Miami’s dismissive treatment towards the Pacers was glaring leading up to Wednesday night's matchup.
When asked if the Pacers were a better team this season, Heat coach Eric Spoelstra replied, “That remains to be seen. It’s a long season.”
Lance Stephenson compared the mid-December, Wednesday night bout as a “championship match." Conversely, Chris Bosh quipped that he didn’t circle the date on his calendar until Tuesday. There’s no love lost between these two teams.
Contrary to James’ belief, this is a rivalry. James has something George covets and he’s not willing to schmooze with King James to get it. For two consecutive postseasons, the Pacers have had the Heat in their sights, and this season they’re more locked in than ever on making the third time their charmed postseason. In a league where superstars became pals on the AAU circuit and coordinate plans to suit up on the court as teammates, George is a lone shark.
"I mean, it's not much of a relationship," George said about his personal relationship with James. "The only time I see him is when we have Nike events or stuff like that.”
"It's not too big like in the summers, we go fly out (together) or (I) go hang out with LeBron." George added.
In their first head-to-head meeting since the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers slashed Miami's tires, spray painted an 84-90 loss on their record and sent their team bus scrambling home on a donut.
The Indiana Pacers are a nice change of pace from their contemporaries. Nice is actually a poor choice of phrasing. They’re a belligerent alternative in a league of chummy superstars.
In the post-Malice at the Palace NBA universe, matching up with the Pacers is like running into an asteroid. Psycho T is gone, but they remain the most animus team in the league. George makes a similar defensive impact as a young Artest without the ancillary antics.
Instead of trying to create pen pals, Frank Vogel’s Pacers are instigating, habitually line-steppin’ and making it no secret that snatching the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed is their objective. Friends be damned.
It’s a subtler technique than the passive-aggressive methods Reggie Miller used against Jordan’s Bulls and Ewing’s Knicks. Miami isn’t the only recipient of the Pacer’s literal and metaphorical jabs.
Last month, George had no problem anointing the Pacers as minority owners of the modern Chicago Bulls.
“Their success is the Michael Jordan era," George said after the Bulls handed them their first loss of the season. "This is a new age, this is a new team. It’s ours till they take it.”
Reggie Miller couldn’t beat the Bulls, so this entire championship run is in memory of his great Pacers teams.
They have a legit reason to be angry. They’ve assembled a roster organically by discovering diamonds in the rough of the NBA Draft, and now they’re financially strained because of the luxury cap while the opulent Brooklyn, L.A. and New York franchises toss Benjamin’s out their windows.
That hard-knocks approach is apparent in watching them hound teams defensively.
They’re just as snarling and bellicose off the floor towards their peers as Michelle Obama at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
The Miami Heat try to play down the significance of the Pacer’s challenge, but who are they kidding? This entire season is essentially a countdown to their Eastern Conference Finals standoff.
Earlier in the week, Paul George tried to subversively creep underneath James’ skin by crediting Durant as the NBA’s toughest player to guard.
“It is a tougher matchup. I watch their games, I watch a lot of NBA games. And offensively, KD is most of the times he’s scoring in bunches off of iso plays and one-on-one plays.
“And when they play against us, he’s moving a lot. He’s the screener, he’s getting back-screened and he’s coming off pin-downs, and it’s a little different when I’m guarding him, and it makes it a tougher cover.”
Take a peek up at the Pacers rotation and you’ll notice this team has a roster with more fight in it than a HBO pay per view card.
While other cats are angling to create get in good graces with James, Hibbert, Stephenson and George are looking for a working guillotine to chop the head off Miami’s chimera superstar.
Peep the difference in how James interacts with George and Durant.
Durant and James are tight, but Oklahoma State’s crafty scoring forward has been poking the Bear Dwyane Wade of late. However, the enmity between Wade and Durant from the Darkest Timeline has never carried onto the court.
After Durant’s Thunder were eliminated in five games of the NBA Finals by the Heat last summer, he and James linked up to win a gold medal together for Team USA, then trained together in the offseason.
The relationship between James and George is virtually non-existent away from the hardwood. Part of that disconnect may have to do with the fact that George has never shared the international basketball stage with James as a teammate. Moreover, of the league’s top 20 players, only George and Tony Parker were disregarded as supplementary role players to the casual fan on their respective Draft Days.
Danny Granger and James are as cordial to one another as gasoline and an open flame.
Stephenson has been popping off at the mouth since he was an unwrapped benchwarmer.
David West is built like Charles Oakley.
Roy Hibbert’s chip on his shoulder has enabled him to displace Dwight Howard as the NBA’s top post defender.
"People said I wouldn't be in the NBA," Hibbert, said last December in the midst of a slump. "People said I wouldn't be a starting center, this, that and the other. I just prove people wrong.”
Since entering the league the 7-2 windshield wiper in the post has chiseled his round body into muscular form while rounding out his game on both ends.
The Pacers have beefed up in the offseason and appear more formidable than ever. The Heat better open their eyes and have the same epiphany that leads them to the realization the rest of the league has already made. The petulant Pacers are the toast of the league. If the Heat don't get it, David Stern needs to administer a sobriety test and check what they're pouring in their cups.