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Ernie Johnson on Fan Night, Pacers-Heat, and Paul George

by Scott Agness | @ScottAgness

December 10, 2013

It’ll be a battle of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference when the Pacers host the Miami Heat to Bankers Life Fieldhouse Tuesday night, just their first meeting of the season. NBA fans let their voices heard and voted for the game to air across the nation on NBA TV.

Each week, fans can vote on a variety of platforms for which game they want to be televised for NBA Fan Night presented by Sprint. As expected, a rematch of the Eastern Conference Finals was the overwhelming favorite.

“I applaud the fans for their insight because that’s how Fan Night works,” said Ernie Johnson, who’ll host an hour pregame show on NBA TV along with analysts Chris Webber and Greg Anthony. “They did very, very well to recognize the importance of this game.”

This won’t affect Pacers fans in Central Indiana. They must still watch on FOX Sports Indiana. NBA TV will show FSI’s telecast with Chris Denari, Quinn Buckner and Brooke Olzendam.

NBA TV will dedicate the day to the Pacers and Heat. Starting at 10 a.m., the network will air in sequence all seven games of last year’s series, where the Pacers ultimately lost on Miami’s home floor. That loss essentially shaped the Pacers’ goal for the season: earn the top seed, which would result in home-court advantage.

This will be the Pacers’ fourth time appearing on a nationally televised broadcast this season, with at least 14 more to go. Johnson said he and his Turner Broadcasting colleagues are just as intrigued to see the matchup as the fans.

“I was actually in the middle of a game on TNT,” Johnson explained, “and we were talking about the Pacers in the course of that night and I said, “I totally would like to see them play the Heat.’ Then, I looked at my schedule during the show and I said, ‘Well, it’s a Tuesday night, December 10th. Something tells me that might be Fan Night game.’ And so, yeah, I think certainly everybody wants to see it.”

The Pacers boast the top record in the league, 18-3, but the Heat (16-5) are just two games back. Johnson believes basketball fans of the NBA have learned over the last year what the Pacers are all about.

“People know,” he said confidently. “People know all about the Indiana Pacers now. I think it was funny when Frank Vogel got the job and he came out right away and talked about his high expectations and high aspirations for this team, folks kind of chuckled a little bit. ‘Oh yeah, well that sounds good but I don’t know if you have the pieces right now to do that.’ But it certainly didn’t take long. He’s done a great job. I just think they’ve done a wonderful job of buying into his mindset.

“I know he talks about treating The Fieldhouse as sacred ground. Treating your home court as sacred ground. And I think they’ve bought into that and the whole ‘Blue Collar, Gold Swagger.’ They are a living, breathing example of that. They’ve got this great work ethic and they’ve got the feeling when they walk into the gym that they can beat anybody they face.”

Indiana and Oklahoma City are the only two teams that have yet to lose on their home floor. Having an excellent record at home is near the top of Vogel’s keys to a successful season. Johnson has been to Indianapolis and Bankers Life Fieldhouse numerous times, most recently with TNT during last year’s postseason, and he offered nothing but praise.

“It’s a shrine to the game,” Johnson stated. “You can just feel Indiana basketball in that building and it just resonates when you’re in there. It’s a great setting and the fans have always been good. I went to Market Square back in the day. The sport is special for the state of Indiana and to the city of Indianapolis. The Pacers, with their style and their work ethic and the way they approach the game, it’s perfect.”

Though he’s not too surprised about the Pacers’ success after 21 games, Paul George’s improvement and high-level play as caught his eye – like it has with most folks across the league.

“You talk about a guy taking it to another level, that’s what he’s done,” Johnson said. “He puts himself right up there now in the league’s elite and does it night in and night out. And not just on offense but on the defensive end as well. He’s the real deal.

“The moment I’ll always remember out of the Eastern Conference Finals last year was that moment of mutual respect between LeBron and Paul George. Paul had the dunk and LeBron came back and hit the 3, and then they kind of touched fists there at center court. It was like, ‘Wow, now that was a cool moment.’ And that was an established star who may be the best player in the planet and a guy who wants to be there, too. That was really cool.”

Tuesday’s meeting, the first of four this season, isn’t a statement game by any means. There’s still a long ways to go in the season and so much can change. Undoubtedly, both teams wish to land the first blow. Eight days later, they’ll battle it out in Miami.

“The Indiana Pacers are a legit title contender in the NBA,” Johnson said, “and that’s why I think everybody wants to see the Miami team come in there and the Indiana team off a 3-2 trip with the best record in the East. And you need that. In the course of a long season, you get those 82 games and then sometimes you’re like, ‘Boy, I really would like to see a good matchup.’

“This is going to be one of those December games that feels like spring time. It’s going to feel like a playoff [game] and that’s why we’re thrilled to have it on NBA TV.”

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