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.
LeBron James vs. Danny Granger. Granger, a former All-Star and Team USA member, a quality defender and Indiana's top scorer for five seasons in a row, is emblematic of the Pacers as a whole: more solid than flashy, and deceptively tough and talented. The extent to which he can match LeBron's production, or at least tax his energy at both ends of the court, will be crucial because, far more than last season, Miami relies on James, the presumptive MVP, to fill the gaps and shore up whatever weaknesses arise during the course of the game. James clearly got the better of the matchup during the regular season, shooting 47.4 percent and averaging 26.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists, compared to Granger's line of 13.3/5.3/1.3 with 34 percent shooting as the Heat took three out of four. If Indiana is to spring the upset, Granger needs to keep James more preoccupied on defense and then limit either his scoring or his playmaking at the other end of the court.
Heat: Chris Bosh. He will really help the Heat in this series if he can inject a little more spine along with the length and grace that make him the best person to defend Hibbert. Bosh and the rest of the Heat limited Hibbert to just 10.5 points on 41.9 percent shooting during the regular season, but the heightened physicality of the playoffs creates a different dynamic. Put-backs and free throws are an important component of Indiana's offense, so control of the boards is obviously vital. As the likes of Miami's Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem go hammer-and-tong against Indiana's David West and Tyler Hansbrough, it will be interesting to see how Bosh and Hibbert -- two players who prefer finesse to banging -- fare in the paint. Bosh will be invaluable if he can be aggressive enough to grab a few of those highly contested rebounds, keep Hibbert in a docile mode and also step out and reliably stick his mid-range jumper, forcing one of the Pacers' big men to leave the scrum and defend him. The more Indiana succeeds in turning the series into a slow-paced slugfest, the more important Bosh becomes as Miami's antidote.
Pacers: Paul George. The Pacers' other 6-8 swingman besides Granger is an agile defender frequently assigned to point guards, a versatile glue guy who led the team in steals and the starters in three-point accuracy. George also finished second in minutes and total assists, and third in rebounds. At 22, George has already cemented his role as the maneuverable third wheel on the Pacers, as much of a cog as a second star in the construction of a championship-caliber roster. But George's youth fosters inconsistency, especially in the more pressure-packed environment of the postseason. He underachieved against Orlando, converting just 2-of-17 three-pointers after making 38.5 percent in the regular season. He'll be matched up with Wade, where his quickness, length, on-ball defense and ability to get back in transition will all be sorely tested. George has the raw ability to hold his own, but he could also be outfoxed. If he keeps his confidence, stays out of foul trouble and hits his three-pointers, Indiana is in business.
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. Heat in six.