Hungry for revenge and inspired by doubters, the Indiana Pacers will try to dethrone the two-time defending champion Miami Heat starting Sunday and win a place in the NBA Finals.
The best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals that open at Indianapolis will be a rematch of last year's matchup, in which the Heat routed Indiana 99-76 in game seven at Miami on their way to retaining their champions title.
"We have been talking about this series all year," Pacers forward David West said. "We took a different path than they did but we're here and we're ready.
"It's going to be a difficult series. We're going to need everything from everybody."
While LeBron James and the Heat have been building throughout the season and in playoff romps over Charlotte and Brooklyn, the Pacers struggled late in the season, were pushed to the brink by Atlanta in round one of the playoffs and had to battle past Washington in six games.
"Everything is behind us now," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "When we were 33-7 or how we struggled down the stretch and took a lot of criticism, that means nothing. This is where we wanted to be."
Since starting the season 50-17, the Pacers are just 14-14 in regular season and playoff games, prompting questions about their consistency and ability to outduel James and the Heat.
"We had to handle all the adversity. We kept pulling together," West said. "Guys just showed unbelievable grit, unbelievable toughness.
"I'm proud of the way we handled ourselves this last month or so. It has been tough mentally and physically but we have been able to persevere.
"We've never lost our confidence in our ability to beat tough basketball teams."
Indiana was an NBA-best 35-6 at home during the season but the Pacers are only 3-4 at Indianapolis in the playoffs.
As a result, Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Heat a 6-5 favorite to win this year's NBA crown and the Pacers as the longshot at 10-1.
- Stay humble -
"We like being the underdogs," Pacers guard Lance Stephenson said. "We like when everybody is talking about us and trying to bring us down. We stay together as a unit, stay poised in the locker room and it just makes us stronger.
"We've been though it all this season and I feel like everything we went through has made us stronger. Those ups and downs brought us together and we needed that so we could stay humble and stay level."
The Pacers and Heat split four regular-season meetings, each winning twice at home.
While the Pacers have the best shooting defense in the playoffs at 40.5 percent, they will be tested by James, who is averaging 30 points a game in the playoffs.
"They are a different animal," West said. We'll have to work a lot, especially defensively. We have to get ready to deal with the pressure.
"Definitely we have to bring the attitude. That gives us an edge. We have to be aggressive. We're going to trust in who we are."
This will be the first time since Miami and Detroit met in 2005 and 2006 that the same two teams have met in the East finals in consecutive seasons.
The last time a team beat the same foe in the East final in back-to-back seasons came when the Pistons beat Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in 1989 and 1990.
"There's not a whole lot in terms of Xs and Os that either of us don't know about the other," West said. "It's going to come down to the details, who is able to impose their will on the other, particularly on the defensive end. That's going to be critical for us."