NBA playoffs: Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers preview
One year ago the Pacers grabbed homecourt advantage and a 2-1 lead in their Eastern semifinal before LeBron James and Dwyane Wade exploded offensively, winning the next three games for Miami en route to the title. Some things haven't changed: Wade is hurting physically now, as he was last year, and the Pacers will be hoping to exploit their advantage in size. But there are also crucial differences: Miami has a healthy Chris Bosh back in the lineup after he was sidelined during this series last season; the Heat enter this rematch with the confidence of a defending champion; and the Pacers' leading scorer of one year ago, All-Star veteran Danny Granger, has been injured and replaced by Paul George, a third-year small forward just finishing his first year as an All-Star.
They have the league's biggest star and maybe the three best players in this series (the argument could be made that no Pacer is better than James, Chris Bosh or a healthy Wade). While the Pacers remain a young team around 23-year-old George and 26-year-old center Roy Hibbert, the Heat are brimming with experienced champions and are deeper than last year thanks to the arrival of Ray Allen. As the series wears on and the games enter the final minutes, the Heat defense will make it more difficult for the Pacers to run their offense and create shots for one another. Down the stretch, Miami will have a variety of stars who can create their own shots, led by James, but who will provide that service for Indiana?
Once again they have the opportunity to create mismatches in the paint, where playoff games are traditionally won. They can pound the ball inside to David West and Hibbert, and they can make use of their across-the-board length to defend out to the three-point line while forcing the game to be played to a pace of their liking. This is an unselfish team filled with young aggressive players like their starting backcourt of George Hill and Lance Stephenson. Can the Pacers elevate their level of play as the series grows more intense? That is the big question. Last year when Miami heightened its defense, Hill had trouble entering the ball into the post, and Indiana's size advantages were negated.
Paul George. Two things (at the very least) must happen to enable a Pacers upset: Wade must perform below expectations, and George must exceed them. The Pacers are going to need someone to lead them down the stretch as Miami's defense picks up, and that go-to scoring will probably have to be provided by George. It's asking a lot of a player who wasn't viewed as a likely All-Star at the start of the season, and it's why the Heat can win even if Wade isn't creating shots for himself -- because the Pacers don't have a proven explosive scorer to carry them as the pressure builds.
Heat in 6. Its difficult five-game victory over Chicago revealed Miami's vulnerabilities. But it also toughened the Heat, who needed to play with more urgency after an adversity-free season. Indiana's size and team defense will create problems, but the Heat will be ready, and they'll also remember the early 2-1 hole that threatened to swallow them up last year.