It just doesn't get any better than Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers each have X-factors that will play a huge role in their chances of advancing to the 2013 NBA Finals.
In a slug fest of a series, the Pacers and Heat have traded games back and forth, and if that trend continues, LeBron James and Co. will make it to their third straight finals. But it won't be that simple to down the Pacers, who have exposed some glaring issues for the Heat and found the blueprint on taking down the Big Three.
Can the Pacers shock the world and put another asterisk on LeBron's legacy? Or will the Heat return to mid-season form and set a date with the San Antonio Spurs?
It all comes down to these X-factors.
Pacers X-Factor: Lance Stephenson's Scoring
It's no coincidence that the Pacers have been in their most dangerous form in this series when Lance Stephenson is excelling offensively.
Stephenson shot a combined 4-of-20 in Indiana's Game 1 and 3 losses, amassing only seven points in each contest.
Meanwhile, he averaged 15 points per contest in each of the Pacers' first two series victories, including a 20-point outburst in Game 4 and a team-best plus-14 rating while on the court.
Without Stephenson rolling offensively, it turns a team-oriented Pacers team into one that relies on Paul George in isolation and the Roy Hibbert-David West combination down low. While both of those have paid dividends, they need Stephenson to have his best impact to balance out when the Heat's shooters get going—if they get going.
Heat X-Factor: Udonis Haslem's Pick-and-Pop
Surprisingly enough, it hasn't been Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Norris Cole or Mario Chalmers who brought the hot shooting hand into this series. It was probably one of the last guys you'd expect in Udonis Haslem.
Typically relied on as a defensive-minded big man who can take the other team's low-post scorer out of his game, Haslem has rekindled his long lost pick-and-pop jumper, and it's made a huge difference in this series.
Haslem's jumper has only really been used in two games against the Pacers, both of which were runaway wins in the fourth quarter. Those were Games 3 and 5, when Haslem combined for 16-of-18 shooting and 33 points.
His ability to extend the floor as an otherwise forgettable player in the Heat's half-court offense has given the Pacers fits at times, and they'll have to make getting him the ball a bigger priority in Game 7.
Pacers X-Factor: Get to the Foul Line
Overall free-throw attempts in this series have decreased exponentially in Games 5 and 6.
While the Pacers averaged 35.25 attempts from the charity stripe in the first four games, they totaled 15 and 18 free-throw attempts in their last two contests, respectively. The Heat weren't much different, totaling 12 and 19, respectively.
This shows that the referees are simply calling this series in a different fashion than they did early on, when Indiana was getting fouled on seemingly every possession and getting Miami's bigs in a heap of trouble.
The Pacers' low-post presence has been their biggest advantage over the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that impact is greatly diminished when they aren't possessing an edge in free-throw attempts.
If Indiana can get to the foul line more, the team can increase its ability to control the post and get the Heat's best defenders in foul trouble.
Heat X-Factor: Pure 3-Point Shooters Can't Choke
With the presence of LeBron James, Miami's three-point shooters are left open all day to knock down open looks. But unfortunately for the Heat, the Pacers have done a magnificent job in extending their defense to the perimeter in this series.
That increased defensive intensity has given the Heat fits, namely players like Ray Allen and Shane Battier. Shots they used to take with no defenders around are now having to be launched with a hand in their face.
Allen and Battier's struggles in the 2013 playoffs have been well-documented, and they can't afford to put up more bricks in Game 7. The same goes for the rest of their shooting arsenal, as players like Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Chris Bosh and maybe even Mike Miller will have to knock down their opportunities.
The Heat's shooters have been taking advantage of opportunities all season, but those opportunities haven't come nearly as often in this defensive-minded series.
Still, that can't be an excuse. Miami has its fair share of knockdown shooters, and those guys can't let their team down in a decisive Game 7.
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