Conference semifinal preview: No. 2 Heat vs. No. 3 Pacers
The third-seeded Indiana Pacers enter this second-round series as the clear-cut underdog against the No. 2 Heat. Miami has more playoff experience, the two best players in the series and a home-court advantage made more significant by its NBA-best 31-5 home record through the regular season and first round. Although the Pacers won four straight in their first-round matchup with Orlando after dropping the first game, they frequently allowed an overmatched opponent missing star center Dwight Howard to come back from large deficits. Similar lapses in intensity will be fatal against the Heat, who thrive on swift bursts of momentum.
But Indiana has a combination of style and personnel that can cause problems for Miami. On offense, the Pacers play a deliberate, inside-outside game in the half court, anchored by 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert (who towers over Miami's undersized front line), rugged power forwards and six members of their nine-player rotation who shoot better than 36 percent from three-point territory. The Pacers finished sixth in three-point accuracy, while the Heat allowed the fifth-highest three-point percentage this season. On defense, Indiana has two wiry, athletic, 6-8 starters on the wing in Danny Granger and Paul George, making the Pacers well-suited as any Miami opponent to physically match up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
The unparalleled one-two punch of James and Wade stamps Miami as the inevitable favorite against a Pacers team that is long and deep with emerging talent, but is about to play just its third playoff series in the past six years. After faltering some down the stretch, due mostly to lousy perimeter shooting by their role players, the Heat used the five-game conquest of the Knicks to get Mario Chalmers (41.7 percent behind the arc) and Mike Miller (39.3) back in a groove (although Shane Battier, at 31.8 percent, is still in the doldrums). If Miami continues to knock down the long ball after a drive-and-kick by the two stars, it is almost impossible to beat.
That said, the Heat should be concerned with the Pacers' depth -- the odds of a role player's turning into an "unlikely hero" are probably higher with Indiana than any other team. George Hill graduated from the School of Popovich, had three years of playoff experience in San Antonio and doesn't back down from big moments. Leandro Barbosa is a streaky shooter who hit 42.4 percent of his three-pointers after coming over from Toronto in a trade, and logged 64 playoff games in five postseasons with Phoenix. Hansbrough, a bull in a china shop, got to the free-throw line 30 times in 90 total minutes this season in the four games against a Heat team that isn't that comfortable mucking it up in the paint. And Darren Collison, only recently supplanted by Hill as the starter at point guard, had 23 assists and one turnover in the first round against the Magic. Throw in West's steadfast leadership, Hibbert's length and the 6-8 wings, and the Pacers are loaded. Just not yet ready to triumph over LeBron and the Heat.