The underdog card has been dealt to the Indiana Pacers but will not be played.
To even suggest to the coach or players the team is in that role against the mighty Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals is to draw an unequivocal response to the contrary.
“We’re not interested in being the underdog,” coach Frank Vogel said. “We don’t feel like the underdog in any way, shape or form this series. … We were the hottest team in the East coming into the playoffs. They have home-court advantage, we’ve won seven straight on the road. We’re one of the best road teams in the league. We’ve got a great deal of confidence in what we can do in this series.”
This is nothing new for Vogel, of course. From the day he replaced Jim O’Brien midway through the 2010-11 season, he has preached confidence, constantly reminding the players of his belief in them.
The results support the approach. After finishing 20-18 under Vogel last season and returning to the playoffs for the first time in four years, the eighth-seeded Pacers pushed top-seeded Chicago much harder than anyone outside the Indiana locker room believed possible.
Indiana went 42-24 in Vogel’s first full season to earn the third seed in the East — just one slot and four games behind Miami. Since trade deadline acquisition Leandro Barbosa joined the team, the Pacers have gone 21-7, including a 4-1 first-round victory over Orlando. Miami has gone 19-10 in the same span.
Among those victories was a 15-point decision over the Heat on March 26.
“They’re making it seem like Miami’s a one seed and we’re the eighth seed,” Paul George said.
“They’re the second seed, we’re the third seed. It’s a closer matchup than what people think.
“I guess we’ve got to continue to prove ourselves. We didn’t expect, coming into the season, the world was going to take after us just because had a good year. No better way to prove ourselves than this matchup.”
While Miami has operated in the national spotlight ever since the Big Three were united, the Pacers have played in the shadows. The major networks have ignored them and they have received only token coverage in national publications.
This series will thrust them into the spotlight.
“I love it,” Danny Granger said. “This is what we all live for: big stage, big moment, playing a team that a lot of people talk about. It’s definitely the place we want to be.
“It’s about finding out who’s the better team. We’re a good team, they’re a good team. It’s going to be a battle. It’s not about respect. … I don’t think we’re underdogs, by any means. Miami obviously has more recognition with their big three guys but we’re a good team as well and I think it’ll be a good matchup.”
Vogel already has thrown the first verbal grenade of the series, calling Miami “the biggest flopping team in the NBA” and saying it will be interesting to see “how much flopping they (officials) reward.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the series “will feel like it’s played in a cage” because of the Pacers’ penchant for physical play.
“That’s what the playoffs is all about, physicality,” Roy Hibbert said. “He’s talking about playoff basketball, so that’s fine with us.”
Finally, Indiana has the chance to show it can warm to the spotlight, to earn the respect it feels is due.
“People don’t really know about us,” Hibbert said. “We’re the best-kept secret. … We’ll have our first ABC game in awhile, so people are going to find out about us.”