After knocking their opponents out of the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs in five games, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers will meet in the second round in a matchup between the two hottest teams in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James, who was named the league MVP yesterday, is coming off a particularly dominant series against the New York Knicks, not because he outscored Carmelo Anthony, but because he was more efficient and took over games when he needed to. However, James and the rest of the Heat face a much better all-around team than the injury-depleted Knicks. In what is sure to be a competitive and physical series, the Heat are favorites to win, but don’t underestimate the Pacers.
Indiana has been my sleeper team all year, and now is their time to show whether or not they have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the best player in the world and a defensively intimidating Miami squad. The Heat bested the Pacers three out of four times during the regular season, winning two in routs and one in overtime before losing their final meeting by 15. Indiana will have to improved their defense to have a chance, as Miami is averaging almost 102 points per contest against them. They will also have to make sure everyone comes ready to score, since they Pacers averaged just over 92 ppg against the Heat. The Pacers don’t have a designated crunch time scorer or an elite superstar, but Danny Granger absolutely has to put up points as Indiana’s best offensive weapon. How he matches up with LeBron James, Shane Battier or whoever else Miami throws at him could very well be the difference between competing and being swept. Granger had a tendency of disappearing against the Heat this season, averaging just 13 points per game, a whole eight points below his average for the season. If Granger can’t produce night in and night out, Miami will have no problem here.
There are a few other key factors that will determine who advances to the Eastern Conference Finals. The first is how effective Roy Hibbert is down low. Hibbert has a huge size and talent advantage over Miami’s post players, but against the Magic (with no Dwight Howard), Hibbert was pushed around and outplayed by the shorter, more physical Glen Davis. None of Miami’s centers are talented enough to score on Hibbert, but if they are able to push him around on defense, the Pacers will be at a huge disadvantage. The matchup between David West and Chris Bosh will also be important to watch, as West is more physical but Bosh has more skill and length. Indiana needs West to convincingly win this matchup, because if Bosh starts putting up big numbers, the Pacers will not be able to stop LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Bosh. The final deciding factor will be how Indiana’s guards perform up against D-Wade. George Hill and Darren Collison certainly have to outplay Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller, who have been seen as thorns in Miami’s side all season. If Hill and Collison consistently put up points and prevent the Heat’s guards from getting open looks from beyond the arc, the Pacers will have a chance in the series. LeBron and Wade are going to get their 20-30 points a night, but if Indiana can find a way to limit Bosh, get a few big nights out of Hibbert and have Granger lead in scoring, they will be competitive. Finally, a huge X-factor for the Pacers could be Leandro Barbosa. Believe it or not, Barbosa is Indiana’s leading scorer against the Heat this season. Okay, so maybe it was only one game, but he put up 14 points in that game, and after being practically silent for the first round, the Pacers would love to get something out of him off the bench again. Barbosa and Collison will need to score off the bench to ensure their starters get some time to rest without worrying about falling too far behind.
However, even if Indiana’s guards outplay Miami’s and even if Hibbert and West beat up on the Heat’s bigs, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade could be too much for the Pacers. George Hill and/or Danny Granger will be able to use some length to bother LeBron’s jump shot, but as soon as he starts attacking the basket, the Pacers’ defense is in trouble. Indiana is a much better overall team than the Knicks (and to be honest, the Heat weren’t truly dominant against New York) and they’ll give Miami a battle, but I don’t have enough confidence in Indiana to pick them over LeBron and the Heat.
Prediction: Miami over Indiana in 6 games