The Heat has the edge here based on Dwyane Wade’s current health and playoff experience. Even with the emergence of Paul George this season, Wade is still arguably the second best player in this series next to LeBron James. Wade scored 28 points in the Heat’s closeout game of the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and carried the defending back-to-back champions in the first half of Game 5. Wade’s 20 points kept the Heat within striking distance. It’s hard to imagine one of the Pacers’ guards taking over a game the way Wade still can. Heat starting point guard Mario Chalmers is off to another impressive postseason. Chalmers flawlessly guided the Heat’s offense through a potentially problematic second round and he’s averaging three more assists than turnovers per game in the playoffs (4.1 to 1.1). Chalmers has had the two biggest assists of the playoffs for the Heat. His dime in Game 4 set up Chris Bosh’s game winning three-pointer and his assist on Ray Allen’s three-pointer in Game 5 clinched the series. The Pacers will counter with Lance Stephenson, a triple-double threat who has the potential cause the Heat problems, but can also meltdown at times during big games. Pacer point guard George Hill has been a liability at times.
LeBron James and Chris Bosh give the Heat the edge at forward, but Pacers power forward David West and small forward Paul George are the strength of Indiana’s team. James is averaging 30 points in the playoffs while also contributing 7.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. The large majority of James’ field goals through the first two rounds were at the rim, and he’ll put an emphasis on working inside against the Pacers as well. James is 47 of 58 (81 percent) on shots at the rim through his first nine playoff games. Countering James at small forward is George, the Pacers best player who received MVP consideration at the beginning of the season. George’s production fell off after the All-Star break, and he is shooting 43.1 percent from the field this postseason. George has been effective on corner three-pointers, shooting 52.6 percent (10 of 18). West is the Pacers’ emotional core and his mid-range jumper and consistent defense cannot be discounted in this series. West is 44 of 87 on mid-range shots. Chris Bosh could have a significant impact on the series if he can consistently pull his defender out of the paint to create driving lanes for James and Wade. Bosh is shooting 48.6 percent (17 of 35) on three-pointers and 51 percent overall. He’s 8 of 11 on corner three-pointers.
The Heat gets the edge based on Udonis Haslem’s championship experience, and the simple fact that Roy Hibbert has been terribly inconsistent this postseason. Hibbert is averaging just 4.5 rebounds in the playoffs and his minutes have been reduced to about 25 per game. If Hibbert’s downward trend continues, Haslem could conceivably outrebound the Pacers 7-2 center in the Eastern Conference finals. Such a notion would have been patently ridiculous before the All-Star break. Haslem will be well rested for this series, and that edge shouldn’t be discounted. He sat out the entire series against the Brooklyn Nets and allowed the Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to play the best matchup possible. In a close series, Haslem’s toughness could be a key.
Another edge for the Heat in a series that’s beginning to feel one-sided. Ray Allen, the Heat’s Sixth Man, is a future Hall of Famer and the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers. He enters the Eastern Conference finals on the heels of a series-clinching corner three-pointer against the Nets. Allen is fourth in scoring for the Heat in the playoffs with 78 points. Chris Andersen would be the best player on the Pacers’ bench. He has been a difference maker against the Pacers in the past and his role with the Heat has only gotten larger since then. Through the first two rounds, the Heat has received contributions from six reserves. Only Michael Beasley, Greg Oden and Toney Douglas have yet to contribute. Beasley and Oden were the Heat’s offseason additions and Douglas is an emergency option if Wade’s knee soreness returns. The Pacers’ Sixth Man is guard C.J. Watson (6.5 p.p.g.). Forward Luis Scola is also averaged 6.5 points per game. Evan Turner, who the Pacers acquired during the season, is averaging 13.3 minutes per game.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel either deserves a lot of blame for his team’s meltdowns, or a lot of credit for holding everything together. We’re going to praise Vogel here instead of criticize. The Pacers’ embattled coach has never had much in which to work with offensively, but he’s back in the Eastern Conference finals with a team playing arguably the best defense in the playoffs. That’s not a minor detail, especially considering the apparent strife inside the Pacers’ locker room of delicate personalities in prominent roles. Still, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gets the edge here based on his team’s brilliant preparation for the playoffs. Everyone was healthy and poised for an upswing in the postseason and that form has served the Heat well. Miami is 8-1 in the playoffs, Wade is healthy and the team remains committed to Spoelstra’s vision despite some lineup shifts that have sent proud veterans to the bench.
The Pacers worked hard for the Eastern Conference’s No.1 seed in playoffs and the home-court advantage that went along with it. Now it’s time to see if that strategy paid off. Since the offseason, the Pacers have said publicly that they would have won last season’s Eastern Conference finals had Game 7 been played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Now the Pacers just have to keep the series going long enough to reach that payoff. Indiana only lost six games at home during the regular season, but all that “Gold Swagger” has lost its luster in the playoffs. The Pacers have lost four of seven games at home in the first two rounds. Meanwhile, the Heat has made it look easy, and gets the edge here based on a few factors. For starters, the Heat is well rested and supremely confident entering this series. Meanwhile, the Pacers were nearly upset in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks, their best player, George, felt compelled to post fishing pictures with his good buddy Hibbert on Twitter to squelch a salacious rumor and center Andrew Bynum was a bust at best and a cancer at worst. In addition to confidence, the Heat has better leaders, a more professional locker room and, well, LeBron. Heat in 5.