season ended on Miami's court, and not their own, has served as a point of motivation and focus for the Pacers this season.
When asked by Showtime's Jim Rome this week if the Heat can beat the Pacers without home-court advantage this season, All-Star forward Paul George said he doesn't see that happening.
"We don't," George said. "I mean, we know how well we play at home. We're one of the best teams in the postseason last year defending our home court. We just know how big home-court advantage is when it comes down to postseason. That's one of our main goals this year is to lock up the first seed so we can have the opportunity to play at home throughout the whole playoffs."
While George isn't exactly engaging in chest-thumping trash-talk here, his point is clearly stated. Last year, Indiana was 8-1 at home during the 2013 playoffs, with their lone loss coming to -- you guessed it -- Miami.
In a recent interview with CBS Sports Radio, Pacers coach Frank Vogel elaborated on what's behind his team's night-to-night focus.
“We’ve got a goal that we’re hanging onto right now that’s kind of driving us each night, and that’s to earn home-court advantage,” Vogel said. “We think it could be a difference-maker come playoff time against some of these teams. ... We understood what the Miami Heat accomplished last year, winning 66 games (and) going on a (27)-game win streak. We feel like that could easily happen again at any time, so we never feel safe about whatever kind of lead we have in the standings. We feel like every single night could be the difference between having home-court advantage and not having it. So our guys are really keeping that laser focus.”
In making three consecutive Finals appearances and winning back-to-back titles, Miami has prevailed in just about every manner and just about everywhere. Who could forget the Heat's Game 6 victory over the Celtics in Boston in 2012? Surely the Pacers remember Miami winning Game 3 in Indiana last year and Miami's closeout Game 6 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in 2012. Although Miami clinched both the 2012 and 2013 titles at home, they did so after beating both the Thunder (in Game 2) and the Spurs (in Game 4) on the road. They also beat the Mavericks in Game 3 at Dallas during the 2011 Finals, before going on to lose the series.
If you have to face Miami with your season on the line, though, there's no question about where you would prefer to do it. Here's how the Heat have fared -- at home and on the road -- since James and Chris Bosh teamed up with Dwyane Wade in 2010.
An 80+ percentage win rate over the course of three-plus seasons and three long postseasons runs is truly daunting. There's no shame in winning more than half of your road playoff games -- none at all -- but Miami's sustained success at home is more than enough to strike fear in the hearts of opponents. Boston, Indiana, Oklahoma City and San Antonio have all lost do-or-die games in South Florida over the last two seasons, and that history is more than sufficient cause for the Pacers to chase hard after the No. 1 spot. This is a sensible rallying cry from Vogel, and George's self-confidence isn't totally misplaced, even if it does stand as cheap talk until someone, perhaps the Pacers, succeeds in unseating the Heat. Hat tip: Eye On Basketball