Season series: Tied 2-2
Efficiency rankings: Indiana (22nd offense; 1st defense); Miami (2nd offense, 11th defense)
For months the Pacers have toiled through basketball incoherence. Their league-leading defense wavered. Their offense grew more lethargic and imprecise. Sloppy play gave way to infighting, and that turmoil threatened to pull apart a contender at the seams. Even now, Indiana isn't quite itself, having barely escaped competitive playoff series against Atlanta and Washington.
Nothing, though, seems to center the Pacers quite like playing against the Heat. These teams are true foils: Not only do Miami and Indiana play perfectly contrasting styles, but the collision of those styles also seems to bring out a heightened intensity and greater attention to detail in all involved.
The last few months of foul basketball from the Pacers should not be dismissed entirely, but every matchup-specific indicator available suggests that the Heat will get a fair fight. Expect a competitive series -- these two rivals don't seem to know how to play one another any way but closely.
The Case For The Pacers
The most recent of Indiana's two regular-season victories over Miami offered some postseason promise. On March 26, in the midst of an 8-13 slide, the Pacers tabled their troubles to gut out an 84-83 victory in Indianapolis. They committed only 10 turnovers. They held Miami to 31.6 percent shooting from three-point range and 15 fourth-quarter points. They created second-chance points through 11 offensive rebounds. Those factors helped the Pacers prevail despite shooting 37 percent from the field and allowing 38 points to LeBron James.
The Pacers would need a similar formula to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000. It cannot be disputed that the Pacers' defense troubles the Heat. Only one other opponent (Chicago) held Miami to a lower effective field goal percentage this season, and last year's Eastern Conference finals showcased just how well Indiana can guard over a seven-game series. If the Pacers can maximize their scoring chances by avoiding turnovers and piling up offensive rebounds, they'll have a very real shot in every game.
The Heat are not unbeatable. Their dependence on James leaves them vulnerable at times. With center Roy Hibbert moving relatively well again and small forward Paul George representing one of the best on-ball defenders against James in the league, Indiana is well equipped to make his every possession a challenge and perhaps stall Miami's offense in the process.
From there the responsibility for the Heat's shot creation might fall on Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who have been quite good in these playoffs overall but conspicuous in their periodic absences. If both play up to their potential, Indiana may have no choice but to doff its cap to a more talented opponent. If not, the Pacers could put James in a position where he has to force the issue or position the likes of Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen or Shane Battier to take more shots than usual.
The Case For The Heat
This is an opponent that the two-time defending champions take quite seriously and one that will be guaranteed the Heat's full effort and attention. Simply having James on the floor for 40-45 minutes a game could be enough for Miami to overwhelm an Indiana team with such a small margin for error.
The Pacers have the best defense in the league when clicking. The big question, though, is whether that unit can make up for Indiana's painful lack of shot creation and, more recently, its complete disregard for offensive fundamentals. The Pacers are not a team that can coast on superstar talent, yet their best players have taken to holding the ball when they should pass, their supporting types tend to stand still (in odd, cramped places) far too long and the team's quarter-hearted screening efforts help no one. When pitted against the committed, stifling pressure of Miami's own scheme, Indiana seems likely to crack.
The Heat will be tested, but they have much more firepower than the Pacers without the lingering threat of implosion.
Udonis Haslem. If Indiana is to score enough to threaten Miami, Hibbert and power forward David West will play a prominent offensive part. Enter Haslem, who is a good bet to replace Shane Battier in the starting lineup because of how well he denies opponents post position and challenges shots inside.
Haslem, listed at 6-foot-8, gives up six inches to the 7-2 Hibbert, but Heat coach Erik Spoelstra still preferred that matchup in the regular season for the way that the undersized forward contested every one of Hibbert's steps. If given the chance to set up at close range, Hibbert is skilled enough to drop in hook shots and compete for offensive rebounds. The towering center doesn't have the balance or lower base to back down just anyone, though, and Haslem generally manages to get low enough to complicate Hibbert's interior moves while still leaping to influence his shot a bit.
That's an important subplot to a series with more glamorous talking points, particularly given that Haslem's battling Hibbert saves Bosh from the trouble. If Haslem can maintain that kind of presence on Hibbert (and, occasionally, on West) without taking too much away from Miami's spacing on offense, Indiana will have a hard time keeping up.
Heat in six. That the Pacers have corrected some of their issues won't be enough. Indiana's offense, even on its better days, is still very limited in a playoff setting. Its defense, while better prepared to defend James than most, will still be bent to the will of the best player in basketball. Miami's road to a third straight title is far from certain, but the presence of LeBron, Bosh's added range, Wade's bursts of productivity and a scrappy defense should be enough to secure a fourth consecutive trip to the Finals.