The 2014 NBA Playoffs have been incredibly entertaining from the outset, but with the conference finals approaching, the league has to be doing cartwheels at the sight of their two match-ups. In the East, the top two seeds square off, as the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers enjoy a rematch of the 2013 conference finals with one minor change in that it is the Pacers who hold the always coveted home-court advantage. Let’s take a look at the match-up.
Path to the Conference Finals
The Miami Heat, despite the fact that they are the number two seed, have played the part of the dominant favorite to this point. LeBron James and company dismantled the Charlotte Bobcats in sweep fashion in the first round, and followed that up with a relatively brisk dispatching of a team that some thought could challenge them in the Brooklyn Nets. If there has been a “down” for Miami in the early going, it has been on the defensive end (106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions), but against Indiana, that problem should be mitigated a bit.
On the Indiana side, things haven’t been quite as brisk, as the Pacers have been defeated five times by the combination of the Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Wizards. Still, Indiana flashed signs of their old, dominant self against Washington, and the Pacers lead the league during the playoffs in defensive efficiency at 99.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. The biggest story has been the play of Roy Hibbert (11.3 PER, 8.5 points, 4.5 rebounds per game in the playoffs), but even that improved as the month of May arrived.
Strength vs Strength
Miami’s top-rated offense (115.3 points per 100 in the playoffs) meets Indiana’s highly-regarded defense, and that is must-see television. More specifically, the Pacers possess one of the ideal candidates in the entire league, Paul George, in guarding LeBron James, and they also will deploy a big-time rim protector, provided that Roy Hibbert stays awake after breaking out of his slumber. The two teams split their season series thanks in great part to Indiana’s suffocating defense, but Miami has noticeably kicked things up offensively in the playoffs while the Pacers have lagged (by their standards) at times.
Match-up to Watch
While it is tempting to insert Roy Hibbert and his terrible/great/terrible/great routine into the conversation here, this one goes to LeBron James against Paul George. It certainly helps LeBron to have two more superstars in Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but against Indiana, the Heat will be in a great deal of trouble if “The King” can’t win his individual battle.
LBJ has been the best player during the playoffs (with apologies to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, etc.) in averaging more than 27 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists per game with a 29.3 PER, but George could give him fits with length and athleticism. On the other end, George’s efficiency has lacked a bit (43% from the field) in the playoffs, and he will invariably be asked to carry Indiana’s offense for portions of the series.
Most pundits seem to be projecting a long, competitive series, and there is an argument for that. Indiana at their apex would have been a big-time scare for the two-time defending champions, but there is a reason that the Pacers have struggled so much during the playoffs, and their inconsistency is terrifying. All season long, Frank Vogel and company yearned for home-court advantage against the Heat, and even though they have it, it has been rendered virtually meaningless as they have already lost four home games during their playoff push.
Miami and, more specifically, LeBron James have had the opportunity to rest and gain strength as Indiana was pushed to the near limit by Washington, and that is another notch for the Heat. They are playing much better basketball at this point in the season, and with homecourt out the window in addition to Indiana’s dysfunction, this could be an easy series for Erik Spoelstra’s club.
Miami in 5.