Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Finally the matchup we’ve all been waiting for all season is here. The Heat and Pacers took different paths to get here, and this should make for an interesting series.

Down the stretch of the regular season both teams played relatively subpar basketball, with the Heat finishing at 3-6 in the month of April and the Pacers at 10-13 from March 4th on. Typically you can attribute this kind of play to two teams sitting comfortably atop the conference and resting for the playoffs. Few truly questioned whether Miami would turn it on for the playoffs, and after steamrolling the Bobcats and Nets in 9 games it’s clear that’s what they’ve done. Something has been different about this Pacers team since their scorching hot start to the season, though. There was Roy Hibbert calling out his teammates, rumors of fights between players, and some weirder stuff going on. There was also the trade sending longtime Pacer Danny Granger to Philadelphia for Evan Turner, which many have speculated ruined the team’s chemistry (I think that’s somewhat of a copout, but whatever). While the Pacers have succeeded in advancing this far, it hasn’t been easy. The team played a seven game series against an awful Atlanta Hawks team and looked inconsistent in defeating Washington in six.

So what can we expect from this series? Despite the mind-boggling inconsistency the Pacers have played with for several months, I expect them to look better against Miami. These two teams seem to bring out the best in each other, so I wouldn’t count out the Pacers just because they look like they forgot how to play team basketball for two and a half months. Last year’s series was intensely physical. The Pacers typically try to take the Heat off their game with chippy fouls, but the veteran Heat are usually not too bothered. The important thing for Indiana is Center Roy Hibbert playing like a 7’2″ all star, not playing entire games without recording a point or rebound. Indiana has good size and when Paul George plays like he’s capable of playing they are a tough team to beat. If the Pacers got any positive contribution from the maddening Lance Stephenson it would be an enormous x-factor, but I wouldn’t count on it. His immaturity was on full display in their previous matchup, when Dwyane Wade baited him into a senseless ejection.

It was widely talked about when the Heat took a flier on Greg Oden that he would be their answer to Hibbert, but interestingly the Heat have used Udonis Haslem instead, to relative success. Haslem is a pro’s pro, at times a team enforcer, and his contributions are rarely reflected in box scores, but his defense on Hibbert will be crucial to the Heat returning to the Finals for a fourth straight year. He will be helped by “Birdman” Chris Andersen, who at 35 is as active as ever down low. Otherwise the keys for the Heat are relatively straightforward. LeBron has to be the MVP, scoring, creating for teammates, while locking down Paul George on the defensive end. Wade needs to make the most of his rest days so he can attack the Indiana defense, and it will be important for Chris Bosh to stretch the floor and draw the Pacers’ big men out of the paint.

My prediction for this series isn’t groundbreaking, it’s a victory for Miami, but I do think it will be a better series than most would have you believe. These two teams dislike each other too much for the Heat to roll through the series as they did in the previous two rounds. Look for a lot of hard (dirty-ish) fouls and trash talking, and probably a couple close finishes. I just think the Heat are playing better basketball, maintain their composure better in big games, and have enough three point shooting coming off their bench. At this point it’s hard get a feel for what kind of team these Pacers truly are, and I think the two time defending champs are a considerably safer bet. Oh yeah and they have the best player in the world, which is always a plus. Look for the Heat to win in 6.

Western Conference Finals preview to follow.

Featured image credit: Steve Mitchell Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)