MIAMI — Dwyane Wade's rookie season ended with a playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers. The next year, the Miami Heat were headed to the Eastern Conference finals and certain that an NBA championship was in their sights.
That's when Wade learned a valuable lesson: Never take playoff chances for granted.
Wade hurt his rib cage on a simple crossover dribble during that 2005 East title series, and the Heat season ended with a Game 7 home loss to Detroit. He's been to the East finals three times since, prevailing in them all, and on Wednesday will look to take a first step toward a fourth conference championship when the Heat play host to the Pacers in Game 1 of their playoff rematch from a year ago.
"I know I'm blessed to be going to the Eastern Conference finals for my fifth time," Wade said. "But I would like a lot more in my career. It's a good thing. We've been very successful in my tenure here. But I want more."
For Wade and Udonis Haslem, this marks five East finals appearances in nine years. For LeBron James, it's a fifth trip to this round in the past seven years, now three straight with Miami after a pair of trips to the East finals with Cleveland. For Ray Allen, it's a fourth East title-round trip in six years, the first three of those coming with Boston.
Experience, it all favors Miami.
For the Pacers, this is pretty much uncharted waters. Only one current Pacers player has ever appeared in a conference-final game, and that was backup big man Ian Mahinmi, who played exactly 71 seconds in one game of the 2011 West title series without so much as taking a shot. Nonetheless, the Pacers seem far from bothered by the fact that this stage is a new place for them.
"There's four teams left playing basketball in the NBA and this is something we've been looking forward to all year," Pacers forward David West said. "We lost to this team in the second round last year, so we've already gotten a step farther this season."
Indiana took Miami to six games last season, leading the series 2-1 at one point, and left an impact on the Heat with words, actions and play. The series was always physical, at times bloody, and it took some superb efforts by Wade and James for Miami — which was without Chris Bosh for 5½ of those six games — to put the Pacers away.
It's not in the nature of either of these teams to back down from physicality, and tough play will almost certainly be a theme in this series. But if there's one thing the Pacers and Heat agree upon, it's that this series will be decided by execution, not intimidation.
"I think this will be about substance," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "This series has plenty to offer without hard fouls and trash-talking. It's going to be about basketball."
The Heat are overwhelming favorites, at least according to the Las Vegas oddsmakers, who apparently aren't putting much stock in that it was the Pacers who prevailed in two of the three meetings between the teams this season.
In turn, the Heat aren't putting much stock in expectations. Even though it's starting to seem like an annual event, getting to the conference final round, Heat players insist that it's still as big a deal now as it ever was.
"It's an opportunity for me to continue my dream and that's to compete for a championship," said James, the league's reigning MVP for the second straight year and fourth time overall. "I'm happy that I'm in the position I'm in, with great teammates and a great organization. I've just got to do my part."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was an assistant on that team — Shaquille O'Neal's initial season in Miami — that fully expected to be Finals-bound in 2005.
Then Wade got hurt, and everything changed.
"I let myself get too far ahead," Wade said. "I was thinking, 'Championship, we're on our way.' I was riding the wave. It was awesome. Then it smacked me — Pow! — and it just takes one moment to change. Stupid. All I did was crossover. Did a stupid crossover pullup, I don't know what happened and it changed everything for us. That's when you learn, you don't know what's going to happen."
Wade isn't 100 percent this time around either, though has said in recent days that his bruised right knee is good enough for him to play. He doesn't even plan on missing any more practice time this season.
The Pacers have some mild injury concerns as well, with West dealing with an injury to his lower right leg and 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert needing a tape job on his right thumb after a hit in practice earlier this week. They're both expected to play Wednesday.
"I think it will be a good series," Pacers forward Paul George said. "Obviously, we remember what happened last year and it will be on our mind when we face this team. We're not just happy to get to this stage, we want to get past this one, too."
George has deservedly earned high marks this season for his offensive growth. The Pacers' hopes in this series might hinge upon his defense.
He went from guarding Carmelo Anthony in the second round to knowing that he'll be facing off plenty in this series against James — who Vogel called "the best player, the best offensive player in the world."
"He has to do the same kind of thing he did on Carmelo," Vogel said of George. "He has to come out and compete the best he can and do it without fouling."
James told teammates on Tuesday that he's raring to go, especially so since the Heat haven't played in about a week. He was working after practice on his floating jumpers, something he employed against the massiveness of Hibbert last season and a trick he won't be afraid to pull out and use again in this series.
"It's been go time," James said. "Since the playoffs started, it's been go time. And I love the way we've been playing so far."
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