INDIANAPOLIS — If a war of words exists between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, it is only being waged on one side.
The Pacers aren’t firing back.
Words, after all, won’t determine the Eastern Conference Finals. Performance will.
That’s why the Pacers are keeping their focus on the court — no matter how much the Heat, and LeBron James in particular, try to make the showdown anything more than a competition to reach the NBA Finals.
Words won’t settle anything. Neither will the sort of rough fouls, verbal sparring and near scuffles that occurred when the Pacers and Heat met in last year’s semifinals — which Miami won in six games.
“It’s going to be about substance,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after Monday’s practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “This series has plenty to offer without all the hard fouls you’re seeing on TV and trash talking. This series isn’t going to be stained by all that stuff.
“It’s going to be about two teams playing at an extremely high level and competing for a conference championship.”
Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is Wednesday in Miami. The opening verbal salvo was launched from there on Sunday, when James lashed out at Vogel over a comment the coach didn’t actually make.
After Indiana bounced New York from the semifinals on May 18, Vogel said the following about playing the Heat again, only this time for the right to advance to the NBA Finals:
“It’s exciting, but it is not about getting back at Miami. If you’re in the final four, you’re competing for a championship. And they’re just the next team that’s in our way. That’s how we’re approaching it.”
The context was lost in translation when the Miami press relayed an inaccurate version of Vogels’ comments to James the following day. He responded by telling reporters in Miami:
“We’re not just another team. I don’t understand what he’s saying. But we’re not just another team. That’s not true. He said we’re just another team in their way. We’re a great team. If we’re just another team, you really don’t prepare for just another team. You have to prepare for us.”
Vogel not only assured the Pacers are painstakingly preparing for the world champions, he refused to get drawn into a lengthy discussion about what he didn’t say. That is to say, he had no reaction to James’ reaction.
“He was reacting to something I didn’t say, so I don’t really have a reaction to it,” Vogel said. “This series is not about bulletin board material or trash talking. It’s about two teams playing at an extremely high level, competing for a conference championship.”
Veteran forward David West echoed the sentiment.
“It’s going to be a tough series. Obviously, they’re the defending champs and we’ve got to respect them, based on their history,” West said. “But we’re in this thing to compete. We’re in this thing to win.
“We’re just going to have to do what we have to do on the floor to make sure the outcome’s in our favor.”
Like Vogel, center Roy Hibbert dismissed James’ attempt to draw the Pacers into a verbal sparring match. And like West, he insists the defending champion Heat pose a challenge like no other opponent.
Hibbert also expects the series to feature some of the physical play, posturing and side show antics that occurred during last year’s series. In addition to hard fouls and near altercations, Lance Stephenson — then a seldom-used backup — famously made the choke sign at James after the four-time MVP missed a free throw in Game 3.
“We’re just going to play our game,” Hibbert said. “I’m sure there will be extracurricular stuff going on, but the guys on the court will be focused. It’s a battle of wills.
“Hopefully, we can go out there and do it.”