NBA fans couldn't have asked for a better matchup in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, as this rivalry is definitely going to deliver some exciting basketball over the next week-plus.
There are several questions surrounding these teams moving forward, but you can rest assured that emotions will run high this series. These two teams play physically when facing off against each other. Assuming cooler heads will prevail, the winner of this series might be decided by which team keeps its players out of foul trouble.
Of course, there are other factors that will determine the outcome of this best-of-seven matchup. The three most important ones are listed below.
Dwyane Wade's Health
Dwyane Wade put together his lowest scoring totals since his rookie campaign this past season but has begun to step it up in the playoffs. After struggling mightily with his knee in last year's playoffs, Wade has shown the ability to stay on the court and help his team win thus far.
The biggest thing for Wade against the Indiana Pacers will be his playmaking ability. When Wade effectively runs the floor and either hits shots in transition or sets up his teammates with looks near the basket, the Miami Heat are a much more well-rounded team. If he struggles to do these things, the Heat will lose a dynamic aspect of their offense.
The Pacers are well aware of Wade's unhealthy knee. Lance Stephenson told reporters he wants to make Wade's knee "flare up":
D. Wade, his knee is kind of messed up, so I have to be extra aggressive and make him run. Tell Coach to run (the play) 'Floppy' and run him around and make his knee flare up or something. Do anything possible so the games will come easier for us.
Running around will certainly tire Wade out if his knee is bothering him. This matchup is one to watch throughout the entire series. If the Pacers choose to exploit Wade and his knee early in games, it could potentially eliminate his impact in late-game situations.
Roy Hibbert Needs to Stay Consistent
The story of Roy Hibbert this postseason is quite remarkable. He went from a force in the paint to a useless big man then back to an above-average performer all in the course of a month.
Hibbert will need to show up consistently against the Heat, as he's a matchup problem for everyone on Miami's roster. The big man posted his second-best game of the playoffs in Game 1, dropping 19 points and hauling in nine boards. Basketball-Reference.com states that his plus/minus was plus-19, his highest of the playoffs.
After such a good game, fans might need to brace themselves for a letdown. Hibbert has been notorious for that over the course of his career. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports thinks you should be hopeful, however:
In so many ways, Hibbert is the window into these Pacers. Everyone expects the letdown now. Everyone expects the Pacers to breathe out, relax and let the Heat impose their will in Game 2. Still, there was something promising about these Pacers on Sunday – the most unselfish of ball movement, the refusal to be loose with the ball and allow Miami what the Pacers call "turnovers for touchdowns." There was a defense that constructed a wall in the paint on James and Dwyane Wade, with Hibbert, 7-foot-2, standing strongest on Sunday.
Shockingly, Hibbert has yet to record over nine rebounds in a game since the playoffs began for his team on April 19. The Pacers have to be content with around eight or so per game, but he has recorded totals of four, two, three, two, five and two in games this past month. That's not good. Indiana can't survive with those.
Hibbert doesn't need to go out and dominate every night, but the Pacers need close to a double-double per night from him.
Both Teams Must Stay Physical
This series is going to be very, very chippy. When we all look back on it, we'll probably be shocked at just how physical it was. Two specific instances pop into my mind when considering how emotional these two teams are when they play each other.
The first was in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, when David West and Udonis Haslem got a little touchy:
The other was in that same series, when Danny Granger and LeBron James had a brief interaction:
Staying physical is actually key in this series. Miami can't let Indiana bump them around—and vice versa. The more physical team should be able to force its will on the other.
That said, these teams will have to be smart. Getting called for silly fouls in late situations is detrimental to winning games. The players need to make good decisions.
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