Heat-Pacers preview: Champs visit the league's No. 1 team

USA TODAY Sports

The Heat visit the Pacers on Tuesday. Biggest game of the regular season? We think so.

The two-time defending champion Miami Heat will visit the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night, and it sort of feels like Christmas. You have to wonder how much the NBA regrets not making this marquee matchup part of their Dec. 25 showcase, or at least giving it the Thursday night TNT treatment it more than deserves. The fact that it's on NBA TV, though, hasn't taken away from the hype leading up to it. The Pacers are a league-best 18-3 on the season, and are becoming a trendy pick to end Miami's three-year streak of making it to the finals.

"The only thing they've got up against us is the hardware," Indiana forward Paul George said to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star. "I don't think that team is that much better than us. I don't know if we're that much better than that team. I think we're quite even."

Over the past few days, players on both sides have been asked about the significance of the game. They've largely tried to downplay it, but they know there will be extra eyeballs on them. It's widely assumed to be a conference finals preview, given that only one other team, the 11-10 Atlanta Hawks, is even over .500 in the East.

"I'm surprised the NBA is not wheeling in the Larry O'Brien trophy," Heat forward Shane Battier said to Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Gunnin' For That No. 1 Seed

Indiana believes that last year's conference finals would have been different if Game 7 wasn't played in Miami. The Pacers plan to have home court this time. Even if they hadn't been talking about it and they have, publicly, repeatedly their play would have made that statement for them. Indiana started the season by winning nine straight games and 16 of its first 17. It has yet to lose a game at home. This team is taking care of business with a clear goal in mind for the regular season.

The Heat, meanwhile, haven't been quite as consistent. They had a slow start on defense, just like last year, and they lost to the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls last week. Still, despite the Pacers earning significantly more early-season acclaim, Miami is quietly only two games back in the standings at 16-5. A win would halve that deficit.

Can the Heat stop the improved Paul George?

Here's a question: Can you win Most Improved Player two years in a row? George's development in Indiana has been nothing short of phenomenal. In addition to keeping up his stellar defensive play, in his fourth season the 23-year-old has upped his scoring average from 17.4 points per game to 25.1, and has seen all of his percentages jump 5 to 6 percentage points. George has become one of the league's deadliest three-point shooters and his handle is allowing him to create looks inside the arc. He's swishing all kinds of mid-range jumpers and, while his efficiency isn't quite at LeBron James' level, it's nearing the Kevin Durant zone. He won Eastern Conference Player of the Month in November and is now seen as an MVP candidate.

Part of George's confidence comes from the way he performed in late May and early June, when people started calling him a potential superstar. In four out of seven games in the Miami series, he scored 22 points or more and did so efficiently. In the other three games, though, George scored just 32 total points on 9-for-29 shooting, including a seven-point showing in the deciding Game 7 loss. George has been composed and consistent all year — only the Charlotte Bobcats and Chicago Bulls have shut him down — but James and the Heat's swarming perimeter defense will provide another test. Miami has the league's sixth-best defensive efficiency on the season, per Basketball-Reference.

Can the Pacers' dominant D hold up against this insane Heat O?

Indiana's playing better defense than any team in the NBA and it isn't even close. The Pacers are holding teams to 96 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference, a mark better than the league has seen since 2004. There isn't a bad defender in the starting lineup, and Roy Hibbert would likely be a unanimous choice for Defensive Player of the Year if the season ended today. While some improvement could have been expected thanks to Indiana's continuity, no one anticipated this team being quite this dominant.

The Pacers finally slipped up on Sunday, though. In Oklahoma City, the Thunder's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook lit Indiana up for a combined 62 points on 40 shots. Indiana surrendered a season-high 118 points on 61 percent shooting, and they won't win if they let Miami do something similar. That said, it was the Pacers' fifth game in eight days, and they'd destroyed the San Antonio Spurs the night before.

The Heat's offense has been clicking on all cylinders, even when Dwyane Wade has had to sit out. Both Wade and James have the highest field goal percentages of their careers, with a 60/45/80 season an actual possibility for James. The Heat are second in the league in offensive efficiency, per Basketball-Reference, and have a league-best 60.2 percent true shooting percentage. Which is nuts. Like last year, their plan will be to spread the floor and create good looks against a team that doesn't usually surrender many of them.

All this is to say that something will have to give on Tuesday.

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