NBA fans expected the Eastern Conference Finals to feature the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat at the beginning of the 2013-14 season. We didn’t anticipate Indy to stumble its way back with repeated scares against the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards, but these rivals are set for a rematch regardless.
After surviving a seven-game series against Atlanta and taking care of business against John Wall, Bradley Beal and Co.—despite an ugly blowout loss on their home floor in Game 5—the Pacers are poised for yet another showdown with Miami.
Unlike the previous two series, Indiana may actually enter with some confidence, despite matching up with the two-time defending champs. It took Miami to seven games in last year’s ECF, after all. The Pacers rode the interior presence of Roy Hibbert—22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game—to three victories before a blowout loss in Game 7.
Frankly, however, Hibbert hasn’t looked even close to his former self.
That isn’t to say the 7’2” skyscraper can’t return to form, but he’s averaging just 8.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game during the 2014 postseason—meager marks to say the least.
Meanwhile, LeBron James, Dwyane and the Heat swept the Charlotte Bobcats in Round 1 and dispatched the Brooklyn Nets after just five games in Round 2. They appear well on their way to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance.
Can the Pacers somehow pull themselves together against the most formidable foe yet, or will the Heat stay hot and cruise to a duel with the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder?
Seeds: Miami Heat, No. 2; Indiana Pacers, No. 1
Records: Miami Heat, 54-28; Indiana Pacers, 56-26
Season Series: Teams split, 2-2
Schedule for Series: Game 1, Sunday, May 18, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 2, Tuesday, May 20, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 3, Saturday, May 24, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 4, Monday, May 26, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 5*, Wednesday, May 28, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 6*, Friday, May 30, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 7*, Sunday, June 1, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
* = If necessary
Key Storyline for Miami Heat
Will size matter?
Truthfully, a lack of interior size has been Miami’s only Achilles' heel during its string of dominance. Erik Spoelstra’s crew finished dead last in rebounding during the regular season by grabbing 36.9 per game, according to ESPN. That narrative has continued into the postseason atmosphere, as the Heat still rank last among all 16 playoff teams—34.9 boards per contest.
But even that glaring weakness hasn’t threatened the Heat’s run at a third straight title.
As long as James, Wade, Chris Bosh and Co. continue to trust their defensive schemes and fight through Indy’s staunch defense, there’s no reason they can’t take advantage of a team on the proverbial ropes.
Key Storyline for Indiana Pacers
Can the “Gold Swagger” resurface?
Truthfully, the competitive nature of this series depends entirely on Indiana. If the Pacers are going to have any shot at beating the Heat in 2014 after the wild inconsistency they’ve displayed throughout the postseason, they must return to form. (Easy for me to say, right?)
As power forward David West said back in March, the team is looking to escape the doldrums. Fast-forward to May, and the same issues are prevalent.
When faced with the brink of disaster, the Pacers have been able to dig deep enough to win games. When they start winning and get production from Hibbert, they often get lethargic and lose games by alarming margins.
If Indiana has the ability to flip their competitive switch back on, now is the time to do so.
That mentality at this point starts and ends with West.
“He’s our rock,” head coach Frank Vogel said of the stocky big man after a Game 6 win over the Hawks, per the Indianapolis Star’s Candace Buckner. “There’s no other way to put it.”
West averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds in four regular-season meetings against Miami. Coach Vogel will need more of the same from his anchor if Indy is going to set a physical tone from the outset.
In a league that is often referred to as being “driven by point guards,” the Heat and Pacers don’t exactly have elite candidates filling that role.
George Hill and Mario Chalmers are still great role players who fill a specific niche, but they’re never going to dominate a game when compared with the supporting cast.
Nevertheless, each team needs to find production from their 1-guards in this series.
While Chalmers will be darting around the court looking to knock down open treys, Hill will be tracking him to make sure he doesn’t get many clean looks.
An honorable mention is in order for the interior “matchup” between Hibbert and Bosh. Although it’s unlikely that Bosh will defend Hibbert for long stretches in this series, don’t be surprised if Spoelstra tries to cause Indy fits with small-ball lineups utilizing Bosh at center—thus spreading the floor with all five players a la those pesky Hawks.
There’s been speculation throughout the year that former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden would be used to try and stifle Hibbert. He has yet to appear in a postseason game.
Oden may get some run, but I doubt he’ll earn a pronounced role under Coach Spo this far into the postseason. He can’t exactly be labeled an X-factor without the promise of minutes.
Key Matchup: LeBron James vs. Paul George
Were you expecting anything else for the key matchup?
The showdown between James and George is what makes the rivalry between these two Eastern Conference juggernauts so great.
Both are tremendous two-way players who can impact the game by driving to the rim for an easy deuce, knocking down threes or even coming up with a key steal or chase-down block on defense.
Here’s the statistical breakdown between each superstar during the 2014 playoffs:
|2014 Playoff Stats: LeBron James and Paul George|
The major contrast between these two is still James’ overall experience. As a four-time MVP and two-time champion, he knows when to push the envelope and when to hang back and get teammates involved.
George does those things from time to time, but he’s still evolving his game—remember, he’s still just 24 years old.
Either one of these alpha dogs could go off for 40-plus points on any given night. While those outbursts are exciting, the main talking point between George and James will be consistency. In short, who will carry his team on a game-to-game basis and come up big in the clutch?
The Pacers have looked downright shaky throughout the entirety of the postseason. Their roller-coaster run to the Eastern Conference Finals has yet to instill confidence in the fanbase. It’s hard to believe this is the same starting five that pushed Miami to the brink a season ago.
The Heat, meanwhile, have looked dominant.
Every first-round series this year was remarkably competitive—and then there was Miami. King James and Co. quietly took care of business by sweeping Charlotte and waiting patiently for either the Nets or Toronto Raptors.
It continued the quest to three-peat by ousting Brooklyn emphatically.
I can’t in all good conscience pick Indy to beat the two-time defending champs when it took them seven games to eliminate the short-handed Hawks.
The Heat are simply too talented and don’t carry anywhere close to the baggage Indiana has been strapped with for months. I want the series to be a back-and-forth battle that reaches Game 7 like it did a year ago, but I’m not holding my breath.
Heat win series 4-2