Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Well, we got the matchup we expected after all. It certainly felt like the Indiana Pacers were fallible against Atlanta and at times when facing the Wizards, but they managed to make it through to their pre-destined rematch with the defending champs. The Heat had an easier time of it, cruising through the 1st round against an overmatched Charlotte squad before earning the gentleman’s sweep against Brooklyn. This will mark the third playoffs in a row in which the two teams have met.

Much has been made of the Pacers’ struggles in the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs, particularly those of Roy Hibbert, but the Miami matchup will offer some reprieve. Hibbert has enjoyed offensive success against the Heat’s smaller lineups and their lack of a low-post bruiser, and his verticality-based rim protection has been a critical piece of coach Frank Vogel’s defense. During last season’s conference finals LeBron James and Dwyane Wade even practiced floaters specifically designed to circumvent Hibbert’s post presence. When your defense can make those two adjust their games you must be doing something right.

Of course, defense has never really been the problem for the Pacers. Paul George has been very good on offense throughout the postseason, but the rest of the team, and at times Hibbert specifically, has floundered. The extra gravity Hibbert has in the post when he is playing well will be critical to helping George get free while LeBron is guarding him. Chris Bosh will have his hands full with Hibbert’s size, and that will unlock a lot of perimeter options the Pacers have been lacking. Don’t be surprised if Hibbert is magically rejuvenated when he starts being defended by a guy four inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than he is. The extra space will be great for shooters Paul George and George Hill, and Lance Stephenson will enjoy having the Heat defense looking the other way while he is off the ball.

Miami does have an insurance policy in case Hibbert really starts causing damage, although it will almost certainly only be used in case of extreme emergency. Greg Oden was brought in as a reclamation project and a possible counter to the Hibbert matchup problems, but he has only played sparingly all season. It would be an act of desperation to pull Oden out of the cryogenic freeze he’s been in for most of the year, but Erik Spoelstra has shown a willingness to play guys who have otherwise been benched if the situation calls for it. Shane Battier even started over Udonis Haslem in the Brooklyn series after seeing only two minutes of playing time against Charlotte in the first round.

Haslem may again see his role limited in this series. The Pacers’ kryptonite defensively has been teams that spread the floor with five shooters and pull Hibbert and David West out of the paint. Neither is very nimble at this point, and keeping them both out of the lane would enable more driving room for James and Wade. This would most likely mean more Rashard Lewis, James Jones, and Battier, with less Haslem.

The extra shooters on the floor would make Wade a much more potent weapon. He has actually played very well in the first two rounds, and his health will be a big factor in determining whether the Heat can secure a three-peat. Over their years together, he and LeBron have become very complementary, and Miami is extremely difficult to guard with those two, Bosh, and two shooters on the floor. Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen are free to feast when they are moving off the ball opposite main actions involving the big 3.

While Miami has a flexible bench with several solid options, the Pacers have a very rigid rotation formula. Their starters need to outplay opponents, and then hope the bench (usually with one or two of the starters mixed in) can tread water. Evan Turner and Luis Scola both returned to the rotation after being benched in the Atlanta series, but neither is equipped to deal with the skill and athleticism of the Heat. C.J. Watson and Ian Mahinmi can provide some valuable minutes, but beyond that their bench isn’t likely to yield any real X-factor for this series.

That’s the story of this matchup. At this point both teams are very familiar with one another, and the Heat have always had the upper hand. Indiana will need to get a killer series from Paul George and at least one of the West-Hibbert-Stephenson trio without sacrificing their defense in order to have a chance to win. Even if that happens, the smart money is on Miami to advance to the Finals in one of the most leisurely conference slates in history.