UPDATE: Pacers take Game 1, 107-96.
As the Indiana Pacers sputtered down the stretch this season, their expected Eastern Conference Finals rematch against the Miami Heat appeared to be at risk. Things looked especially dire when Indiana was on the verge of elimination in the opening round of the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks, trailing by five on the road with three minutes to go.
But the Pacers got their act together and dispatched the Hawks, then topped the Washington Wizards in six games to set up the much-anticipated rematch against Miami. The Eastern Conference Finals will tip off in Indianapolis on Sunday.
The Heat enjoyed a much less bumpy road to the Eastern Conference Finals, sweeping away the Charlotte Bobcats and then defeating the Brooklyn Nets in five games. The Nets series was close to getting interesting when it looked like Brooklyn was going to take Game 5 in Miami, but the Heat stormed back from a late deficit to snare the victory.
A quiet storm
A quiet storm
The Heat-Pacers rivalry has turned into one of the more intense rivalries in the NBA over the past few seasons. Things started to heat up in the 2012 postseason, when the Pacers led the Heat 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals before Miami won the next three games to move on. Last season, the two teams battled to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The hotly contested series served as Paul George's coming out party, as he went toe-to-toe with LeBron James. George succumbed to James and the Heat in Game 7, but his generally strong performance served as the launching pad for his strong start to the 2013-14 season. While George regressed a bit over the course of the year, he still has shown the ability to carry the Pacers in the postseason. George scored 30 points in the Game 7 victory over the Hawks and had 39 points in a key Game 4 win over Washington.
The George-James matchup will again take center stage this time around. George had some success in the season series against the Heat, averaging 21.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists. However, he struggled when defended by James, shooting just 6-of-20, according to SportVU. Meanwhile, James was 17-of-35 when defended by George. James averaged 28.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the four regular-season games.
The play of Roy Hibbert will also be a huge factor in the series. Hibbert has woken up after his disastrous stretch to close the year and open the playoffs, scoring in double figures in four of the six games against the Wizards while shooting 54.9 percent for the series. Hibbert does have positive history in the playoffs against Miami, as he averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. This season, Hibbert averaged 22.5 points in the two Pacers wins over the Heat and only 5.5 points in the two losses.
To try and combat the resurgent Hibbert, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is expected to insert Udonis Haslem back into the starting lineup. Haslem has played sparingly in these playoffs, but Miami likes what he brings to the table against Hibbert, despite a size disadvantage.
There are numerous other story lines to watch out for in this series. Will Pacers coach Frank Vogel use Hibbert or David West on Chris Bosh? Bosh is shooting 48.6 percent from three in the postseason, and having Hibbert guard him would draw the big man away from the rim. It was this that had Hibbert on the bench when James won Game 1 of the series last year on a layup at the buzzer.
The Dwyane Wade-Lance Stephenson matchup should also be fascinating. Wade has looked mostly healthy in these playoffs, while Stephenson has been a bit more erratic than usual after his breakout regular season. To add to the intrigue, there's some bad blood between the two after some run-ins during the regular season. If Stephenson can come close to matching Wade, that could be huge in terms of the Pacers winning the series.
While the Pacers finished the year poorly and haven't looked that strong in the postseason, this likely won't be a cake walk for Miami. Last season's playoff series was tight, and this year's regular-season series was basically even. So expect another good battle for the right to go to the NBA Finals.
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana
Announcing crew: Mike Breen, Jeff Vandy, Mark Jackson
Radio: ESPNR, 1070 The Fan, 104.3FM/790AM The Ticket,