By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor
Indiana Pacers: 1st Seed, East (56-26)
Miami Heat: 2nd Seed, East (54-28)
(SportsNetwork.com) - The regular season was just playing out the inevitable string.
Everyone knew that the Eastern Conference Finals would be a showdown between the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat. Everyone knew it as far back as last year when the two teams met in the same scenario.
"I think we're ready to go. Excited to have another crack at them," said Pacers head coach Frank Vogel.
The way the regular season played out only added to the notion these two Eastern Conference titans would clash late in the postseason. They were Nos. 1 and 2 throughout the whole campaign and their battle for conference supremacy came down to the end.
Miami essentially surrendered the No. 1 seed to the Pacers when head coach Erik Spoelstra sat LeBron James late in the season with home-court advantage still undecided. But, these two teams were the elite of the East as the Heat, the two seed, finished six games better than both the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls.
The two sides split four regular-seasons meetings along home-court lines and this is actually the fourth time the two squads have met in the postseason. Indiana won in the semifinals in 2004, then Miami prevailed in six games in the conference semis in 2012.
But this rivalry, and inevitable clash, was built during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat escaped in seven games, but it seemed the Pacers seemingly discovered the recipe for competing with Miami.
Roy Hibbert proved to be the difference maker for the Pacers. When he was dominant, both offensively and defensively, Indiana came out with wins over the Heat. When he wasn't, the outcome flipped.
Hibbert has been a major player in the Pacers' fortunes, not only in the postseason, but the end of the regular season. The All-Star center went into a major swoon and actually posted two zero-point, zero-rebound games in the playoffs.
His tailspin started in the regular season. The Pacers have been terribly inconsistent the last two months and the Heat weren't much better. The two teams built such a commanding lead in the conference that their positions were never threatened, but as the playoffs have progressed, the Heat have looked like the two-time champs and the Pacers have been an enigma.
Miami opened the postseason with a four-game sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats, aided by the fact that Al Jefferson, Charlotte's beast in the middle, hurt his foot. The Pacers needed seven games to best the under-.500 Atlanta Hawks and had to come from behind in Game 6 on the road.
In the semifinals, the Heat had a competitive series with the Brooklyn Nets, but won in five games. The Pacers were challenged by the Washington Wizards and won in six.
The Pacers' hiccups are in the past and this matchup is the now.
"How we struggled down the stretch, and took a lot of criticism, that means nothing, that's behind us and this is where we wanted to be, at the Conference Finals and a chance to move on," said Vogel.
The Pacers know how to beat the Heat. Their size should be a major advantage, but Hibbert has to play well. Indiana is 5-0 this postseason when he scores 10 or more points. Problem is, the Pacers have played 13 postseason games.
Miami is still driven by the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Based on contract outs, this could be the last ride of South Beach's immortals, but the team is 13-0 all-time in the postseason when this future Hall of Fame trio scores 70-plus points.
Home court shouldn't mean too much considering the Pacers are 3-4 at home during the postseason. The Heat are a perfect 5-0, but both teams are riding four-game home winning streaks against the other.
This is what everyone waited for. It took an entire regular season to delay the expected - the Pacers versus the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"Two best teams in the Eastern Conference, that simple," said James. "Two very good teams, two teams that have worked all year to get to this point. Two teams with the same aspirations, to hoist the NBA Championship."
BACKCOURT: Lance Stephenson and George Hill were the underrated grunts of the Pacers all season. Paul George, David West and Hibbert have made All-Star teams, but this duo provided solid defense and play-making. Stephenson led the NBA in triple doubles during the season and is averaging 13.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 3.8 apg during the playoffs. Hill is scoring 12.4 ppg, but is shooting a miserable 32 percent from long range.
Wade missed a ton of time during the regular season with various ailments and frankly, because of age. He was dreadful at times during the Heat's second title run last June. He's played 34 minutes a game during the postseason and is averaging 17.9 points. If healthy, Wade is still an elite player and so far during this title run, he looks pretty healthy. Mario Chalmers will never garner headlines, but he's steady. While only scoring 8.0 ppg, Chalmers provides good defense, 43 percent 3-point shooting and just a shade over 1.0 turnovers a game.
FRONTCOURT: Hibbert is once again in the spotlight. The Heat have had trouble in the past both stopping him offensively, and figuring him out defensively. Hibbert is an elite rim protector and underrated low-post scorer and the fact remains Miami has no answer for him. Problem for Indiana is, Hibbert has been his own worst enemy. He has been non-existent at times this postseason, especially in the first round against the Hawks. Atlanta was a terrible matchup for Hibbert with Pero Antic being more of a 3-point shooter than an interior player, but Hibbert did pick it up some against the Wizards. There were moments when Marcin Gortat of Washington demolished Hibbert, so the big man must come ready for action against the Heat. George has been splendid the last month, averaging 21.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg and 3.8 apg. He draws the task of covering James, but he was an All-Defensive second-teamer last season. George is growing into his role as one of the league's best and at times, has to carry Indiana's offensive load on his shoulders. West is so solid on both ends of the floor and when the Pacers desperately need a basket, they call on him. He's a great mid-range shooter and can wreak havoc against the Heat's soft interior performers.
Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant has won the MVP, but James is still the very best in the league. During the playoffs, James has averaged 30.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 4.7 apg. That is staggering production from someone who is also one of the best perimeter defenders in the world. James will most likely cover George throughout the game and during crunchtime. Bosh has been extremely dependable during his South Beach tenure. During the postseasons, Bosh is at 14.6 ppg and 5.6 rpg. The rebounding numbers are low as that's not Miami, or Bosh's strength. Bosh is shooting 51 percent from long range in the playoffs. Shane Battier is still listed as the fifth starter, which means he might be out there just to check George for a while and maybe knock down an open 3-pointer. Could easily be Udonis Haslem in that starting five to match up with the Pacers' size.
BENCH: The Pacers' bench has been virtually non-existent in the postseason. The two biggest producers - Evan Turner and Luis Scola - were held out of entire games this postseason. C.J. Watson and Ian Mahinmi have been effective, but Indiana's starters log heavy minutes out of need.
Miami has relied on Ray Allen, Chris Andersen, Rashard Lewis and Norris Cole in the playoffs. Allen is still a crunch-time performer for the Heat. His late 3-pointer in Game 5 all but eliminated the Brooklyn Nets. Andersen might be needed for a bigger role against Hibbert. Whichever player, Battier or Haslem, who doesn't start is probably looking at a limited role. Haslem could definitely help in banging with the Pacers' bigs.
COACHING: Frank Vogel has been a man under siege since the Pacers have fallen on hard times. He has endured reading and hearing how his job could be at stake based on Indiana's fortune in the postseason. Throughout, Vogel has laughed it off and still gotten the Pacers this far. He stuck with Hibbert when several of his peers would have long ago abandoned ship. Vogel has shortened his bench, but hasn't really panicked during the Pacers' woes. They play well on the road which is a good sign of preparation and readiness, but the home losses are concerning.
Erik Spoelstra won't ever truly be appreciated because he'll always hear the whispers that he did it because of the Big Three. Might be some truth in that, but Spoelstra manages this roster as well as anyone could. He plays to matchup strength and lets James and Wade carry the offensive load.
PREDICTION: Vogel may not put much stock in the way his team's playing heading into the Eastern Conference Finals, but the difference between the two teams has been transparent.
Miami has looked great in playing just one more game than needed. Indiana has had a hard time against inferior competition. Washington is a solid club and the Pacers didn't need to go seven, but everything just looks like a struggle for the Pacers. Miami is not the sort of team you get back into form against.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: HEAT in FIVE
05/17 14:47:50 ET