It would be an insult to label the Indiana Pacers' season anything short of spectacular. Without their All-Star Danny Granger, the team's talented duo of Paul George and Roy Hibbert led the Pacers to the East's third-best record.
A late surge by the New York Knicks spoiled Indiana's chance of locking up the second seed, however any sort of discrepancy questioning the Pacers' ability against the Knicks should now be answered. Their dominant offensive and defensive effort helped launch the team to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2004, knocking out the Knicks and securing a rematch of last season's physical series with the Miami Heat.
The defending champions lost two of three games this season against the Pacers, rallying together on March 10 to avoid a season sweep. Indiana will undoubtedly be Miami's biggest test in the postseason thus far, with its success hinging on defense.
The Pacers are just as potent as the Heat on that end of the floor, thus Miami can only be sure of their defensive philosophies should their offense fail against Indiana's rough play.
The defending champs have a more versatile offensive system, which means less concern, but there is no room for error when guarding the Pacers' best scorers.
Let's see who did the most damage to the Heat in the regular season, and how Miami can prevent making the same mistakes in the Eastern Conference Finals.
All statistics sourced from ESPN.com/NBA/statistics, unless noted otherwise.
The general consensus is that Roy Hibbert is having a dominant postseason. He's certainly upped his production from the regular season, albeit in spurts, but has been instrumental to Indiana's success. Hibbert's 21-point, 12-rebound night helped close out the Knicks in Game 6, as he cemented himself as the x-factor against New York.
In their two losses, Hibbert had just 15 points combined but was able to remain a catalyst on the boards and on defense. He's certainly established an air of improvement, but it will fall on deaf ears against the Heat.
Against Miami In the regular season, Hibbert averaged just 9.7 points and 8.0 rebounds in the three contests.
His regular season numbers of 11.9 points and 8.3 rebounds weren't much different, however his field goal percentage dropped from 44.8 to 38.2 against the Heat. Hibbert is a decent scorer from the post, but shoots just 42.2 percent there according to Synergy Sports.
He's more efficient in the pick and roll (50 percent) and from offensive rebounds (46.8 percent), so those are two areas the Heat must hone in on. Having Hibbert go one-on-one in the post against Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem or Chris Andersen seems crazy given his height and weight. However, it is a spot where Miami can double-team or provide help defense more easily than other means of offense.
His 2.6 blocks per game average dropped to a mere 0.7 against the Heat, so any concerns about his impact defensively can be relaxed.
That isn't to say he'll create issues for the Heat's offense, but it won't be to the extent many expect. He's a solid defender in the post (holds opponents to 39.3 percent shooting), but remains somewhat ineffective in the pick and roll.
Hibbert keeps opponents to 44.5 percent in that play, and it's something the Heat pride themselves on. Miami can run the pick and roll/pick and pop game with a plethora of players available as the ball handler or the screener.
Miami will most likely match Hibbert with Bosh, thus his mid-range game will keep the 7-footer out of the paint. James and Wade can drive with ease, and kick out to their shooters should the defense collapse.
The Heat's All-Star duo repeatedly attacked Hibbert in the playoffs last season, which was a major reason in their team advancing. With Bosh out, Hibbert was able to stay at home in the paint but it was to no avail.
This will surely be Miami's gameplan for the Eastern Conference Finals, and they'll have to run it seamlessly. The Pacers are a dangerous team, and Hibbert is the deciding factor for their club.
This season's Most Improved Player took on a leadership role with Danny Granger sidelined and did not disappoint Pacers fans. Paul George's all-around game has kept the Indiana project together, and has been a consistent threat putting up points in the playoffs.
He upped his 17.4 regular season scoring average to 19.1 in the postseason, but is having a little trouble getting shots to fall. George knocked down 41.9 percent of his overall attempts in the regular season, with a decent 36.2 percentage from long range.
In the playoffs thus far, that's dropped to just 40.4 and 27.1 percent, respectively. It has gone either way for George, either putting forth a dominant scoring performance or seemingly forgetting how to shoot the ball.
He had a great 27-point night against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of the first round, yet followed that up with two straight sub-40 percent shooting performances. George silenced doubters by missing just one shot in Game 5, before plummeting to 20 percent when the Pacers closed them out on the road in Game 6.
George remained a factor scoring the ball against New York, averaging 19.5 points albeit on a dismal 39.4 percent shooting. He is a fantastic talent in his own right, but his abilities are a little overstated and perhaps bloated since taking home the league's MIP award.
George is a sub-par scorer individually, relying more on what his team does to be efficient. According to Synergy Sports, he shoots just 33.9 percent on isolations and 37.7 percent as a spot-up shooter.
George is run as a pick and roll ball handler most of the time by Indiana, as 17 percent of his offense comes from this play. He converts on a mere 36.2 percentile, thus the Heat defense will enjoy taking him one-on-one with LeBron or Shane Battier.
He's deadly in transition, shooting 53.4 percent, as his length and strength make it difficult to contain him in the open court.
Against the Heat this season, George averaged 18.0 points on 40.8 percent, which are more or less synonymous with his season averages. His best effort was a 29-point, 11-rebound outing, although he combined for just 25 points over the next two games.
George will be sent to shut down LeBron, as he's Indiana's most versatile defender on the wing. James averaged just 21.0 points in the three games against the Pacers, but shot 51.1 percent. In the Heat's only win, LeBron totalled just 13 points while the team outscored Indiana by 14 points.
It's unlikely James will score at a lesser pace for the entire series, and it's just as doubtful George can contain the reigning MVP to such a level continuously.
The Heat will definitely have a defensive plan in place for George, however they can live without it. He doesn't possess the versatility to dominate, but he's be a factor Miami must prepare for nonetheless.
Of all the Pacers to prepare for, David West must be at the top of the list. He's one of the top post scorers in the league, and is a physical force in the paint. Despite turning 33 in August, West remains a handful on offense with an array of fades and hooks near the rim, in addition to a deadly mid-range shot.
West has been fairly consistent for the Pacers thus far, contributing 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in the postseason. He came on strong to close the Atlanta series, posting back-to-back 20-point games. He struggled slightly against the Knicks, shooting 45.1 percent, down from his season average of 49.8 percent.
The 6'9" forward was destructive against the Heat defense this season, averaging 22.7 points on 65.8 percent shooting in the season series. With LeBron committed to defending George and Bosh on Hibbert, Haslem remains the only grounded, physical player to mirror West's abilities.
He's not the player he once was, but is still effective on defense and on the boards. Haslem and Andersen will most likely be deployed to halt West's offense, but don't be surprised if you see LeBron front the passing lanes in the post.
West likes to get the ball on the low block, where an astounding 40.7 percent of his offense comes from. He converts on 47.7 percent, in addition to 43 percent on his spot-up jumpers. West shoots 47.8 percent from mid-range, courtesy of NBA.com, which closely resembles Bosh's 52 percent from the same distance.
Despite being considered the third or fourth best player on the Pacers' roster, West can dominate should the Heat overcommit to his teammates. He averaged 14.8 points on 45.3 percent in last year's playoffs, however George and Hibbert were not at the same level.
It's foolish to doubt the Miami defense, which will ultimately will be fine keeping West at bay. The most important point to understand is that underestimating any piece of the Indiana puzzle could spell trouble for the Heat.