MIAMI — It was May 2004. The game, the series and the season were on the line, with Miami trailing Indiana by three points. And Dwyane Wade watched what became the final seconds from the Heat bench.
He wasn’t one of Miami’s best options at that moment.
A bit has changed since his rookie year.
Wade still looks at the 2004 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pacers as both a breakthrough and a learning experience. Eight years later, they’ll meet again in the East semis, this time with the Heat in the role of heavy favorite and Indiana in the role of upstart — a reversal from what was the case in the most recent playoff matchup between the franchises.
“It was a fun series for me,” Wade said. “No expectations. Just go out there, whatever we did in that series was a plus. That team was a 60-something win team that year, I believe. They had a very good team and I thought we did a great job of pushing them to the brink as much as possible. Obviously, it was one of my favorite all-time series because it was one of my first ones. I think that’s when I made a little name for myself, in that series.”
The name has grown a bit since. So have the expectations. Indiana was the top overall seed in the 2004 playoffs and title favorites after a 61-win season. Miami was the team that scrambled just to get into the playoffs that year. This time around, it’s the Heat in title-or-bust mode, while the Pacers know there’s little in the way of pressure on them in this matchup.
Game 1 is Sunday in Miami.
“We took a big step last year getting back into the playoffs and ever since that minute we came back with the mindset that we wanted to advance further than we did last year so we’re very happy to get this W and advance,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said this week after his team ousted Orlando from the first round. “We’re not happy with just getting that, though. We feel like this is just the beginning of a big run.”
That’s sort of how Wade felt eight years ago.
Miami lost its first seven games of Wade’s rookie season, which started amid tumult after Stan Van Gundy took over as coach during the preseason when Pat Riley decided to step away. In early March, Miami was 25-36 and wasn’t even among the top eight teams in the East. All that changed with a 17-4 finish that not only got the Heat into the playoffs but earned the team a No. 4 seed and home-court in the first round.
They wound up taking Indiana to six games, falling at home 73-70 in the deciding game. Van Gundy’s decision to take Wade out for the final seconds was easy — even though Wade more than doubled anyone else’s total with 10 points in the final quarter of Game 6, he had made only 16 3-pointers that season. Rafer Alston made 161, and the Heat needed one from beyond the arc to force overtime, so Alston came in for the rookie with 12.4 seconds left. The miracle 3 didn’t happen, and Wade’s first Heat year came to an end.
He averaged 21 points in that series, shooting 49 percent. And he was noticed, too.
“The Heat is a team that is going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Pacers guard Reggie Miller said on the night Indiana eliminated Miami in 2004.
Of course, Miller was right. Two years later, Wade was an NBA champion and finals MVP.
Now it’s Indiana that might be on the rise.
The Pacers needed five games to get past Orlando and earn a second-round matchup with the reigning East champs, and although the Heat took three of four from Indiana in the regular season, they are already saying that this series might be far tougher than most prognosticators would imagine.
“This next series, I’m sure, will feel like it’s played in a cage rather than a basketball court,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’ll be extremely physical.”
It also might lack certain elements that came out in the New York-Miami series.
The Heat and Knicks had some great playoff battles from 1997 through 2000, fueled in large part by Riley’s decision to leave New York and take over in Miami. There’s no great backstory of animus between Miami and Indiana, teams that have met in the postseason just the one time eight years ago.
Wade doesn’t mind that part. He said there’s no reason to expect an easy series.
“From the media hype, obviously the Knicks and Miami is a ticket-seller,” Wade said. “Miami-Indiana, from the outside when it comes to hype, won’t be the same. But this team right here is a better team. They’ve proved it all year. It’s going to be a tougher series for us. But it won’t be grabbing headlines like the Knicks and Miami series.”