INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana and Miami spent a whole season hearing about the rematch.
On Sunday, the two Eastern Conference heavyweights will meet in the most intriguing fight of the year.
There is the possibility of a head-to-head matchup between the world’s best player, LeBron James, and the NBA’s next young superstar, Paul George. There are battle lines drawn between Miami’s perimeter shooters and Indiana’s tough inside guys. There is history with Miami eliminating Indiana each of the past two seasons despite the Pacers pushing the Heat further than anyone expected both times, and, of course, everyone wants to see if the young challengers will derail Miami’s quest for a third straight NBA championship.
It’s no wonder this is the most anticipated matchup of the playoffs.
“Two best teams in the Eastern Conference. It’s that simple,” James said. “I mean both teams defend at a high level, both teams share the ball, both teams get into the paint, both teams have a desire to win, so that’s why it’s been equal.”
It’s taken three years to reach this point.
In the second round in 2012, the Pacers took a 2-1 lead only to see Miami rebound with three straight wins before winning the first title with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Last year, Indiana surprised everyone by pushing the Heat to the brink before faltering in a Game 7 loss as the Heat won a second straight crown.
This season, the Pacers made it clear from the start they wanted the No. 1 seed to assure Miami had to play in Indy if there was a Game 7. That long slog didn’t end until the third-to-last night of the regular season, and it’s the reason they’ll play Game 1 of this best-of-seven series at home.
Still, most observers consider Miami the favorite and with good reason. The Heat swept Charlotte in the first round and beat Brooklyn 4-1 in the second.
Indiana, meanwhile, has been tested. It had to win the last two games to beat Atlanta 4-3 in the first round, beat Washington 4-2 after failing to clinch the series at home and had to block out all the outside distractions emanating from their second-half swoon. And for a change, the Pacers don’t seem to mind what’s being said.
“I think we like being the underdogs,” Lance Stephenson said.
“We like when everybody is talking about us. I think it makes our game a little bit better. It makes us want to go out and play harder, so I like being the underdog and everybody talking about us and trying to bring us down but we stay together as a unit, stay poised in the locker room. It just makes us stronger.”
Here are five more things to watch in this series:
Nobody has been more inconsistent in these playoffs than Roy Hibbert, and yet nobody may be more crucial than Hibbert in this series. A year ago, the All-Star center caused so many problems that Miami signed injury-prone Greg Oden. After an abysmal start to the playoffs, Hibbert regained his footing against Washington. But if the Pacers are going to win this series, they need Hibbert to play well every night.
Hawks guard Jeff Teague thought his team provided the blueprint to beating Indiana. Atlanta stretched Indiana’s defense by using five 3-point shooters, and when the Wizards copied the approach and knocked down shots, that, too, gave Indiana trouble.
Will Miami go small this time? Perhaps, and it may be one way to make Hibbert less of a factor, too.
Holding at home
Indiana finished the regular season with the best home record in the league (35-6). It hasn’t helped the Pacers at all in the playoffs. Indiana is 3-4 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, giving away home-court advantage Game 1 losses in each of the first two series. Indiana knows it can’t do that this time.
“We can’t allow ourselves to come out flat,” George said. “Whatever it is, we’ve got to find it and come out with energy— treat this one like it’s Game 7.”
Miami played it safe with Wade all season, giving his problematic knees extra rest so he could excel in the playoffs. So far, that decision has paid dividends. He has played in all nine games, averaged 17.9 points and 4.0 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field. If Wade continues playing this way, it could spell trouble for Indiana. But this may be his biggest challenge.
There is a lot of star power in this series, but ultimately, it will come down to defense. Indiana had one of the league’s stingiest defenses all season. Not surprisingly, the Pacers have won in the postseason, too, when they’ve been solid defensively. Miami might not have the defensive reputation of the Pacers, but they’ve played well enough to win eight of nine playoff games — and good enough to have beaten the Pacers in their past two playoff series.