It’s finally time: Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat in Eastern Conference Semifinals

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This time three years ago, the Indiana Pacers had fallen so far out of the public eye, both nationally and in their own city, there was talk the franchise might soon be on the move.

Now, they’re about to be as relevant in sports nation as they can be — they’re playing a playoff series against the most polarizing team in the NBA — and maybe in American sports.

Fresh off a 4-1 opening-round victory against the Orlando Magic in which the Pacers gained back much of the lost connection with local fans, they carry the momentum of their first playoff series win in seven years into an Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup with the second-seeded Miami Heat.

Does Indy stand a chance?

Perhaps the most satisfying part of the Pacers’ run this year has been seeing firsthand the fan base start to regain its love for the franchise. Granted, that process is still very much in the works — Indiana finished 29th in the league in average attendance this season despite a 42-24 record — but anyone who has paid attention recently can tell the fan support is trending upward.

Attendance at each of the three home games in the series against the Magic sat approximately at max capacity of 18,165, and nearly all attendees sported Pacers gear. The environment at the end of Game 5 was absolutely electric — a true NBA playoff atmosphere — topped off with a powerful “Beat the Heat!” chant as the final seconds ticked.

I can tell that energy has carried over even before the start of the series with Miami. Fans will be ready when the Heat arrive at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for Games 3 and 4. There’s not really a question about that.

The question is how the Pacers really stack up with everyone’s prohibitive favorite in the East.

The most obvious difference between Indiana and Miami is the latter has superstar players, arguably three. The general consensus is that to consistently win playoff series and truly compete for NBA titles, your team must have a superstar. The Heat certainly have that covered in LeBron James, who yesterday was announced as the NBA MVP for the third time in his career after averaging 27 points, nearly eight rebounds and six assists per game, and in Dwyane Wade, who added 22 points per game in 2011-12. Chris Bosh, whom many would place in the “superstar” category as well, had another great season, averaging 15 points and eight rebounds per contest.

Moreover, these guys — at least James and Wade — are guys the Heat can rely on consistently to score, create and  defend whenever needed. The Pacers, despite getting relatively consistent scoring from Danny Granger, don’t have a guy who can affect a game in that many ways.

The Pacers, however, do have depth that can rival that of Miami or anyone in the league. Two-deep at point guard with George Hill and Darren Collison, they can get scoring, assists and perimeter defense from either depending upon the circumstance or whoever has “the hot hand.” Leandro Barbosa has provided a spark off the bench since arriving at the trade deadline, particularly in the playoffs thus far. He’s provided well over six points in the five playoff games.

What the Pacers need to do is be physical — play the blue-collar style of basketball they grew to love playing under coach Frank Vogel. Roy Hibbert, David West, Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson have to box out for their lives and grab rebounds. Hill, Paul George and other wings need to grab the long rebounds and not give the Heat any second chances on offense. Slow the pace of the game and get in half-court sets. Don’t let the Heat get many transition points.

And defend as best you can. George hasn’t been the offensive presence many think he can be in these playoffs, and he got worked a ton on defense by Jason Richardson in the first round, appearing to lack strength. But he has plenty of length and athleticism to give James and Wade fits if he can maintain his positioning. He must do so or else give way to arguably the two best dribble-penetration players in the game.

It’s a tall order, and given the chronicle of these teams’ regular-season series — two Heat  blowouts, one close win for the Heat that should’ve gone to the Pacers, and a Pacers blowout — I think you have to give the edge to Miami. The Heat have so much firepower in their “Big Three” and enough spark off the bench in guys like Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem to be too much over a seven-game series. But I think the Pacers win two games.

Heat in six.

 

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