It all comes down to this. Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat is set to tip off on Monday night, and it should be nothing short of incredible.
Each side is going to fight tooth and nail to get a leg up on the other, as this rivalry has reached new heights over the course of the first six games of a back-and-forth series.
Expect it to only get more intense in a win-or-go-home situation, as desperation kicks in and tempers run white hot.
Let’s take a look at where you can watch this thrilling contest, highlight some players to keep an eye on, note the most important matchup, make a prediction on the final score and more.
When: Monday, June 3, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: American Airlines Arena, Miami
Series: Tied 3-3
Projected Starting Lineups
Indiana Pacers: George Hill (PG), Lance Stephenson (SG), Paul George (SF), David West (PF), Roy Hibbert (C)
Key Player: LeBron James
The reigning NBA MVP will be critical to the Heat’s chances of getting back to the Finals, where he will look to defend his series MVP against the San Antonio Spurs.
However, that will be much easier said than done, as the Pacers seem to have Miami’s number and throttled the favorite at home in a must-win Game 6.
It certainly wouldn’t be fair to blame King James for his team’s shortcomings, as the superstar still managed to score 29 points on 10-of-21 shooting, grab seven rebounds and dish six assists in 42 hard minutes of play on Saturday evening.
While his four turnovers contributed to an overall poor effort to take care of the basketball, it was his teammates' lack of assistance that ultimately doomed Miami’s chances to end the series in six.
James will now have to decide if he will rely on his supporting cast or just look to take it to another level—one only he and few others are capable of reaching—and single-handedly dominate on his home court.
He’s had success with both styles, but with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Heat role players struggling, LBJ may need to consider utilizing a me-first strategy to drag his squad into the Finals.
Key Matchup: Frontcourt
Aside from the emergence of Paul George as a legitimate superstar, the most important development for the Pacers in this series has been able to utilize their size and massive presence in the paint as a distinct advantage.
When Miami went small in the postseason last year and early on in 2013, opponents were forced to adapt and put out a sub-optimal lineup to deal with Chris Bosh at the 5 and LeBron James at the 4.
Indiana coach Frank Vogel has refused to submit to conventional matchups and is instead keeping his plodding 7’2” behemoth—Roy Hibbert—out on the floor for extended stretches.
Not only is Hibbert making life miserable for anyone trying to drive on the Pacers, but he has also developed into a go-to offensive weapon that the Heat have to try to go big themselves to stop.
Factor in PF David West’s dominance in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game, plus the big Indiana perimeter players creating their own shots, and it’s easy to see why the Heat are on the ropes.
With Chris “Birdman” Andersen back in the lineup after being suspended for Game 6, perhaps the Heat will have a chance to contain their opponent in the paint. If not, this could be a long offseason in South Beach.
Now that this series is returning to Miami for a grand finale, anything could happen.
LeBron could go off for 50 points and put his team on his back, or the Pacers defense could clamp down, stifle the Heat stars and grind out an extremely low-scoring win from the inside out.
Which team will advance to the Finals?
Lean toward the former, as the whistles are likely going to be blowing early and often during Game 7. If James can put the ball on the floor and barrel his way toward the hoop, the refs are likely going to bail him out with questionable calls—especially for the playoffs.
Should LBJ put Hibbert or George on the bench for an extended stretch due to foul trouble, the Heat will have a chance to build an insurmountable lead.
Expect James to realize this in the early going and continuously call for the ball and put his head down on his way to the hoop. He’s going to take a beating, but it will be worth it when Miami makes the Finals for the third straight season.
Projected Final Score: Heat 88 – Pacers 85