Indiana Pacers: 56-26
Miami Heat: 54-28
Miami Heat: none
OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)
Indiana Pacers: Offense 101.5 (22nd in the NBA), Defense 96.7 (1st in the NBA)
Miami Heat: Offense: 109.0 (2nd in the NBA). Defense: 102.9 (11th in the NBA)
THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES
1) How will the Heat match up?
The Pacers – admirably or stubbornly – do what they do. They’re going to be big, and they’re going to be methodical.
The Heat are much more flexible, and it will be on Erik Spoelstra to determine how he wants to structure lineups around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Maybe Miami goes small with Bosh at center and a stretch four – LeBron, Rashard Lewis or Shane Battier – to space the floor. That would ensure Roy Hibbert defends outside the paint, removing the anchor of Indiana’s defense and removing Hibbert from his comfort zone. However, it would also leave the Heat vulnerable defensively to Hibbert’s post-ups and make Miami pick its poison on whether LeBron doesn’t guard Paul George or David West. Any sign Hibbert has lost confidence to the point he can’t score regardless, this should become the preferred strategy.
On the other hand, the Heat could also go big to counter Hibbert and West. Greg Oden was signed to match up with Hibbert, though that went disastrously in their regular-season meeting meeting. Small sample? Yes. Worth another shot? Maybe. Probably, even. Chris Andersen is Miami’s most reliable big man outside of Bosh, and he’ll definitely play a major role in this series. But he’s 35 and hasn’t played 30 minutes in regulation in four years. There’s only so much he can do.
Udonis Haslem could split the difference.
Haslem is an extremely physical player who, despite being just 6-foot-8, can work on Hibbert. He also has a nice mid-range jumper to pull Hibbert from the paint, though not all the way to the 3-point arc. Haslem started in the first round against the Bobcats, and then he played just three minutes against the small-ball Nets.
Spoelstra is more than willing to change his rotations based on opponent.
It’s not just who plays, but when they play – especially Bosh. Bosh is a solid defender in the right matchups, but Hibbert – and, to a lesser extent, West – can beat him up inside. Ideally for the Heat, they won’t waste all Bosh’s energy in a losing defensive match up only have him spent offensively.
2) How much does homecourt advantage matter?
All season, the Pacers made their goal securing the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage. They’re so serious about beating Miami, they were looking for an edge since day one after losing a road Game 7 to the Heat last year.
Miami doesn’t take the regular season as seriously – see its record vs. Brooklyn in the regular season and postseason – and Indiana got the top seed it desired despite a late-season slide.
So, will all that work pay off?
In postseason series during the last four years, the Pacers are 4-0 with homecourt advantage and 1-3 without it. In individual games against Miami during the same span, the Pacers are 8-5 at home and 3-11 on the road.
It seems this should be important to Indiana.
Then again, the Pacers are 5-6 in their last 11 home games. Plus, in the Big Three era, the Heat are 11-1 with homecourt advantage and 2-0 without it in a series. They can win anywhere.
Maybe it will matter most as a mental reminder to the Pacers about why they worked so hard in the first place, potentially helping them summon some of the confidence they showed regularly early in the season and appears only occasionally now.
3) How hungry are the Pacers?
In 2012, Miami eliminated Indiana in six games in the second round. In 2013, Miami eliminated Indiana in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Pacers are chomping at the bit, getting closer and closer to toppling the aging Heat.
From Miami’s perspective, keeping a hungry team at bay is hard. Yes, teams should – and generally do – give maximum effort at this point in the season. But when you’re coming from the position of power, there’s a lower threshold of energy you can reach once you get on the court.
The sensation of being corned and the desire to overcome a challenge are not easy to fake. The Pacers have it. The Heat have to fake it.
Since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984, teams have met in three consecutive postseasons 22 times. The same team has won all three matchups just eight times. Five of those eight had Phil Jackson – the ultimate playoff motivator – as coach.
That leaves just three teams in 30 years that have beaten the same playoff opponent in three consecutive years without Jackson.
Could the Heat make it No. 4? They have a member of the one of the previous three – LeBron, whose Cavaliers beat the Wizards in 2006, 2007 and 2008. As usual, Miami’s demeanor will be defined by its megastar.
The Pacers’ late collapse was very real, but also probably overblown. A good, but not elite, team is left in the rubble. It’s also a team designed specifically to match up with the Heat, Indiana could definitely overcome the quality gap between the teams.
The biggest potential variable is one that hopefully won’t be an issue at all – Wade’s health. If he goes down, this series loses a lot of prestige. He looks fine, but his knees are a constant concern and will be for the rest of his career. As long as Wade avoids injury, the Heat will just be too much.
Heat in 6