20130429-135523.jpgAs the Pacers and Heat get ready for The Biggest Regular Season Game of the Year II, this time in Miami, some interesting perspective on the budding rivalry between the teams was offered by Dwyane Wade.

In an ESPN SportsCenter interview this morning with Stephen A. Smith, Wade said the Heat has a “healthy respect” for the Pacers, and considers Indiana the team Miami must go through to return to the NBA Finals.

“They’re a very good team,” Wade said. “They’re a team that I feel and I think we feel that we have to go through to get to where we want to get to, and that’s the Finals. This is a team, kind of the complete package when you talk about defense, talk about post presence with the big fella and West, and guards that are dynamic. So they are a very good team. They have a very good young coach. So it’s a healthy respect coming from the Miami Heat and we love the challenge.”

The Heat has to go through the Pacers? Interesting.

In fact, it’s the other way around. The Pacers had the Knicks and Bulls standing in their way in the ‘90s, and the Pistons a decade ago.

Wade, James and the Heat are the target team now. Paul George acknowledged as much before the Pacers’ 90-84 win in the first meeting last week.

“Locked in the gym, running the mountains, running the neighborhood, that was my whole mindset,” he said, “to get better for them.”

George’s dramatic improvement is a major reason the Pacers have jumped ahead of the Heat in the early Eastern Conference standings, but it’s not the only one. Indiana’s players have a collective commitment to that same approach. They may as well have “Beat the Heat” stamped on their foreheads.

“I think everyone on this side has been in their position before where we’ve gotten close and we thought about it the whole year, the whole summer all we thought about was getting back to that moment, just playing that team again,” Wade said. “So they’re more focused, they’ve got a chip on their shoulder, they feel that it’s their time, that it should be their time but you also understand that it just doesn’t happen that way. It has to be your time and for us, we’re still in our moment. We’re healthy, we feel it’s our time, as well.”

Paul George faced aggressive double-teams last time the teams met. (Photo: Frank McGrath/Pacers)

Paul George faced aggressive double-teams last time the teams met. (Photo: Frank McGrath/Pacers)

Smith then brought up what is a recurring theme in his Pacers-Heat conversations: that Indiana somehow wants to beat Miami almost as much as it wants to win a championship and doing one without the other would be an incomplete accomplishment.

Wade concurred.

“I get that impression watching them, listening to them,” he said. “The Miami Heat is their focus. We’ve all been there before. I had it against the Detroit Pistons back in the day to get to the Finals, to get past the Eastern Conference Finals, had to beat Pistons. And that was our focus. That was our focus against Boston. We’re just that team now, that the teams that haven’t had the success are looking to.”

When Smith asked Wade if the teams were on a collision course for the Eastern Conference Finals again, he assented, but stopped short when asked about a possible three-peat.

“That’s the goal,” he said. “Miami Heat don’t talk. Miami Heat, we’re not talkers. We go out and play. We don’t guarantee things, that’s not what we do. We do Harlem Shake videos and have fun. We do Instagram stuff and have fun but when it comes to basketball we just try to handle business and whatever comes from handling business is what we deserve.”

FAST BREAKS: LESS MEANS MORE FOR GEORGE?

>> The key to breaking George out of his mini-slump (14.7 points, 27 percent shooting the last three games) could be calling his number less, said coach Frank Vogel. “The thing with Miami is they’re such a strong-side defensive team, whoever you’re trying to call a play for they take it out of their hands with double-teams so if you want to get Paul George more shots, it’s almost like don’t call his play. Call somebody else’s play and get the ball moving,” he said. “If you want him to be a facilitator, give him the ball. If you want him to be a scorer, put him off the ball.”

>> Vogel himself is questionable for tonight’s game. Pacers media relations boss David Benner Tweeted that the head coach is sick and may be unable to attend.

>> There is the anticipated mystery about James’ status due to a sprained right ankle. George, for one, wants him to play. “I never want anything easy or to go the easy route,” he said. “Whatever happens, I’m going to prepare as if he’s going to come out and give us his A-game.”

>> George shrugged off any lingering impact of James’ alleged “we’ll remember that” comment after Lance Stephenson’s dunk punctuated Indiana’s victory last week. “It’s nothing that we did wrong,” he said. “We got the rebound. Lance was back for a layup, they didn’t get back, simple as that. There’s no reaction to it. The level they’re going to play at when we go there, we’ve just got to expect the best.”

>> The Pacers’ defensive numbers also have slipped lately. They’ve allowed five of their last eight opponents to score at least 100 points, something that happened just once in the first 16 games. Opponents have averaged 98.6 points on .463 shooting in the last eight, compared to 85.6 points and .387 shooting prior. “We’ve played some of the best offensive teams in the game,” Vogel said. “I’m using those numbers to show my guys they’re not playing as well but the truth of the matter is we’ve been playing against some better teams. Our defense looks very similar to what it’s looked like all year.”

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