Shane Battier rubbed the back of his neck not out of pain, but as an involuntary reaction to the idea of pain. It had already been a long and difficult road trip by the time Battier was soaking his post-game feet in a tub of ice in Detroit, but the worst, he was sure, was still to come.
The worst is David West. For Battier, the worst always is David West.
West is the rugged, intelligent and talented player for the Indiana Pacers who Battier will lean against, battle and use every ounce of his cagey 35 years to limit offensively on Tuesday in Indianapolis. The game between the Heat and Pacers is an early season matchup between the top teams in the Eastern Conference and a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals, a series that went the full seven games. Battier represents a key chess piece in what has become an ongoing struggle between the Heat’s quickness and speed and the Pacers’ size and muscle.
When Heat coach Erik Spoelstra goes on tangents about “identity” and, more specifically, the imposition of that abstract idea on opponents, Battier’s three-pointers are, to a degree, the decoded message of that coach speak.
“Obviously, this game will have a spotlight on it from the outside, but we just want to play well and play to our identity and build on what we’ve done in these last two games on the road,” Spoelstra said after back-to-back victories against the Timberwolves and Pistons. “That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing, the resolve, the toughness, the defense…Can you still consistently get to your identity against a team that has a vastly different identity, and can you impose that identity more consistently?
“That’s the bigger issue and focus on our part. We understand that there will be a big storyline for this game, but that’s not our focus, the storyline.”
Of course, the focus and identity of the Eastern Conference standings might be slightly important despite Spoelstra’s best efforts to trivialize such nonsense. The Pacers (18-3) currently are two games ahead of the Heat (16-5), and Indiana clearly has made it a priority to earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Tuesday could represent an important tie-breaker if it comes down to that and, considering the Heat blew out the Pacers at AmericanAirlines Arena in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals after an otherwise even series, there seems to be a little more at stake on Tuesday than Spoelstra’s existential concepts of “journey,” “identity,” and “process.”
In reality, the Pacers are playing well right now and the Heat has been dealing with injuries and lineup shifts throughout the beginning of the season. Advantage: Pacers.
“Obviously everyone is going to make it as a marquee game, but I don’t really get too involved in regular-season matchups, especially in December,” LeBron James said. “They’re a very good team — probably a great team — right now, the way they’re playing basketball, and we’re trying to get healthy.
“We’re trying to get to our full potential, so we’ll see what we can do. We look forward to the opportunity of going in there and playing on Tuesday but it’s not like it’s a statement game for us.”
Still, that doesn’t mean things will be any easier for Battier. For him, Tuesday’s game is another installment in a rivalry that was never supposed to feature him as the primary counterpart to West’s bulk, but Spoelstra has once again benched Udonis Haslem in favor of Battier’s skills as a three-point shooter. For the purposes of tactical advantages and mismatches in a playoff series, that’s just fine, but stretched out over the course of a regular season, the nightly pounding Battier absorbs playing out of position at power forward takes a toll.
And this road trip has been particularly brutal.
It started with Carlos Boozer and the Bulls before shifting to the Minnesota where Battier caught a break with Kevin Love out of the Timberwolves’ lineup, but still found himself at times pushing against the immovable low-post force that is Nikola Pekovic. On Sunday, Battier matched up against Greg Monroe. And, now, Battier gets West.
“I caught a lucky break against Minnesota with Kevin Love not playing but this is the equivalent of murder’s row for me as a 6-8, 215-pound power forward” Battier said. “And it gets more difficult as it goes on. But you just fight like hell and do the best you can and live with it.”
By and large, that was the Heat’s overall outlook on the eve of what’s supposedly its most important game of the early season.