TORONTO - -- Do not confuse the message.
Yes, LeBron James thinks victories against the top teams in the Eastern Conference are unimportant during the regular season, but that doesn’t mean the Heat isn’t concerned about teams like the Pacers come the playoffs.
James said on Friday night in Indianapolis that he wasn’t worried about the Heat’s losing record against Eastern Conference contenders.
“We don’t need victories versus top-four teams to prove what we’re capable of doing,” James said. “We don’t need them. We’d love to have them, but we don’t need them.”
In other words, this is just the regular season.
Remove the Nets from the equation and the Heat is now 0-5 against the East’s top teams. Miami is 0-2 against the Knicks, 0-1 against the Bulls and, after Friday’s 102-89 loss to the Pacers, 0-2 against Indiana. Cause for concern?
James said no in his post-game comments and Dwyane Wade echoed that sentiment.
"I would love to win every game against all the top teams," Wade said. "Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. All you need to do during the regular season is work your game."
Viewed through the wrong filter, the rhetoric came off as overly confident.
But before the game, James offered a completely different message. Asked if the Pacers were a legitimate threat in the East, James agreed and then took the conversation a step further.
“Not only them, there are a lot of teams that’s a threat to us if we’re not prepared and ready to go against them — if we’re not motivated to play; if we don’t get into the books and get into the pros and cons of teams; if we’re not prepared.”
It’s easy to forget about the journey and simply remember the destination. That’s human nature. For Miami fans, it means many are quick to forget that the Heat was nearly bounced out of the 2012 playoffs twice before even reaching The Finals.
But here’s the reality of the Miami Heat: the same weakness the team had last season, lack of size, remains. The Heat knows this. That’s why Pat Riley went out and signed Chris Andersen after he had been away from the game for nine months. If nothing else, Andersen was brought in to match up against teams like the Pacers and Bulls in the playoffs.
The Pacers took the Heat to the brink in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. It could happen again. Start with the bad matchup the Pacers present, toss in a key injury, and the Heat’s attempt at a dynasty could end before it ever really gets started.
But the Heat knows it’s not going to be an easy ride. If the past three seasons have proven anything, it’s that nothing ever comes easily for this team. The only difference in the team now is experience. The Heat knows the ride hasn’t even started.
The Heat’s record in away games this regular season is simply the latest reminder.
At 11-11 on the road, the Heat has just two victories away from AmericanAirlines Arena against teams with winning records (Golden State and Brooklyn). The 2012 NBA champions struggled on the road during the regular-season as well.
The Heat knows the formula to winning a championship and the regular-season does not play into the equation.
Still, the Pacers have clearly improved since last season and could be the biggest threat to the Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Indiana thumped the Heat 87-77 in January and Friday night offered another reminder of the Heat’s problems against a team with size inside.
The Pacers out-rebounded the Heat 34-25 and scored 48 points in the paint. David West was 12 of 15 from the field for 30 points. Indiana’s dominance inside helped it overcome 17 turnovers, which the Heat converted into 23 points. Normally, those numbers equal a Heat victory.
The Heat threw several defenders at West throughout the game but no one could stop him. Andersen looked the best inside but he was subbed out in the final quarter after playing 12 minutes. The Heat’s new big man is working his way back into shape. Still vulnerable to injury due to his lack of fitness, Andersen watched from the bench in the final minutes.
Sitting Andersen late in the game offered another reminder of the Heat’s long-term outlook: the real games don’t begin until April.
Based on his effort on Friday — nine points, three rebounds, one steal and a blocked shot — Andersen’s minutes will increase gradually in the second half of the season. In a series against the Pacers, he appears to be the Heat’s best option in the paint.
That’s the only thing worth remembering about a loss in February.