Last season, the Indiana Pacers gave the Miami Heat a scare in the second round of the playoffs. This time around, they hope to do more than that as they approach Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron James and Co.
Each squad is stronger than it was a year ago, which should make for an even better version of the matchup. Miami has cruised through the postseason thus far, while the Pacers are coming off a strong six-game triumph over the New York Knicks.
Due to its size and physicality, Indiana is widely regarded as the club with the best shot of ending Miami's season.
But will its best shot be enough?
Miami has won 45 of its past 48 games, including an 8-1 stroll through the playoffs. All but one of the Heat's playoff wins has been by double digits, and they won't be taking the Pacers for granted.
Will the superior skills of Miami prevent Indiana from stealing Game 1, or will the Pacers contain South Beach's stars and impose their will?
Time: Wednesday, May 22, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami
Game 1 Key Storyline: Heat Won't Sleep on Pacers
Even before LeBron James misinterpreted Frank Vogel's statement that Miami is "just the next team in our way," the Pacers had the Heat's attention.
King James, Dwyane Wade and the supporting cast have had nearly a week to rest up, not to mention hear about how Indiana gave them a good run in the 2012 conference semifinals and beat them two out of three times during this year's regular season.
The Heat don’t want to turn this into a drawn-out series that gives Indy hope. Erik Spoelstra wants to get the Pacers out of their comfort zone early and often, using his playmakers to break down the defense and stretch the floor.
Miami was 37-4 at home during the regular season, but it dropped the second-round series-opener to the Chicago Bulls. The Heat don't want that to happen again, especially against a healthy Pacers club.
They know Paul George derailed Carmelo Anthony, and Roy Hibbert and company will probably out-rebound them every game. So they'll aim to unravel Indiana in an open-court attack featuring their arsenal of shooting threats and the superhuman talents of LeBron.
Star Watch: LeBron James
Basketball's greatest player is shooting just 32 percent from distance and scoring a modest 24 points per game.
Heat fans aren't worried, though, because this is the round where he usually starts cooking.
Now that the stakes are higher and the competition is tougher, James will do more to ensure that his squad is in the best possible position to win.
Will we see a 10-assist night, showing Paul George that he can beat the Pacers without scoring? Or will we see a 40-point barrage that proves it doesn't matter who's guarding him?
LeBron's approach and level of aggression will dictate Miami’s success.
Projected Starting Lineups:
Indiana: George Hill, PG; Lance Stephenson, SG; Paul George, SF; David West, PF; Roy Hibbert, C
Miami: Mario Chalmers, PG; Dwyane Wade, SG; LeBron James, SF; Udonis Haslem, PF; Chris Bosh, C
Pacers Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
David West (calf), probable for Game 1
Heat Injury Report
No injuries reported
Pacers Will Win If...
...they pound the paint and draw fouls.
The perimeter play of George Hill is critical, and the playmaking skills of Paul George, Lance Stephenson and others will be vital to Indiana’s success.
However, if they really want to put Miami on the ropes, the Pacers must get the ball inside and take advantage of their size and depth.
In Game 6 against New York, the Pacers wore down the Knicks and took 46 free throws. It would be greedy to ask for a similar amount Wednesday, but 35 is a realistic goal.
If they can get Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem in foul trouble, it will substantially weaken the Heat’s offensive approach. Chris Anderson and Joel Anthony can’t stretch the defense like Bosh and Haslem.
If Hibbert and West simultaneously have big nights, Indiana will have a decent chance at landing the upset.
Heat Will Win If...
...Bosh spaces the floor and LeBron goes to town.
Let’s remember Bosh was sidelined for almost all of last year’s series with Indy.
If he can knock down a few jumpers per quarter and draw Hibbert and West out of the paint, it will work wonders for Miami’s offense.
The spacing will allow James to operate more freely as a slasher and facilitator, and it will also empower facilitators such as Wade and Mario Chalmers.
When Bosh gets going and LeBron leads a balanced attack, Indy is toast—as it was during the regular-season Heat victory.
Spacing the floor and pulling the post players out regularly also makes the Pacers a more vulnerable rebounding unit, even if it’s only for a few possessions here and there.
Lost in all the variables discussed is the constant defensive pressure James and Wade will put on Indiana’s playmakers. Expect Miami’s stars to harass Hill and George en route to some transition opportunities.
The Pacers will try to establish physicality, and they’ll get some results, especially on the glass. That’s what will keep this game—and potentially the series—close.
Miami is just too good at home to drop a second straight Game 1, and the Big Three will ensure the Heat are in the win column. Sound defense, balanced offense and the occasional James heroics will keep Indiana from stealing this one.
Heat 99, Pacers 91