Pacers shoot first, send Heat defiant message

MIAMI — A day after Miami guard Dwyane Wade predicted the Heat’s playoff series against Indiana won’t produce a lot of headlines, the Pacers have sought to prove him wrong.

The East semifinal doesn’t start until Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena, but already Indiana coach Frank Vogel has fired the first shot.

“They are the biggest flopping team in the NBA,” Vogel told reporters Thursday in Indianapolis about the Heat. “It’ll be interesting to see how the referees officiate the series and how much flopping they reward. Every drive to the basket, they have guys not making a play on the ball, but sliding in front of drivers. Often times they’re falling down even before contact is even being made.”

The Heat didn’t practice Thursday and weren’t available for comment, but perhaps this series won’t be as under the radar as Wade predicted Wednesday.

After the Heat polished off New York 106-94 to clinch their first-round series 4-1, Wade was asked about how different facing the Pacers might be.

“From the media hype, obviously the Knicks and Miami is a ticket seller,” Wade said. “It gets you in front of your TV. And Miami-Indiana — from the outside, when it comes to hype — won’t be the same. But I think us as a team know (Indiana is) a better team (than New York). They proved it all year, so it will be a tougher series for us. But it won’t be grabbing the headlines like the Knicks and Miami series.”

Well, the Pacers are off to a good start in trying to create some chatter. Indiana center Roy Hibbert took a bit of a jab at the Heat, who brought in free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010 to join Wade and form the Big Three.

“We didn’t do it the easy way,” Hibbert said of Indiana building slowly while greatly utilizing the draft. “It took time. We didn’t do this by signing a couple of superstars.”

During the regular season, the Pacers (42-24), seeded No. 3 in the East, had a record just four games worse than the No. 2 Heat (46-20). But you wouldn’t have known that with all the talk being that Miami and No. 1 Chicago were just biding time until they met in the East final.

The Bulls lost reigning MVP Derrick Rose for the season in Game 1 against Philadelphia due to a torn ACL and were ousted 4-2. Now the Pacers believe they can stand in the way of the other team whose conference final invitation has been considered a formality.

“You look at our record since the All-Star break — we actually have a better record than Miami does after the All Star break,” said Indiana forward Danny Granger, whose team, including the playoffs, is 25-13 since then while the Heat are 23-14. “I don’t think we’re underdogs by any means. Miami has more recognition with their Big Three guys, but I think we’re a good team as well. It’ll be a good matchup.”

Vogel agrees.

“We are not viewing this is any way, shape or form like a David versus Goliath-type of meeting,” said Vogel, whose team eliminated Orlando 4-1 on Tuesday. “We are not the underdog here. This is two heavyweights going toe-to-toe. That’s how we view this series. We feel like we’re one of the best teams.”

It didn’t look that way the first two times Miami and Indiana met this season. The Heat crushed the Pacers 118-83 on Jan. 4 at home and won 105-90 on Feb. 14 at Indiana, winning a third road game in three nights, just the second time in NBA history that has occurred.

But things then began to change. The Heat needed overtime to win 93-91 on March 10 at home, and the Pacers easily won 105-90 on March 26, reversing the score from the previous game in Indianapolis.

“I don’t think they’ve given us too many problems, personally,” said James, perhaps not putting a lot of stock in the last meeting. “We played some great ball against them. I think we gave them more problems than they gave us.”

But before you think James not sounding too concerned about Indiana has the makings a headline, let it be known he went on to praise the Pacers, lauding their depth and saying Granger, Hibbert and forward David West are all “All-Star” players.

True, those three guys have made a combined four All-Star Game appearances in their careers, but Indiana hardly has the star power Miami does.

One could call the series a matchup of teamwork versus talent. The Pacers have eight players who averaged 8.9 points or more during the season. After the Big Three, who combined to average 67.2, and point guard Mario Chalmers, who put up 9.8, the Heat had nobody else average more than 6.8.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is paying most attention to Indiana’s big guys, and the way they mix it up inside. Hibbert, West and burly reserves Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson are among those who have no qualms about throwing their weight around.

“This next series I’m sure will feel like it’s played in a cage rather than a basketball court,” said Spoelstra, whose Heat — due to Chicago’s playoff ouster — are assured of homecourt advantage in the East final if they get that far. “It will be extremely physical.”

With the Pacers having ample bulk, Spoelstra figures he’ll dust off backup center Ronny Turiaf after he recently recovered from a hamstring problem and wasn’t in the rotation against the Knicks. But starting at center against the 7-foot-2, 278-pound Hibbert will be Bosh, giving away four inches and 50 pounds.

“Hibbert is a challenge, but I’m more than capable of meeting that challenge,” Bosh said.

Maybe he’ll create some headlines while doing that.

Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson