The Indiana Pacers are a confident bunch. They talk about how they've grown in the playoffs and how they're applying what they learn to the next opponent.
After moving past the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, the Pacers take on the defending champion Miami Heat starting Wednesday, with a trip to the Finals on the line. Indiana finished 16 games behind the Heat, had a sub-.500 record on the road and have to win four playoff games against a team that has lost three times since Feb. 2.
Impossible? No. Doable? Well, yeah, if so much goes right.
The Pacers can build off their 2-1 edge in the season series -- the victories came in Indianapolis. While both teams are improved since those meetings, the Pacers' two victories came before the Heat began demolishing most opponents and before forward Chris Andersen gave Miami more inside strength.
Miami beat Indiana 4-2 in last season's Eastern Conference semifinals, and Heat forward Chris Bosh missed the final five games of that series with an abdominal strain. This time, guard Dwyane Wade is dealing with a bruised right knee and his scoring is down, but the Heat are still rolling. They have just one loss in the playoffs, and their average margin of victory is 13.9 points.
The Pacers are underdogs, but they can make this a competitive series and possibly upset the Heat
Steal Game 1(AT)
The Pacers won Game 1 against the Knicks in New York and set the tone for that series. The Knicks were never able to recover.
Indiana has another factor in its favor. The Heat lost Game 1 to the Chicago Bulls in the conference semifinals after a seven-day layoff. They just had another significant break -- six full days off between the end of their series against the Chicago and the start of the conference finals.
"Obviously, it's a great environment and they're a great home team," said Pacers forward David West. "But we've grown in our ability to win on the road in tough environments. We're going to bring the lessons we learned in the first series and second series into this series and hope we have some carryover in that regard."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is making plans to cure any potential Game 1 lethargy. He said he'd spend more time looking at his team's preparation to determine if he needs to tweak anything.
"There's no shortcuts. You can't cheat the game. So you have to work at it," Spoelstra said. "You're coming off a very intense series, you're natural reaction is not to want to come in here and really get after it and sweat and condition. But you can't shortcut it."
The coach didn't blame the layoff for the loss to Chicago in the opener, saying "We don't want to make excuses. That would also take away from what Chicago brought to that game."
Still, the Heat looked somewhat sluggish after their rest and the Bulls, who had come off a seven-game war with the Nets, were the aggressor. The Pacers are coming off a similar test vs. the Knicks, being pushed hard before winning Game 6 late at home.
Of course, stealing Game 1 is no guarantee: After the Bulls pulled it off, Miami won the next four to end the series.
Battle Miami down low
The Pacers need to take advantage of their size and strength with West, center Roy Hibbert, power forward West, forward-center Tyler Hansbrough and center Ian Mahinmi. Indiana destroyed the Knicks in rebounding, and the Heat had the lowest number of rebounds per game of any team in the conference semifinals.
"We know that against bigger teams that's what people are going to say. They're going to pound us," Bosh said. "If they don't say that, what else are they going to write about? It does present a challenge for us. They're a great offensive rebounding team. We're going to have to do a good job keeping them off the boards, but it's nothing that we haven't seen. In order to win a championship, these are the team we're going to have to beat."
While Bosh missed almost all of last season's series against Indiana, his matchup with Hibbert is one to watch. How well can Bosh defend Hibbert near the basket? Can Bosh continue to hit that mid-range jump shot and draw Hibbert away from the rim?
"I'm going to have to have a big matchup with Roy ... This is going to be the matchup that's really going to turn the series," Bosh said.
Miami might not be the best rebounding team â€" their opportunities to get offensive rebounds are limited because they are the best-shooting team in the postseason â€" but that doesn't mean they are not physical.
Their aggressive style bothered the Bulls and took Chicago out of its game at times. To previal, the Pacers need to maintain calm in the midst of physical play.
Defend the three-point line(AT)
Indiana led the NBA during the regular season in three-point shooting allowed at 32.7(PERCENT). The Pacers are acutely aware of the corner three-point shot, leading the lead in lowest percentage allowed from that area during the regular season, too.
Something has to give. Pacers coach Frank Vogel knows how much the Heat take advantage of the three-point shot, especially from the corner, where Miami shooters ranked fourth in the league at 43.1(PERCENT).
The Heat are judicious and accurate from the three-point line. Miami was sixth in three-points attempted and second in three-point percentage.
For the Pacers, it is a potential catch-22 because the more attention a team pays to Miami's three-point shooters, the more room LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have to drive to the basket.
The Pacers, whose three-point defense dipped a bit against the Knicks, need to strike a near-perfect balance of protecting the rim and three-point line.
Solve the Heat D
Impressive as Indiana's defense is, the Heat are the top-rated playoff defense, allowing 93.4 points per 100 possessions. The Pacers are the 10th-rated offense out of 16 playoff teams, scoring 100.3 points per 100 possessions.
Indiana needs points, and it can't afford turnovers. Vogel said the Pacers are paying special attention to that in their preparations.
"There's a big emphasis on it. New York prepared us for how well we have to take care of the basketball and limit our turnovers," Vogel said. "The difference in that series and this series is if you turn it over against Miami, it's going to be a dunk show. The penalty for turning the ball over is much greater in this series."
The Pacers also need production from their reserves. Indiana's starters accounted for 81.2(PERCENT) of its points and just two Pacers reserves averaged more than five points and more than 10 minutes against New York.
The Heat are deep. Two of Miami's top five leading scorers were bench players and five reserves averaged at least five points against the Bulls.
Deal with LeBron James(AT)
Even when the four-time MVP looks like he's having an average game, James' box score usually tells a different story. He shot 6-for-17 in Miami's Game 3 win but finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. It was similar in Game 5 when James was 5-for-14, but had 23 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
There's no "stopping" James. He might not do all things every night, but not only is he the best player in the game, he's determined to get another title.
"There should be no reason why you're not locked in," James said about the playoffs.
How can the Pacers make it difficult for him, similar to the way Chicago swingman Jimmy Butler made James work harder than normal?
Pacers forward Paul George will get the brunt of the defensive assignment on James, who called George "one of the up-and-coming new superstars that we have in our league. He's a kid who loves to get better."
But it takes a village to stop an MVP. It's not all on George. It requires help â€" from Stephenson at times, and Hibbert and West when James goes to the rim.
And that still may not be enough.
"We can play any type of game that presents itself," James said. "They're a very good team. We respect them."
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