(Sports Network) - The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers will meet in the postseason for the second consecutive year, but this time, it's in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Last year, the Pacers actually held a 2-1 series lead in their semifinal matchup, but ultimately fell in six games. The Heat, of course, went on to win the NBA Championship.
This time around, it's for a spot in the NBA Finals and the stage has been set for a tense battle.
Pacers' coach Frank Vogel downplayed any revenge factor, and in doing so, started a controversy.
"This is not about getting back at Miami," Vogel said Saturday after the Pacers eliminated the New York Knicks. "You're in the final four, you're competing for a championship. And they're just the next team that's in our way. And that's how we're approaching it."
LeBron James, the reigning NBA MVP, took offense to the description of the Heat as "the next team."
"We're not just another team," James said. "I don't understand what he's saying. But we're not just another team. It's not true.
"We're a great team. We're very confident. We'll be ready for them."
The rhetoric is out in full force. (To be fair, Vogel never said the Heat were "just another team.") On the court, this should be a true battle between two of the best defensive units in the NBA. During the regular season, the Pacers finished second to the Memphis Grizzlies in opponents' scoring, while Miami was fifth.
During the postseason, both teams have improved on their regular-season numbers. The Heat are first in opponents' scoring and Indiana is fourth.
The Heat swept the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, then knocked off the Chicago Bulls in five games in the semifinals. The Bulls took Game 1 and the series turned into a brutally physical quest for survival, but Miami is four wins away from a chance to defend its title.
The Heat have won their playoff games by an average of 13.9 ppg.
Indiana had a much tougher route getting here.
The Pacers needed six games to best the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, then knocked off the Knicks in six to set up this meeting with the Heat.
The Pacers went 2-1 against the Heat during the regular season with both victories in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Miami has taken six of the last seven against Indiana at home.
BACKCOURT: Dwyane Wade has looked downright beaten down during this postseason. His knee is bothering him and his scoring is down almost 8.0 ppg. Wade has had time to rest during the playoffs with how quickly the Heat have ended series, but his game is still not coming around. Mario Chalmers' scoring is down slightly as well.
George Hill can change a game. While he's not a dynamic player, he owned Game 4 against the Knicks, then missed the next one with a concussion. Lance Stephenson wasn't much of a scorer, although he started all season. He busted out for 25 points and 10 rebounds in the series clincher on Saturday.
FRONTCOURT: James is the best player in the universe. His numbers are slightly down during the postseason, but it's hardly mattered. When the time comes, James will produce. Chris Bosh's scoring is also in decline, but when he shoots it well from the perimeter, Miami is almost impossible to guard. Udonis Haslem is almost a non-factor, but his playing time may increase to match up with Indiana's big men.
Paul George is an All-Star and his numbers across the board are up. His defense has been sensational and he'll have another tough task this series. George defended Carmelo Anthony in the last series and will have James in this one. Roy Hibbert dominated Tyson Chandler at times in the semifinals, but is maddeningly inconsistent. David West's scoring is down, but his toughness will be key. He's a matchup problem when the Heat go with their crunch-time lineup. Shane Battier or James will have to defend West and the strength advantage belongs to West.
BENCH: Miami gives Battier, Ray Allen, Chris Anderson and Norris Cole steady minutes. Allen and Battier are critical late in games, Anderson will have to play more to bang with Hibbert and West and Cole have been great during this postseason.
The Pacers have used only two players consistently off their bench during the playoffs - D.J. Augustin and Tyler Hansbrough. Augustin started the Game 5 against the Knicks. He scored 12 points, but didn't hand out a single assist. Gerald Green has scored when he's played, which is a little over half the Pacers' playoff games.
COACHING: The Heat's Erik Spoelstra finished second to Denver's George Karl in Coach of the Year voting. He has made decisions that have impacted the Heat for years to come. It's easy to think a man who coaches James, Wade and Bosh doesn't have to do much but roll the balls out there, but Spoelstra has firm command of this operation.
Vogel is already mentioned as one of the league's best coaches. His commitment to defense has made Indiana a formidable adversary and a tough out. He came in fifth in Coach of the Year voting.
PREDICTION: Since the beginning of the season and the playoffs, it's been assumed the Heat would walk through to their second straight NBA title. So far, they have, except for the lone hiccup in Game 1 against the Bulls.
The Bulls get credit for a blueprint to not stop, but bother the Heat. Play them physical because it'll bother them. That worked for a while, but Miami punched back and won by an average of 18.25 in their four victories.
Indiana will play them physically as well. Yes, the Pacers present different match-up problems for Miami. The Heat like to play small, especially late in games. James or Battier will have to defend someone bigger and stronger.
But they can handle it.
The Heat don't get irritated by much. James probably made a mountain out of Vogel's comments, but who cares. The Heat looked flat after a long layoff against the Bulls, then responded. That could happen in Game 1 Wednesday, but Miami is too good to let it linger.
SPORTNETWORK PREDICITION: MIAMI in 5.