Whatever you do, don't call it a statement game.
That's the feeling you get from players and coaches after the Indiana Pacers beat the Miami Heat, 90-84, last night. Both sides were hesitant to place undue emphasis on the teams' first meeting of the season, even before stepping on the court.
"It's hard to play like there's no tomorrow when, you know, there is," the Heat's Chris Bosh said before the game.
We won't have to wait too long for the next installment in this budding rivalry -- Indiana will travel to Miami on Dec. 18 for the second matchup between the East's only elite teams, who face each other twice more in the second half of the season. There's a lot of basketball to be played, and history warns us not to read too much into regular season records: The Pacers won their season series against the Heat two games to one last year, only to fall in seven games in the Conference Finals. With the rest of the East a shambles, it's a safe bet that these two teams will eventually meet in the postseason for the third straight year, and Indiana head coach Frank Vogel is taking care to keep his team focused on its final destination.
"I can’t even wrap my mind around the importance of [the victory] except to say we’re one win closer to our goal," Vogel said. "I think ‘statement wins’ are for you guys to write about and not for me to talk about."
Tuesday night's win, however, puts the conference-leading Pacers three games ahead of the two-time defending champions, and showed stark weaknesses that could present obstacles for the Heat on the road to defend their title. Unless they can figure out a way to clone LeBron James, there might be no stopping the Pacers' Paul George, who exploded in the second half after James got into foul trouble. Up to that point, James had held George without a field goal while forcing three of his five turnovers, as the Pacers trailed the Heat, 51-46. When James picked up his third foul three minutes into the third quarter, a tandem of Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen was unable to contain George, who scored 15 of his 17 points from that point forward en route to a Pacers comeback.
Last night's loss also exposed the glaring hole left by center Greg Oden, on the bench as he rehabs his way back from years of knee injuries. Miami and Indiana have markedly different styles of play; the Heat spread the floor with a roster of talented shooters, while the Pacers rely on a versatile core of big men, led by Roy Hibbert, who combine offensive efficiency with defensive prowess. Hibbert finished last night with 24 points, going 10-for-15 from the floor, as Indiana forced Miami out of its comfort zone. When the Heat's shoot-to-kill game plan isn't working -- they were held to 4-for-21 on three-pointers and Shane Battier was virtually shut down last night -- they need a viable center to compete with a Pacers team that has many different caliber guns in its holster.