The Heat and Indiana Pacers trudged through these meandering, at times monotonous, at times maddening 7 1/2 months simply to arrive at the inevitable:
An Eastern Conference finals showdown that everyone anticipated back in October.
“This is the matchup we envisioned,” Dwyane Wade said Friday, as Miami began preparation for Sunday’s Game 1 in Indianapolis. “It seems like you could have just gotten to this point a long time ago.”
Oh, this matchup might not have seemed so inevitable when Indiana fell behind 3-2 against Atlanta in the first round and lost to Washington in Game 1 of the second round. But as Wade said, the Heat always suspected the Pacers would figure it out.
At the All-Star Game in February, LeBron James told Pacers coach Frank Vogel: “Looking forward to seeing you in May.”
As Chris Bosh said Friday: “This is what everybody wanted. I know a lot of people will pay attention to what happened lately, but they’re still the best team in the East. We knew we had to beat the Pacers to get where we wanted to go. And same with them. I don’t think one team is head and shoulders above the other.”
The teams split the season series, with Miami scoring eight more points and grabbing two fewer rebounds.
“It’s the best matchup for us because they were the best team in the Eastern Conference this year, and we want to be the best team in the East when it’s all said and done,” Wade said.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he felt anxiety watching the Pacers in an earlier playoff series “and I said, ‘I have enough of that in my own series. I don’t have to waste that energy in somebody else’s series.’ ”
The Heat eliminated the Pacers in six games in the second round in 2012 and in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals last season. But unlike the past two years, the Heat will open this series in Indiana, where the Pacers are just 3-4 in the playoffs.
“I don’t believe the Pacers that struggled at home will be the team we play on Sunday,” James said. “Last year, we had home-court [advantage] and they beat us in Game 2. We had home court last year in the Finals and lost Game 1.”
Of having to go to Indiana for a seventh game if the series goes the distance, Wade said: “If we can’t win on the road, we’re not the team we think we are anyway. It’s a different journey for us this year. We’ve got to see if we’re up for this different challenge.”
Several Heat players shrugged off Indiana’s struggles this postseason. Asked about the scrutiny the Pacers have been under, Wade said: “You think we cared about that? We had our own set of problems. … Atlanta was a tough matchup for them. From afar, you knew they would eventually figure it out.”
From a strategic standpoint, James indicated Friday that Udonis Haslem will return to the starting lineup in place of Shane Battier — a move expected because of the size of Indiana’s front line and Haslem’s success defending Roy Hibbert in two late-season meetings.
“You try to make everything as difficult as you can for him, contest everything and live with the consequences,” Haslem said. “It’s not easy” with his six-inch height disadvantage against the 7-2 Hibbert. “You’ve got to be relentless and be ahead of every play.”
Spoelstra was noncommittal about whether he would use center Greg Oden, who hasn’t appeared in a game this postseason, adding: “I won’t hesitate if there’s a need for him.”
Asked if he’s rusty from playing sparingly over the past seven weeks, Oden said: “I couldn’t tell you.”
Oden said he’s not worried about whether he will play or not, but “I’ve got to be ready. There are going to be a lot of fouls going.”
“That’s a function of them being a very good defensive team,” Spoelstra said. “If you don’t move the defense and play with appropriate pace and ball movement, they can get you late in the clock taking the shots they want you to take.”
But the Heat has shot threes effectively against the Pacers at times, including 38 percent in last year’s conference finals.
George averaged 21.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and shot 42.9 percent.
“He’s a guy you have to account for at all times,” James said.
“I’m sure they feel this is their year,” Wade said of the Pacers. “Rightfully so. But we have a team that feels that way here. … It’s great storylines.”