Pacers-Heat has sure changed quickly

Players talked on court about how Thursday's meeting of conference playoff rivals had a dramatically different feel.

No LeBron. No Lance Stephenson blowing in LeBron James’ ear. No Paul George.

And longtime Indiana Pacers star Danny Granger was wearing a Miami Heat uniform.

Yeah, Thursday afternoon did seem odd.

King James took his talents back to Cleveland. Stephenson signed with Charlotte. George spends his days trying to rehabilitate his lower right leg, which suffered two broken bones on Aug. 1.

After so many Eastern Conference playoff battles over the years, two lesser rivals met for a New Year’s Eve day game in an usual tip time of 3 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Asked if this NBA game resembled any of the Pacers-Heat tussles in recent years, Pacers forward David West shook his head and said, “Nah.”

It was the Pacers’ fourth sellout crowd in 16 games this season, so blue-and-gold fans provided an electric atmosphere, especially when the Pacers rallied with a 15-0 run in the second half to beat the Heat 106-95.

But even some of the combatants were talking on court about how this didn't have the same hype as in the past.

“A couple of us actually said something about that while we were out there,” West said. “Yeah, it’s a different feel.”

The teams’ records would attest to that. The Pacers improved to 12-21. The Heat dropped to 14-19.

“That’s just the way the NBA turns,” West said. “I guess these three or four games during the regular season that we played them throughout the last three years would have been big games.”

When they met last May in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers were the No. 1 seed after finishing the regular season with a 56-26 record while the Heat were the No. 2 seed based on a 54-28 qualifying mark.

Just like in two previous postseasons, the Heat took out the Pacers, this time in six games.

The year before, the Heat won in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Two years ago, Miami ousted Indiana 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Pacers head coach Frank Vogel was asked if beating the Heat still meant something extra.

He didn’t hesitate.

“Sure,” he said, smiling.

After a pause, he added context when asked, “Because?”

“Because they knocked us out the of playoffs three straight years,” Vogel said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s the Miami Heat or whoever, somebody knocks you out three years in a row, you’re going to enjoy beating them any time.”

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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