POSTED: May 19, 2013 1:38 PM ET
Paul George is the toughest two-way matchup that LeBron James will face in the East.
The Indiana Pacers had the No. 1 defense in the NBA this season and just shut down Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks over six games. The Miami Heat had the league's No. 1 offense and just dispatched Tom Thibodeau's D in five. The trump card in the Eastern Conference finals, tipping off Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) in Miami, may be the four-time MVP.
The Pacers are better suited to deal with the Heat than they were last season, when they lost a 2-1 conference semifinals lead to the eventual champs, who were playing without Chris Bosh. They've made tremendous strides defensively, have the personnel to take advantage of the Heat's lack of size in the frontcourt, and outrebounded Miami 122-89 in winning the season series 2-1.
Pacers-Knicks: Game 1 Preview
Furthermore, the Pacers have a third-year, 23-year-old, budding star who's more prepared to take on the challenge of defending the world's best player for 40 minutes a night. Paul George is as tough of a two-way matchup that LeBron James is going to face in the Eastern Conference.
But James and the Heat have been virtually unbeatable over the last three and a half months. They've won 45 of their last 48 games, including one in which they shot 56 percent against the Pacers' No. 1 defense in early March. James is a huge step up from Anthony. He's got a better supporting cast, and the Heat have been pretty darn good defensively themselves over that stretch.
The Pacers have the right recipe to beat the Heat, but Miami still has the better ingredients. The champs will be challenged in this series, but the chances that they'll lose more games in the next two weeks than they've lost in the last 15 seem pretty slim.
1. Is Dwyane Wade healthy? No, but it's really a question of how well he can manage and deal with the soreness in his right knee. A week off might help some, but Wade has been taping his kneecap to the side to help with the pain. He'll probably have his good days, his bad days, and his bad outfits, as he did in the Chicago series.
2. How did the Pacers beat the Heat twice this season? The first game (Jan. 8) was expectedly ugly, but the second meeting (Feb. 1) was one of the Pacers' best offensive games of the season, even though they turned the ball over more and grabbed far fewer offensive rebounds. They shot 14-for-40 (35 percent) in the paint in the first win and 24-for-31 (77 percent) in the second one. In both victories, Indiana kept the Heat's role players in check.
3. Can the Pacers' starters play 48 minutes a game? No, and that's a problem. Indiana's starting lineup is strong on both ends of the floor, but Frank Vogel's squad typically suffers a big drop-off (especially offensively) when he goes to his bench. While the Pacers' starters were a plus-32 in the New York series, all other Indy lineups were a minus-32. So if any of the top five -- not just George or Roy Hibbert -- get in foul trouble, it will be a serious issue. Point guard George Hill picked up a couple of quick fouls in the Heat's win in March.
4. How will the Heat match up with the Pacers' bigs? Miami has started two bigs (Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem) in each of their first nine playoff games, and Bosh will be defending Hibbert most of the series. But they will play a lot of minutes with James and Shane Battier at the forward positions, and though James is just as big as David West, it will be Battier matching up more with the Pacers' power forward. West has been asked to defend shooters all season, but that will be a key matchup on both ends of the floor.
5. Is George ready for his coming out party? No, and yes. He still needs some polish offensively and isn't very efficient, but a big reason is that he works so hard defensively. The brilliance of George is his ability to stay attached to and in front of the guy he's defending. James will likely lead the series in scoring, but his only easy points will come in transition.
The Heat don't depend on the 3-point shot nearly as much as the Knicks did, but they're still a very dangerous perimeter shooting team, having ranked second in 3-point percentage and third in makes in the regular season. So expect the Pacers to defend them much like they did New York.
George will have the James assignment and Hibbert will be there to protect the rim. As he did against Anthony, Frank Vogel will make sure that his two best defenders are on the floor whenever James is. Their teammates will be ready to help, but won't double-team, looking to stay at home on Miami's shooters.
James only took 19 percent (9/47) of his 47 shots against the Pacers from the restricted area, a big reduction from the 42 percent he took from there against the Heat's other 28 opponents. So Chris Bosh's ability to draw Hibbert away from the rim (or make Hibbert pay for staying at home) will be critical. Bosh, arguably the best jump-shooting big man in the league, shot better than 50 percent from mid-range this season and was 9-for-12 from outside the paint in the Heat's March 10 win over the Pacers.
The Pacers' offensive success will come down to turnovers and offensive rebounds. Indiana isn't a heavy pick-and-roll team and will surely look to get the ball to Hibbert and West in the post against the smaller Heat.
Like New York, the Heat will defend aggressively, putting pressure on the ball, fronting the post, and getting their hands in passing lanes. And with better athletes and defenders, they'll obviously do it a lot better than the Knicks did. So taking care of the ball will again be priority No. 1 for the Pacers. They had 10 live-ball turnovers in their loss in Miami and just 12 total in their two wins over the Heat.
But they can't be tentative. You must move the ball quickly to the weak side and knock down shots if you're going to beat Miami's seventh-ranked defense. The Pacers can also take advantage of the Heat's rotations and lack of size by crashing the boards. Indiana was the fourth best offensive rebounding team in the league this season, while Miami ranked 24th in defensive rebounding percentage.
The one issue is that the Heat's transition game could make the Pacers pay for their aggressiveness on the offensive glass more than the Knicks (who ranked last in fast break points) did. The Pacers will have to find the right balance between offensive rebounds and transition defense.
On the Heat's end of the floor, the ball will mostly be in James' hands, but Wade will also get his share of late-game possessions. Wade is more likely to take the shot himself, while James is always willing to dish to an open shooter. The Heat ranked No. 1 in both clutch offense and clutch defense in the regular season, but they couldn't get stops at the end of Game 1 against the Bulls.
The Pacers' late-game offense is pretty balanced between Hill running the point, George coming off pin-down screens, and West in the post. And they're even more dangerous on the offensive glass with the game on the line. In fact, Hibbert and West each had 21 clutch-time offensive rebounds in the regular season, just one less than league-leader Joakim Noah.
It wouldn't have been much of a surprise if Norris Cole wasn't in Erik Spoelstra's rotation when the playoffs began. But he was, he's averaged 22 minutes through the first two rounds, and he has shot a ridiculous 60 percent. If he comes even close to keeping that up, the Heat are in pretty good shape against a bad Pacers bench. But it's hard to imagine Cole can stay hot against the Indiana defense.
Lance Stephenson will be the guy shooting threes on the weak side when the Pacers move the ball against that aggressive Miami defense. Stephenson isn't a very good 3-point shooter, but, as he did in Game 6 against the Knicks, he has the potential to make a big offensive impact by being aggressive on the break and on drives to the basket. Defensively, he'll be tasked with keeping Wade in check.
If a matchup of the best offense vs. the best defense is a draw, it will be the other end of the floor that's the difference. And the Pacers just don't have offensive weapons to win four games against a much better defensive team than they faced in the first two rounds.
Heat in 6.
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