MIAMI -- Through all of the Indiana Pacers' travails, the seven-game escape in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks, the pair of hideous losses to the Washington Wizards in the second round, this is right where the Miami Heat expected them to be.
Back in the Eastern Conference finals. In a rematch of last season's seven-game series. Only this time with homecourt advantage, the series opening Sunday at 3:30 p.m. EDT on at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
"Of course we know what Indiana is capable of," Heat center Chris Bosh said. "Despite their struggles, we still see the same opponent in those guys that we did last year."
The Pacers advanced with Thursday night's 93-80 victory over the Washington Wizards at the Verizon Center, needing 13 of a possible 14 games over the first two rounds to advance. The Heat, by contrast, swept the Charlotte Bobcats 4-0 in the first round and eliminated the Brooklyn Nets 4-1 in the second, ending that series Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
"It's only going to get tougher," Pacers forward David West said, after leading Indiana with 29 points Thursday. "We've been talking about this series all year. We've had a different path than they've had."
Pacers coach Frank Vogel said his postgame message to his team was simple.
"Basically, what I just said is everything is behind us," he said of his team's uneven play. "This is where we wanted to be. We wanted to get back to the conference finals."
Through all the tribulations, Vogel believes his team is ready for another round against the Heat.
"Obviously we have to adjust to another style of play," he said of going from the Wizards to the Heat. "Obviously nothing but the utmost respect for the champs. We're excited to have another crack at them."
The Heat have eliminated the Pacers in each of the past two postseasons.
"We want to keep going," Bosh said of reaching the Eastern Conference finals for a fourth consecutive season, as many seasons as Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have been teammates. "It's a small sign of success. But it's only a steppingstone of where we want to get to."
Where the Heat want to get is a fourth consecutive NBA Finals, and then a third consecutive NBA championship.
"This is the reason why we came together four years ago," James said, "to put ourselves in position to compete for a championship, and this is one step closer."
The first two games of the series will be Sunday and Tuesday in Indiana, before returning to Miami for Games 3 and 4 on Sat. May 24 and Mon. May 26. There is a three-day break because of Game 1 being moved up to accommodate ABC's 3:30 p.m. Sunday time slot.
"There's not a lot we don't know about each other," West said. "We know who they are, they know who we are."
The Heat went 2-2 against Indiana during the regular season. But regular-season record meant little against Brooklyn, with the Heat 0-4 against the Nets during the regular season but 4-1 these past two weeks in silencing Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett Joe Johnson and Deron Williams.
"We still have some business to take care of," James said, "but it is great to be able to put ourselves in a position to be able to get back to the NBA Finals. We never shortcut the process and we understand that each and every game is going to be a process for us."
And every series.
Power forward Udonis Haslem, who started every game of the opening-round sweep of the Bobcats, played only 3 minutes, 11 seconds against the Nets. Center Greg Oden, who was in uniform for the Charlotte series, did not dress once against Brooklyn. By contrast, Shane Battier started all five games against Brooklyn as an undersized power forward and played 93 minutes in the series, after playing just two minutes in the opening round.
With his team off Thursday, coach Erik Spoelstra had the opportunity to calibrate in advance of an expected move back toward a bigger, bulkier rotation, with beefier opposition looming.
"We'll get to that point when we get there," he said. "I haven't given any thought right now. But based on our history, whatever move is necessary, I won't hesitate."
Thursday allowed the Heat to savor some history, having now won 10 consecutive playoff rounds since falling to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, becoming just the fifth franchise to string together as many series successes, with the NBA record 13 consecutive series won by the Los Angeles Lakers from 2000 to 2003.
For guard Ray Allen, it is his second trip to the East finals with the Heat, having done it three times with the Celtics. He said the Heat's enduring success in reaching this level should not be taken for granted.
"It is an incredible accomplishment," he said. "It's something that you always think that once you go one time that you're always supposed to be in it, that there is no other place to be but there.
"Every year it seems like it gets tougher and you have to work your way into that situation so you can get back. If you talk to anybody on this team, four straight years, you talk about all the trials and tribulations that we've been through to get here. It feels great. But still the job is not done."
(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services