The passage into the NBA Finals through the Eastern Conference is not guaranteed.
After falling to the Chicago Bulls in a Game 1 coated in rust, the Heat stepped over a Chicago team playing on crutches. Miami won Games 2, 3 and 4 by an average margin of 23.3 points before finishing with a 94-91 victory in Wednesday’s Game 5 series clincher.
The Heat barely had to hit the turbo button in their first-round sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks.
LeBron James has been his all-around self, averaging 24 points on 51.8 percent shooting, 7.3 assists and 7.3 rebounds through the postseason. It's nothing historic thus far, but it's getting the job done.
But can James and his Miami support system continue to move through the East with the level of ease that’s been predicted since they raised the trophy a year ago?
Not so fast.
The Pacers have been equally impressive through their side of the conference semifinals, and they offer a unique matchup that could trip up this Miami dynasty. Indiana also beat Miami in two of three meetings this season.
Heat only had a losing record vs 2 teams during regular season: Knicks (1-3) and Pacers (1-2). They'll play 1 of those 2 teams next round.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 16, 2013
While the Pacers aren’t exactly the antithesis of the Heat—as both teams play elite defense—Indiana does contrast Miami with its tough interior play.
Miami moves like a Ferrari, while Indiana operates like a pickup truck.
Indiana’s stifling defense
The Pacers are one win away from advancing past the Knicks and into the Eastern Conference Finals to meet the Heat because of their ability to defend and rebound.
Opponents are shooting just 41.8 percent against the Pacers and just 32.5 percent from three-point range. In the conference semifinals, the Knicks are hitting just 6.8-of-26 (26 percent) three-pointers per game against Indiana.
The same design that has led the Pacers’ defensive efforts against the Knicks will work against the Heat.
Roy Hibbert will be free to roam the paint to protect against James or Dwyane Wade drives to the basket. This will allow defensive genius Paul George, as well as Indiana’s other perimeter defenders, to overplay on the wings.
The Heat shot 49.6 percent for 102.9 points in the regular season but shot just 48.1 percent for 90.3 points per game against Indiana's style.
The Pacers’ ability to quiet Miami’s stars has much to do with that:
James vs. Pacers: 21 points on 51 percent shooting, 4.7 assists and 7.3 rebounds
Regular season: 26.8 points on 56.5 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists
Wade vs. Pacers: 23.3 points on 52.1 percent shooting, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists
Regular season: 21.2 points on 52.1 percent shooting, 5.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists
Bosh vs. Pacers: 17 points on 58.3 percent shooting, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists
Regular season: 16.6 points on 53.5 percent shooting, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists
Of the three, Wade’s numbers remained the most consistent versus Indiana.
However, Wade is off to the worst postseason start of his career, scraping for floor time with a bone bruise in his knee among other minor, persisting injuries.
Wade is averaging 13 points on 45.3 percent shooting and 5.4 assists in eight games this postseason, though in Game 5 against Chicago he scored 18 points (six in the fourth quarter) to help the Heat recover from a double-digit deficit.
Lance Stephenson has done a nice job defensively on J.R. Smith, and he would be asked to limit Wade.
Indiana’s strength inside
Aside from the perimeter defense of Indiana, it’s the frontcourt finesse of the Heat that could cost Miami.
The weakest element of the nearly perfect Heat is the team’s league-low rebounding. Part of this is attributed to the fact that Miami misses less than other teams and limits opponents’ possessions (93.0 pace).
However, when Miami faces a team that forces more misses than usual, the Heat ultimately will suffer. It’s what makes Indiana such a difficult matchup. The Pacers are out-rebounding opponents in the playoffs by 10.4 per game. It's no aberration, as Indiana out-rebounded opponents by 4.9 per game all season.
When the Pacers and Heat met in the regular season, Indiana out-rebounded Miami by an average of 40.7 to 29.7.
But to beat the defending champions, even superior defense and rebounding won’t be enough. George, and fellow scorers George Hill and David West, must up their offensive outputs to topple Miami. West led all scorers against the Heat in the regular season with 22.7 points per game.
Remember, the Heat needed Wade to be great – albeit with Bosh banged up – to get past Indy last year, and Pacers are better this year.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) May 14, 2013
What about the Knicks?
The Pacers certainly present a more difficult matchup to the Heat than the Knicks, although the Knicks took the season series three games to one.
The Knicks don’t pose the same threat as the Pacers. New York will rely on its ability to get hot from the field in order to compete with the Knicks.
Certainly regular-season matchups can be telling statistically, but only when supported by both a season's and postseason's worth of supporting evidence.
Who has a better chance to beat the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals?
However, two of New York's wins came in the first 17 games of the season, and Anthony didn't even play in the second win. Miami won when the teams met at Madison Square Garden on March 3, and the Knicks won on April 2.
The Knicks needed 19 made three-pointers in their first win and 18 three-pointers in their second win. Anthony went for 50 points in the Knicks' third win.
This postseason, though, the Knicks' shooting—specifically their outside shooting—has been dreadful against the perimeter defense of the Boston Celtics and Pacers. Miami has held opponents to just a 29.8 three-point percentage in the playoffs.
If New York gets hot enough to surpass Indiana, it would need to continue that trend, and then some, if it hopes to upset the Heat.
However, nothing points to New York’s ability to start hitting perimeter jumpers.
The Pacers have the more legitimate shot at upending the heavy-favorite Heat.
Come the Eastern finals, nothing is guaranteed for Miami.