INDIANAPOLIS -- Rivalries are dead in the NBA.
That was the message from LeBron James about an hour before what was hyped as the Heat’s most important game of the first half of the regular season. The Pacers and Heat have met in each of the past two postseasons, battled to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals and are in a runaway battle for first place in the Eastern Conference standings. But that back story does not constitute rivalry status, according to James.
“What is a rivalry these days?” James countered when asked if the Heat and Pacers shared a rivalry. “What’s a rivalry? A rivalry is Celtics and Lakers. They met like four out of five years. … Bulls-Pistons. Those are rivalries, man.
“We’ve played these guys two straight years in the playoffs, and guys automatically make it a rivalry. It’s not a rivalry.”
James then took his opinion a step further and said rivalries no longer exist in the NBA.
“There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days,” James said. “You don’t see the competition enough or play the competition a lot. It’s two really, really good teams that [are] striving to win a championship, but rivalries … there are no more rivalries. There isn’t. It’s the truth. No rivalries.
“Cowboys-Redskins is a rivalry. Ohio State-Michigan is a rivalry. Duke-North Carolina is a rivalry. Bears-Packers is a rivalry.”
Of course, about 18,000 people inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday night probably would have disagreed with James. The arena, one of the best atmospheres in the NBA, was a cauldron of noise before the game with every fan in the house standing on their feet for tipoff. The noise subsided when Chris Bosh made a quick jumper on the Heat’s first possession.
James’ dismissal of the Pacers was the continuation of a theme for the Heat leading up to the game. Almost by design, the Heat seemed to discount the importance of its first meeting against the Pacers. The Heat then jumped out to an 11-point lead after the first quarter.
Lance Stephenson of the Pacers said he was approaching the matchup “like a championship game” after the morning shootaround. Bosh was asked when he circled the date of the game on his calendar, and he casually replied, “Yesterday.”
The rhetoric and tone between the Heat and Pacers couldn’t have been more different following morning shootarounds for both teams at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. For the Pacers, the crushing loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals clearly was still fresh in their minds. For the Heat, it was the fourth game of a road trip in December.
“We’re trying to build on what we’ve done the last two games,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We started off on this road trip on the wrong foot, and we want to continue to build the habits necessary to have a game we can win on the road. For the last two games, we’ve been able to do it, but now can you sustain it against a great [team]? So that’s our challenge [Tuesday night], that’s what we’re focused on. Can we take another step forward on this road trip?”
Asked if the Pacers were a better team this season, Spoelstra said, “That remains to be seen. It’s a long season.”
He then added that the Pacers are “playing great basketball, and you have to respect that.”
Dwyane Wade did not participate in the shootaround Tuesday morning, opting to rest before the game. Wade then warmed up before the game, which isn’t his normal routine, and then iced his knees.
“I was just taking a little more rest and letting the body continue to heal,” Wade said when asked about his decision to skip the shootaround.
As for his status for Tuesday’s game, Wade said he knew he was playing several days in advance.
“I missed last game because it was a back-to-back, and I had two days off, so I was playing the whole time,” Wade said.