This felt inevitable to the Heat all along.
Indiana has been out to usurp them for two years and gets another shot in the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals. Miami has been waiting to conquer the Pacers yet again and might have been a little disappointed if they had not made it. Throughout their own playoff run, LeBron James and his teammates tracked Indiana from any TV they could find.
Another round of Heat-Pacers was so close to a certainty in LeBron James' mind that when he saw Indiana coach Frank Vogel at All-Star Weekend he told him, "Looking forward to seeing you in May."
May has arrived. James was right.
"Throughout the regular season you felt we were the two best teams in the Eastern Conference," he said after Friday's practice. "And if we both took care of business, we'd see each other here."
They will meet for the third straight postseason when the conference finals start Sunday in Indianapolis (3:30 p.m. EDT, ABC). It promises to be one of the most compelling series of this year's playoffs: the two-time defending champions trying to hold off an upstart that is desperate to finally take down its nemesis.
There are layers of intrigue. James and Paul George -- each team's best player -- will go at each other constantly. Lance Stephenson will do his best to aggravate Dwyane Wade with his play and his mouth. The Heat have to mitigate Roy Hibbert's power at both ends, while the Pacers must figure out how to contain Chris Bosh's growing versatility.
For Miami, the task begins with Hibbert. He averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game in last year's conference finals against the heat, though they got a better handle on him this season. He started out with 24 points and five rebounds in the first game, but totaled just 32 and seven over the next three meetings.
Udonis Haslem was the key to Miami's breakthrough in that department and likely will jump back into the starting five after barely playing in the second-round series against Brooklyn. He is 6 inches shorter and 55 pounds lighter than Hibbert (7-foot-2, 290 pounds), but helped hold him to five points and two rebounds in a Heat rout in April.
"You try to make everything as difficult as you can, give him nothing easy and contest everything," Haslem said. "You work every possession and live with the consequences.
"That's not easy. You've gotta be in shape, mentally and physically. You've got to be relentless and be ahead of every play."
The Heat also might give Greg Oden another chance at Hibbert, though that experiment backfired badly -- Hibbert scored seven points on him in six minutes -- the only time the Heat tried it. At 7-foot, 273 pounds, Oden is Miami's closest match to Hibbert's size.
"He could help," Spoelstra said. "He's been working out and he's ready. He knows the deal."
Oden was inactive during the last series because Spoelstra preferred having Michael Beasley as contingency plan against Brooklyn's smaller lineups. Indiana also uses 6-foot-11, 250-pound center Ian Mahinmi regularly off its bench, and he might be a manageable assignment for Oden.
Haslem and coach Erik Spoelstra did not say whether he will start, but James was asked and replied flatly, "Yep." It is another reshuffle, which has become almost natural for this team. Shane Battier got two minutes of run-out-the-clock time in Round 1, then started every game against the Nets and might be relegated to the bench again.
"I'm as curious as everybody else is," he said.
The biggest conundrum for Indiana, defensively, is how to avoid getting drilled by Bosh, who suddenly is the Heat's top sharpshooter. He is 17-for-35 on 3-pointers in the postseason and could lure Hibbert out of the paint to open up the middle of the court for James and Wade. The Pacers also will stick David West on him.
Will those two be able to keep Bosh quiet?
Can Haslem negate Hibbert?
Is James going to remind George that he still reigns as the best closer in basketball?
It is finally time answer the questions both teams have asked themselves for months.
"All season, this is the matchup that we envisioned," Wade said. "It's only right."
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