SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest question of the day. Today, we examine …
Will the Pacers or Heat win the Eastern Conference finals?
Lee Jenkins: Pacers in seven. I can't quit the Pacers. Three months ago, they were winning the championship, then they weren't surviving the first round, and now here they are right where they always wanted to be: facing Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals with home-court advantage. If you look at how they've played in these three months, they have no chance, but match-ups mean more than momentum. For everything that has changed in Indiana, the Pacers still provide a troublesome match-up for the Heat, who embolden them like no other opponent. LeBron James is as potent as ever, but his supporting cast is diminished, and the Pacers can make life uncomfortable with Paul George on the perimeter and Roy Hibbert at the rim. James will need help, but he can't depend on Dwyane Wade, and his floor-spacers aren't as effective as they used to be. Chris Bosh must assume an immense role, burning Hibbert with mid-range jumpers, and crashing the boards to neutralize Indiana's bigger front line. With the Pacers, no one knows a thing, but I'll say they muck up the series and sneak off in 7.
Ben Golliver: Heat in five. Indiana's up-and-down play has been maddening over the last few months, and they deserve some kudos for getting things right (enough) to put away Washington. Unfortunately, elite balance is a prerequisite to get to the promised land and the Pacers just don't stack up. The Heat enter the Eastern Conference finals with the No. 1 offense and No. 6 defense so far during the postseason, and they have posted those numbers even without breaking out of cruise control and shifting up to fifth or sixth gear yet. Meanwhile, Indiana's No. 14 offense lags far, far behind its No. 1 defense. To make matters worse, LeBron James is just the guy to make life difficult for Paul George, who has carried the Pacers, and nobody is afraid of Roy Hibbert. Beating the two-time defending champions requires a total alignment of goals and sufficient weapons to keep up in a shootout; the Pacers have lacked both and should be going home in fairly short order.
Rob Mahoney: 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 James, Chris Bosh's added range, Dwyane Wade's bursts of productivity and a scrappy defense should be enough to secure a fourth consecutive trip to the Finals.
(To read Rob's full preview of the Eastern Conference finals, click here.)
Matt Dollinger: Pacers in seven. What a difference a year can make. This time last postseason Roy Hibbert had soared into the discussion for best center in the league. He averaged 22-10 in a seven-game clash agains the Heat and became a game-changing defensive force thanks to the sudden enforcement of "verticality." Hibbert, for all intents and purposes, resembled Indiana's best chance at being the Heat. Fast-forward to this postseason which, needless to say, has been far less triumphant for Indiana's starting center. He had three goose eggs in four games. His confidence issues became a national topic of discussion. And he became a 7-foot-2 anchor dragging down the Pacers. But the All-Star big man started to regain his 2013 postseason form against the Wizards. In Indy's last four wins, Hibbert is averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. If Hibbert can complete his revitalization in the East finals, the Pacers could prevail in this much-anticipated rematch. Home-court advantage and a game-changing center can go a long way.
Chris Johnson: Heat in six. It’s not hard to make a case for the Pacers. They were the best defensive team in the league during the regular season. They have homecourt advantage. They feature a forceful rim-protector (Roy Hibbert) and an elite perimeter stopper (Paul George). They beat the Heat twice this season, pushed them to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals a year ago and play a contrasting style that could force Miami out of its comfort zone. All of which sounds great… only it overlooks one crucial detail. The Heat have LeBron James. Indiana, as you know, does not. As evidenced in Game 4 against Brooklyn in the Conference Semifinals, when James wants to take over, there’s no stopping him. Though he couldn’t hold off Kevin Durant in the MVP race this season, James remains the league’s best two-way player and can so strongly impact the outcome of any game, that defensive strategy and coaching adjustments barely register. Maybe George will be able to frustrate James for a game or two, but in the end, expect The King and Miami to advance to their fourth consecutive Finals.
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