As the Indiana Pacers sputtered down the stretch this season, their expected Eastern Conference Finals rematch against the Miami Heat looked like it wasn’t going to happen. Things looked especially dire when Indiana was on the verge of elimination in the opening round of the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks.
But the Pacers got their act together and dispatched the Hawks and the Washington Wizards in six games to set up the much-anticipated rematch. The Eastern Conference Finals will tip off on Sunday at Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Heat enjoyed a relatively smooth road to the Eastern Conference Finals, sweeping the Charlotte Bobcats and then defeating the Brooklyn Nets in five games.
The Heat-Pacers rivalry has become one of the most intense in the NBA over the past few seasons. Things began to heat up in the 2012 playoffs, when the Pacers let the Heat 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals before Miami won the next three games to move on. Last season, the two teams battled to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The highly contested series served as Paul George’s coming out party, as he went toe-to-toe with LeBron James. George succumbed to James and the Heat in Game 7, but his generally strong performance served as the launching pad for his strong start to the 2013-14 season. While George regressed a tad over the course of the year, he still has shown the ability to carry the Pacers in the postseason. George scored 30 points in the Game 7 victory against the Hawks and 39 points in a key Game 4 win over Washington.
The George-James matchup will again take center stage this time around. George had some success in the season series against the Heat, averaging 21.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists. Meanwhile, James averaged 28.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the four regular-season matchups.
The play of Roy Hibbert will also be a huge factor in the series. Hibbert was woken up after a disastrous stretch to close the regular season and open the playoffs, scoring in double figures in four of the six games against the Wizards while scoring 54.9 percent for the series. Hibbert does have positive performances in the playoffs against Miami, as he averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. This season, Hibbert averaged 22.5 points in the two Pacers wins over the Heat and only 5.5 points in the two losses.
To try and combat Hibbert, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is expected to insert Udonis Haslem into the starting lineup. Haslem has played sparingly in these playoffs, but Miami likes what he brings to the table against Hibbert, despite a size disadvantage.
The Dwyane Wade-Lance Stephenson matchup should also be fascinating. Wade has looked mostly healthy in these playoffs, while Stephenson has been a bit more erratic than usual after a breakout regular season. To add to the intrigue, there’s some bad blood between the two after some run-ins during the regular season. If Stephenson can come close to matching Wade, that could be a huge factor in the Pacers’ chances at winning the series.
While the Pacers finished the year roughly and haven’t looked strong in the postseason, this likely won’t be a walk in the park for Miami. Last season’s playoff series was tight, and this year’s regular-season series was basically even. So expect another good battle for the right to go to the NBA Finals. Below is your need-to-know information for the game:
- Time: 3:30PM ET (2:30PM CT)
- Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Indianapolis, IN)
- Announcers: Mike Breen, Jeff Vandy, Mark Jackson
- Radio: ESPN Radio
Source: SB Nation