INDIANAPOLIS -- For six weeks the NBA has waited for this, the start of the season series of the only Eastern Conference matchup of consequence, the first meeting between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers since last season's epic seven-game conference finals.
And now that it's here, Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the passion has never been more ... muted?
"It's not a statement game," Heat forward LeBron James said as he looked ahead to the final stop of this four-game trip. "I'm not going to fall into that."
But it's Heat-Pacers, LeBron vs. Paul George, the size of Roy Hibbert and David West against the guile of Chris Bosh and Shane Battier, Indiana's bolstered bench against the Heat's considerable depth.
This is ... just one of 82?
"I mean obviously everyone's going to make it into a marquee game," James said. "I don't really get too much involved in regular-season matchups, especially early, in December.
"They're a very good team. They're a great team right now, the way they're playing basketball."
Fortunately, there is the coaching matchup between the Heat's Erik Spoelstra and Pacers' Frank Vogel, whose verbal sparring the past two postseasons has added spice to this meeting of the conference's top teams.
So that ... isn't sparking much, either.
"Obviously this game will have a spotlight on it from outside," Spoelstra said, so passionate about the meaning of this one ... that he gave his team Monday off. "We just want to play well. We want to play to our identity and build on what we've done these last two games on the road. That's what I'm looking forward to seeing, is the resolve, the toughness, the defense."
The Pacers have made this season a crusade for the No. 1 playoff seed in the East, the seed the Heat utilized to host and win last season's Game 7. Considering the tiebreaker implications, that, alone, should raise the stakes. Right?
"I think a lot of that is rhetoric," Spoelstra said. "We want to play well. We want to build on what we're doing. We want to continue to take steps forward and build a game that can win at home or on the road.
"And Indiana has done a tremendous job so far this season. We respect them. We've had two great battles with them in the playoffs. The respect runs deep. We know we have to play well."
Fortunately, not all in the Heat locker room are numb to the moment after a week in the frigid Midwest.
"We understand they're going to be worked up and probably marked that on their calendar as soon as the schedules came out," Bosh said. "Can't worry about that. We just come out and play ball, we do our thing."
At least Bosh recognizes this is not the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thanksgiving eve or finding motivation for the early home-and-home matchups against the Charlotte Bobcats.
"I mean you always look forward to it," he said. "You look forward to the competition. I'm more excited about playing those guys on the road, getting it started there, because we're in the process of trying to get better with our rebounding and our defense and they're a good team, to really see where they are."
If nothing else, at least Battier appreciates what outsiders want to hear, deadpanning, "I'm surprised the NBA is not wheeling in the Larry O'Brien trophy."
And, yes, he said the players very much appreciate the moment.
"We've been through these types of games before," he said. "And they're playing great. They're playing, I would say, the best in the league right now, if you go by point differential.
"We did not play well against them at their place last year, so we know this game is on our calendar. ... This is a, not a surprise game, 'Oh my God we're playing Indiana on Tuesday,' but it will be a good regular-season game."
And a passionate one from at least one side of the equation, considering how the sting of last season's Eastern Conference finals still resonates for the Pacers.
"I think it's very similar to this team two years ago playing against Dallas," Battier said of losing the 2011 NBA Finals to the Mavericks and then pounding Dallas in the first regular-season meeting the following season.
"The pain of a playoff loss is tough and there's nothing like it. It's a truly motivating force. And it's nothing we can do to replicate that edge that they'll have come Tuesday."
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