The Eastern Conference finals are set with the Miami Heat facing the Indiana Pacers for the right to advance to the NBA Finals. Who will come out on top? SI.com writers Ian Thomsen, Lee Jenkins, Chris Mannix, Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney make their picks.
Heat in 6. Dwyane Wade's knee problems ensure that this will be a difficult series for Miami, but the Heat's issues last year -- when they trailed 2-1 to Indiana before sweeping the next three games of their conference semifinal -- will inspire them to get off to a stronger start by finishing out the close games that will define this series. Look for LeBron James to be a more aggressive scorer, which in turn will create shots for teammates. Are young Paul George and Roy Hibbert ready to KO the champs? Indiana's hopes hinge on that difficult question.
THOMSEN: Previewing Eastern Conference finals
Heat in 5. Indiana will make Miami uncomfortable. The Pacers will muddy the Heat's offense, knock down their stars and beat them badly on the glass. But Indiana tried the same tack last year against Miami, with Danny Granger, and still lost. Paul George and Lance Stephenson have emerged, but Chris Bosh will again draw Roy Hibbert away from the basket, opening space for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to rush back to the Finals.
Heat in 6. There are a lot of reasons to like Indiana: Its size is overwhelming, its defense has been stingy and Frank Vogel, fast emerging as one of the best young coaches in the game, has pushed all the right buttons with his rotation. But the Pacers struggle on the road (19-21 in the regular season) and commit turnovers in bunches. Indiana ranked in the bottom third of the league in turnovers during the regular season (14.5 per game) and committed a ghastly 15.6 against the Knicks in the second round. Miami feeds off mistakes, and it will make the Pacers pay for sloppy play. Wade's knee problems are the wild card, but Miami still poses too many problems.
Heat in 6. Indiana is one of the few teams that doesn't need to talk itself into believing it has a chance against Miami. The Pacers beat the Heat twice this season -- by double digits both times -- and return virtually everyone, save an injured Danny Granger, from the group that took home two wins in last year's hard-fought Eastern Conference semifinals. What's more, the Pacers are riding high after shutting down a Knicks attack that was one of the league's most efficient during the regular season. And Dwyane Wade's knee is acting up yet again, offering added reason for hope.
Still, this is a Miami team that is 45-3 (.938) since losing in Indiana on Feb. 1 and one that boasts the most efficient offense and defense so far during the playoffs. The big concern for the Heat is how long it takes them to adjust to real competition after breezing through the first two rounds against the sub-.500 Bucks and the injury-ravaged Bulls. The Pacers will try to muck up this series with their defense and physical play, but they have struggled to score efficiently all season long and that should catch up to them against a LeBron James-led attack that can score in every possible way.
Heat in 6. The Pacers' defense and rebounding are stout enough for a few wins, but nothing more. Indiana is just too stodgy in its offensive execution to deserve the benefit of the doubt, particularly against a defense as fast and flexible as the Heat's. No team dials up the pressure quite like Miami, and at this point we have little reason to believe that George Hill, Paul George and Lance Stephenson -- not to mention the Pacers' underwhelming reserve guards -- are capable of making the plays and reads necessary to keep pace.
MAHONEY: Blueprint for Pacers to upset Heat
Assuming Indiana's defense stays true to form, Miami's three-point shooters will be in for a rough series of contested looks. But the Heat still have plenty to work with in LeBron James' brilliant, wide-ranging shot creation, Dwyane Wade's complementary cutting and playmaking and Chris Bosh's mid-range mastery. The games will be close and most every Heat shot heavily contested, but the Pacers aren't likely to take enough away from the Heat to counterbalance their own offensive limitations.