SMALL FORWARD | EDGE: HEAT
Heat: LeBron James’ scoring numbers were modest by his standards against the Pacers this season (21 per game), but he averaged 30 points and 10.8 rebounds against them in last year’s playoffs. His playoff statistics, historically, have been at their best in the conference finals (31 points, 9.2 rebounds, 6.6 assists). Paul George, a skilled defender, can offer some resistance, but nobody stops LeBron.
Pacers: George, named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, has become a force on both ends of the court. He’s averaging 19.1 points and 8.3 rebounds this postseason, but isn’t a high-percentage shooter: 40.4 in these playoffs, and just 19 for 70 on three-pointers. He scored 29 in one game against the Heat this season but was awful (2-for-11 shooting, five turnovers) in the most recent meeting.
POWER FORWARD | EDGE: PACERS
Heat: Udonis Haslem’s rebounding numbers are down from his career norm in postseason (he ranks 60th at 10.6 per 48 minutes), but he shot efficiently (26 for 41) and his defense and physicality will be essential against David West. Expect considerable power forward minutes for Shane Battier, who can draw West from the basket as he did in last year’s playoffs.
Pacers: West was very good against the Heat during the regular season (22.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 65.8 percent shooting) and has assumed more of an offensive load with Danny Granger missing nearly all of the season. But he wasn’t quite as productive in last year’s playoffs against Miami (14.8 points, 7.6 rebounds) after Battier started luring him from the basket.
CENTER | EDGE: HEAT
Heat: Chris Bosh has improved his rebounding (8.3) and shot-blocking (18 in postseason), and he must be at his best defensively against Roy Hibbert, who has thrived in this postseason (14.0, 9.6). Like Battier with West, Bosh will try to pull Hibbert from the basket when the Heat has the ball. Bosh, 7 for 15 on three-pointers in postseason, played only 16 minutes in last year’s Pacers series due to his abdominal injury in Game 1.
Pacers: Hibbert shot just 38 percent against Miami this season but had 14 rebounds in one of the games and averaged 11.5 boards against the Heat in last year’s playoffs. The Pacers outscored the Heat when Hibbert was on the floor during their series last May. But he needs to avoid foul trouble — something that hampered him in the past but has been less of an issue now.
POINT GUARD | EDGE: EVEN
Heat: Thanks to Norris Cole’s emergence, the Heat is comfortable playing a point guard virtually all the time. Cole has been the better shooter than Chalmers in postseason (60.4 percent from the field to Chalmers’ 41.8), and Cole is the better on-the-ball defender. But Chalmers has played the better floor game (37 assists, 13 turnovers), compared with Cole’s 16 and 12. And Chalmers shot 7 for 11 on three-pointers vs. Indiana this year.
Pacers: George Hill has enjoyed a solid postseason (15.6 points per game) but stumbled in three games against the Heat this season (6.3 points, 33 percent shooting, nine assists, six turnovers). His assist-to-turnover ratio (20 to 16) was dismal against the Heat in their series last May. Hill’s backup, D.J. Augustin, isn’t as complete a player as last year’s Pacers backup, Darren Collison, who was dealt to Dallas.
SHOOTING GUARD | EDGE: HEAT
Heat: Since his five-point clunker in Game 3 of last season’s Pacers series, Dwyane Wade has averaged 28.2 points in six games against Indiana and shot 52.1 percent in the three games this season. The unknown, even to Wade, is how much the right knee will limit him. His playoff scoring numbers are the lowest as a pro (13.0, compared with a 24.4 career average), but his late flurry in Game 5 against the Bulls was encouraging.
Pacers: Lance Stephenson has come a long way from the scrub who made his biggest mark in last May’s series with his classless choke sign to James. He has evolved into a formidable defender with a decent offensive game. Stephenson averaged 11.3 points on 44 percent against the Heat this season and helped close out the Knicks with 25 points and 10 rebounds in Game 6.
BENCH | EDGE: HEAT
Heat: A much better group than what Miami had available in last year’s series, when Dexter Pittman started Game 3 in place of the injured Bosh. Ray Allen (12.2 points), Cole (11 for 16 on threes) and Chris Andersen (22 for 28 from field, 11 blocks) have contributed impactful postseasons. Battier is shooting just 26 percent (13 for 50) through two rounds but hit two threes in the fourth quarter of the close-out win against Chicago.
Pacers: Not much offensive punch here; keep in mind that Stephenson would be the sixth man if Granger wasn’t out for the rest of the season. Tyler Hansbrough and Ian Mahinmi are competent backups in a power rotation, but the Pacers still can’t afford for West or Hibbert to get in serious foul trouble. Augustin (a 35 percent shooter this season) and Sam Young (39 percent) are, at best, serviceable reserves.
COACHING | EDGE: HEAT
Heat: Erik Spoelstra made the signature move of last year’s playoff series, inserting Battier at power forward when Bosh was injured — a move that forced West to defend Battier on the perimeter and generally reduced his overall effectiveness.
Pacers: Like Spoelstra, Frank Vogel has extracted the most from his team. Without Granger, Indiana is somewhat limited offensively, but the Pacers defend with verve (like the Heat) and led the league in rebounding. (Miami was last, partly a function of shooting such a high percentage.)
INTANGIBLES | EDGE: HEAT
Heat: Winners of 45 of its past 48, the Heat — now with Allen, Andersen and a healthy Bosh — will roll out a much better team than the one that ousted Indiana in six games in last year’s playoffs. Indiana’s size and rebounding pose challenges, but remember the Heat has outrebounded the Bucks and Bulls by nearly three per game in postseason. The Heat was 29-12 on the road; Indiana was 19-21.
Pacers: Hibbert, Stephenson and George have elevated their games — and West can be a load — but it’s difficult to envision Indiana being able to generate enough offense to win more than two games. The Pacers were fifth-worst in the league in turnovers, and the Heat is lethal in transition. And Indiana cannot come close to matching Miami’s depth.