MIAMI — LeBron James had a message for Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel at this year’s NBA All-Star Game.
"I said, ‘Coach, look forward to seeing you in May,’ " James said Friday, a day after the Pacers advanced to play the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals for a second straight year.
"Throughout the regular season, you felt like we were the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. Even though we both had our struggles, you felt like we were the two best teams and if both sides took care of business, we’d see each other."
The Heat and Pacers will begin their best-of-seven series Sunday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Miami beat Indiana in last year’s seven-game conference finals en route to winning a second straight NBA championship.
Unlike last year, the Pacers own the home-court advantage.
"You got to win on the road to win the series anyway," James said. "Last year, we had home-court and they beat us in Game 2, so we had to go to Indy and win.
"At the end of the day, teams that want to win a championship have to do it the hard way. You gotta win in the road. … It’s different for us because we’re going on the road to start, but it’s not different in the fact that we have to win on the road."
After going 35-6 at home during the regular season, Indiana has 3-4 gone at the Fieldhouse in the playoffs (against Atlanta and Washington).
"I don’t believe the Pacers that struggled at home will be the team we play Sunday," James said. "It’s that simple."
The Heat-Pacers series marks the first time since 2005-06 that the same two teams met in consecutive Eastern Conference finals. The Detroit Pistons defeated Miami in seven games in 2005, before the Heat won a six-game series the following year on the way to a title.
In both cases, the team with the home-court advantage lost the series.
"I know that after we lost in Game 7 to Detroit after having an opportunity to win at home, that was my whole workout (motivation) in the summer," Dwyane Wade said. "We finally got back to that moment, no matter what we went through during the season. We didn’t want to be denied again."
That’s a sentiment likely running rampant among the Pacers, who in recent months appeared headed for an early playoff ousting.
Dominant through the season’s first half, the Pacers lost 13 of their final 23 regular-season games before nearly losing to No. 8 seed Atlanta in the first round.
"We nearly lost a championship last year — nearly doesnât mean anything," Heat center Chris Bosh said. "You either win or you lose."
Through Indianaâs late-season and playoff struggles, there was turmoil and apparent dysfunction centering around players such as Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert.
"I don’t really care what they did or didn’t do," Wade said. "They’re a very tough team when we play them. They present challenges."
The Heat also limped to the regular-season finish line by going 11-14 in their final 25 games. But Miami then swept Charlotte in the playoffs’ first round before beating Brooklyn in five games of the conference semifinals.
"At the end of the day, we’re here, they’re here," Wade said. "It doesn’t matter what happened previous to this. The only thing that matters is this series here and now."
Miami and Indiana split four regular-season meetings, with the home team winning each time.
"The two best teams in the Eastern Conference — it’s that simple," James said. "Both teams defend at a high level. Both teams share the ball. Both teams get into the paint. Both teams have a desire to win."