|With Oklahoma City out of the playoffs, can the Pacers be the Heat's newest rival? (guardian.co.uk)|
It wasn't the playoff rivalry we were expecting. It wasn't in the round we were expecting. But it involves the Miami Heat and has the making of a rivalry with some staying power.
An NBA Finals with the Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder was almost predestined, but the loss of Russell Westbrook and the Memphis Grizzlies spoiled that dream. The Thunder/Heat rivalry could still be a thing of the future, but this year's Thunder team is a prime example of how hard it is to advance to the Finals if you can't remain healthy.
We're going to have to wait another year to see if the Heat/Thunder storyline continues, but right now the Indiana Pacers could step into that role nicely.
It's still in the early stages, but the promise of an intense playoff rivalry between these two is strong. The components for a good rivalry (consistency, competitiveness and drama) are all present, so far, and the next few chapters, starting with game one of the Eastern Conference Finals Wednesday, will show how strong this rivalry can be. Obviously the future of this matchup is up to chance, but the foundation has been laid nicely.
It has hardly become a reoccurring theme, but the Heat and Pacers have now met in the past two playoffs, last year facing off in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The stakes are larger this time with a ticket to the finals on the line, and with Miami the sure favorite to advance and win the title for the second consecutive year. Miami doesn't look to be going away soon and Indiana keeps improving, so it's hard to totally discount that the two will meet again in the next few years.
Remember last year when the national media screamed, "What is wrong with the Heat?" as Miami was being questioned and LeBron was looking to fail again? That was because of the Indiana Pacers. After the Heat won game one of the series, the Pacers won games two and three, with the second win coming by 19 points. The proverbial sky was falling in Miami. Miami went on to win the series 4-2, but don't think the Heat left that series feeling great about themselves. The Pacers got in their heads and forced Miami to respond. If nothing else, the Pacers proved they could compete with the mighty Heat, and players like Roy Hibbert and Paul George have only gotten better in the past 12 months. If this year's series goes six or seven games, the Pacers will be a popular pick to contend with Miami in the future.
A great rivalry is built on on-court competitiveness and off-the-court distaste. The Pacers and Heat are off to a good start in the distaste portion. Last year it was Indiana coach Frank Vogel being fined $15,000 for calling the Heat the "biggest flopping team in the NBA." This year Vogel is getting under the Heat's skin again, now saying Miami is "just the next team" in the way of Indiana winning a title. You can imagine the reaction of the Heat players, who consider themselves much more than that. Their destiny is "Not one, not two, not three..." and LeBron James has made that clear. Whether intentional or not, the Pacers are trying to get into the Heat's heads and build a level of anger that could do great things for this rivalry. The Heat want to prove they are special while the Pacers are the underdogs doing everything they can to show Miami is not. Seeing which one is right is what will make this series exciting.
This is Indiana's rivalry for the taking. The Boston Celtics team as we know it is coming to an end and until Derrick Rose comes back and shows the same productivity, the Pacers could be the best shot to end the Heat's season early and gaining a new rival in the process.
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