WASHINGTON: Hungry for revenge and inspired by doubters, the Indiana Pacers will try to dethrone the two-time defending champion Miami Heat starting Sunday (Monday in Manila) and win a place in the NBA Finals.
The best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals that open at Indianapolis will be a rematch of last year’s matchup, in which the Heat routed Indiana 99-76 in game seven at Miami on their way to retaining their champions title.
“We have been talking about this series all year,” Pacers forward David West said.
“We took a different path than they did but we’re here and we’re ready.
“It’s going to be a difficult series. We’re going to need everything from everybody.”
While LeBron James and the Heat have been building throughout the season and in playoff romps over Charlotte and Brooklyn, the Pacers struggled late in the season, were pushed to the brink by Atlanta in round one of the playoffs and had to battle past Washington in six games.
“Everything is behind us now,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “When we were 33-7 or how we struggled down the stretch and took a lot of criticism, that means nothing. This is where we wanted to be.”
Since starting the season 50-17, the Pacers are just 14-14 in regular season and playoff games, prompting questions about their consistency and ability to outduel James and the Heat.
“We had to handle all the adversity. We kept pulling together,” West said. “Guys just showed unbelievable grit, unbelievable toughness.
“I’m proud of the way we handled ourselves this last month or so. It has been tough mentally and physically but we have been able to persevere.
“We’ve never lost our confidence in our ability to beat tough basketball teams.”
Indiana was an NBA-best 35-6 at home during the season but the Pacers are only 3-4 at Indianapolis in the playoffs.
As a result, Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Heat a 6-5 favorite to win this year’s NBA crown and the Pacers as the longshot at 10-1.