Two consecutive postseason matchups — one of them a back-and-forth, seven-game series — are enough to establish a solid NBA rivalry.
After they pushed last season’s conference finals to a decisive Game 7, the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat have again risen above the pack in the East.
The two teams meet for the first time since that series Tuesday night in Indianapolis in a possible preview of what’s to come during the playoffs.
“They’re a great team right now, the way they’re playing,” Heat forward LeBron James said of the Pacers. “We’re trying to get healthy, we’re trying to get to our full potential. We’ll see what we can do.”
Miami and Indiana alternated victories throughout the East finals in the spring, with the Heat prevailing 99-76 at home in the finale to reach their third straight NBA finals. Miami beat Indiana 4-2 in the conference semifinals the year before.
The Pacers (18-3) have raced to the league’s best record this season and should be even more motivated for this matchup coming off their worst performance of 2013-14 in a 118-94 loss at Oklahoma City on Sunday.
Indiana, closing out a tough five-game road trip, allowed the Thunder to shoot 61.0 percent from the field. It was by far the highest this season given up by the Pacers, who came in having allowed only two opponents to crack 50 percent.
It was also the most points they’d allowed since giving up the same number in a loss to the Heat on Jan. 4, 2012.
Indiana still finished its trip at 3-2, including victories over West powers San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers.
“We did well this trip,” forward Paul George said. “A lot of stuff to take away and things we can nit-pick and take from the teams that we lost to and the teams we played this trip. I think we played well this trip.”
The Pacers should be glad to be returning home, where they are 9-0 and surrendering just 81.8 points per game — even better than their league-leading 89.5 allowed overall.
All of those victories, however, have come against teams with .500 records or worse, so Miami (16-5) undoubtedly poses the biggest challenge for the Pacers at home thus far.
The Heat lead the conference with 103.5 points per game, while James is shooting a career-best 59.4 percent from the field.
Miami’s offense could also get a boost from the return of Dwyane Wade, who will be back in the lineup after missing three of the past four games with various injuries.
Wade shot 3 of 11 and scored only 10 points the last time Miami played in Indiana — a 91-77 loss in Game 6 of the conference finals — but has averaged 24.6 points in his career at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
With Wade hampered of late, Ray Allen has seen his role increase. Allen has averaged 12.5 points in the last four games, shooting 53.1 percent from the field.
When asked about the rivalry and a potential race for the top spot in the East, James refused to raise the stakes for this game after Miami’s 110-95 win over Detroit on Sunday.
“I don’t get too much involved in regular-season matchups, especially early and in December,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to play them on Tuesday, but it’s not like it’s a statement game for us.”
The Heat and Pacers meet again on Dec. 18 in Miami, but do not play each other again until March 26.