MIAMI -- Seventeen down.
One to go.
But there's essentially one game that garners more attention than any of the rest – or, for that matter, any of the previous ones the Heat have played over the past five weeks.
Friday's win allowed Miami to match the NBA's longest winning streak of the season, which was initially set when the Los Angeles Clippers ran off 17 straight victories from late November through the end of December. The Heat's streak started after a blowout loss on Feb. 1 in Indiana that improved the Pacers to 2-0 this season against Miami.
So even as some players were drying off from postgame showers after beating Philadelphia, many had already worked up a lather as the focus shifted to the Pacers.
For some, the streak means very little if it isn't punctuated with a statement Sunday against the one team in the league against whom the Heat have yet to redeem themselves.
The Heat have already avenged earlier losses to the Clippers, Bulls, Grizzlies and Knicks during the longest winning streak in franchise history. Sunday presents an opportunity to cross the final nemesis off their list.
“It was already more than just a game, after the first two (losses),” Heat center Chris Bosh said of the Pacers. “After they beat us pretty good, them and New York, we've had these days circled for some time. So forget about the winning streak. You can take that away. If we lost a few in a row, we'd still be ready for Sunday.”
The level of stock the Heat are putting into the third meeting against the Pacers varies depending on which player spoke late Friday night. From a team-wide perspective, coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters he wouldn't divulge the extent of his postgame talk with the team.
But there was no way to hide the sentiment. Anchored by 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, 6-9 rugged power forward David West and All-Star swingman Paul George, the Pacers are essentially constructed as the anti-Heat. In their two double-digit victories over Miami, the Pacers won the rebounding battle by an average of 14 boards and limited the NBA's most efficient offense to 83 points a game.
Indiana has been motivated to show it can measure up better this season after squandering a 2-1 series lead and losing to the Heat in six games during the Eastern Conference semifinals last season. That highly-charged playoff series was filled with trash talk, flagrant fouls and both teams having to face and overcome internal strife.
Bosh sustained a strained abdominal muscle in Game 1 and would miss the rest of the series. Heat guard Dwyane Wade was dealing with a severely sore knee that had to be drained during the series, and his frustrations boiled over in a heated exchange with Spoelstra during a Game 3 loss.
But the Pacers also showed they couldn't quite handle the prosperity of having the Heat on the ropes. After losing Games 4 and 5, then-Pacers executive Larry Bird told the Indianapolis Star that his team was, “soft. S-O-F-T.”
“It really was the equivalent of a seven-game physical series,” Spoelstra said. “With another year of experience, that team has gained more confidence, they've gotten better and they've played two great games against us – and they deserved to win both times.”
Sunday's showdown has the Heat's full attention.
“I won't share the extent of the conversation we had as a team, but we're all aware that they absolutely pounded us, beat us up,” Spoelstra said of the first two meetings this season with Indiana. “What else do you want to say? Each game is its own challenge, but this is one that everybody gets what they want Sunday. Fans get a game they think is compelling. Indiana wants to play us and compete against us, and we want to compete against them.”
The defending champion Heat have already secured their spot in the postseason by clinching a playoff spot with Friday's win. They also have an eight-game lead over the second-place Pacers in the conference standings. Put there's still a point or two the Heat want to prove – both to themselves and to potential postseason opponents.
Miami's coaches and players felt they passed a significant test on March 1 when they beat Memphis, 98-91, and held their own the second time against the Grizzlies' big frontline led by Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The Grizzlies and Pacers play a similar physical style, so the Heat hope to build from that confidence-boosting performance.
Rebounding remains one of the Heat's few weaknesses, but it is a strength for the Pacers.
“The first game, they smacked us pretty good. The second game, we had a change, but they did more than us to win the game,” Wade said. “Now, it's our turn. We're at home. We have to take care of business. Every team that's beaten us, especially since the (All-Star) break, we've tried to redeem ourselves and play a lot better.”
About the only player in the Heat's locker room who downplayed the significance of Sunday's matchup was LeBron James. He quickly shot down the notion his team has much to prove and suggested that the Boston Celtics – not the Pacers – are the Heat's biggest rival in the East.
The outcome of Sunday's game, James intimated, has absolutely no bearing on what happens when – or if – they meet in the playoffs with a trip to the NBA Finals at stake.
“We don't need to make no statement against no team,” James said. “We know where we stand when it counts. But we want to play well and continue to get better against a very good team coming into our building. You always want to hold serve on our home court. This will be a good test for us, and we look forward to it.”