These two teams waged a compelling second-round battle a year ago with the Pacers throwing a scare into the Heat before falling in six games.
Not only are the stakes much higher this time, with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line, the teams themselves are different.
In place of the injured Danny Granger, the Pacers have the energetic but inexperienced Lance Stephenson. The bench has been completely remade but not upgraded.
Miami will have Chris Bosh, who missed all but the first 15 minutes of last year’s series, but is unsure what to expect from Dwyane Wade, who has been limited by bone bruises in his knee.
The most comprehensive improvements have come to the second unit, which now features veterans Ray Allen and Chris Andersen.
Here’s a look at the matchups.
>> POINT GUARD: George Hill vs. Mario Chalmers
Hill (15.6 points, 4.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds in the postseason) is the better overall player, a cool hand at the controls, a presence the Pacers rely upon to keep things running smoothly and a solid on-ball defender. He also is a proven playmaker in clutch situations. Chalmers (7.0 points, 4.1 assists, 2.6 rebounds) is generally an underrated player who has made some timely buckets for the Heat throughout the team’s playoff history but his primary offensive value is as a 3-point shooter, and there he has struggled in this postseason going just 5-for-21. Advantage: Pacers
>> SHOOTING GUARD: Lance Stephenson vs. Dwyane Wade
On paper, this is a prohibitive mismatch, given the difference in status between the two players. But in reality, this is a potential swing matchup for the series. Stephenson (9.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists) has been a big-play producer for the Pacers whose energy has brought new life to the first unit. In his first playoff run, Stephenson has largely risen to the challenge. Wade (13.0 points, 5.4 assists, 4.8 rebounds) seems always to be dealing with some kind of injury problem until he drops 35 on you. It looked like Wade was on his last legs in last year’s series until he visited Tom Crean and turned back the clock, scoring 99 points in the last three wins as Miami wiped out a 2-1 deficit. Advantage: Heat
>> SMALL FORWARD: Paul George vs. LeBron James
George (19.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 3.6 turnovers) loves a defensive challenge, and this one is about as big as it gets. He used his length and quickness to positive effect against James during the regular season but his greatest weapon will be to make him work at the other end of the floor with aggressive, attacking offense. If George falls into the trap of settling for 3-pointers (.271 for the postseason), he will make James’ life easier. Of course, the same is true of James (24.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.67 steals, 3.6 turnovers), who needs to use his ridiculous combination of strength and athleticism to wear down his lithe opponent. Advantage: Heat
>> POWER FORWARD: David West vs. Udonis Haslem
This is another critical matchup for the Pacers because it’s one they need to win consistently and convincingly to have a chance. West (15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists) has had non-traditional matchups the first two rounds against Hawks and Knicks teams that prefer to play small and now should be able to get into a more normal rhythm against Haslem (6.2 points, 3.9 rebounds), although Miami will certainly throw Shane Battier into the mix to keep West guessing. Advantage: Pacers
>> CENTER: Roy Hibbert vs. Chris Bosh
A true clash of wills and styles. Hibbert (14.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.5 blocks) does his best work in and around the lane on both ends of the floor, providing occasional scoring outbursts and consistent rim protection. Bosh (13.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks) is a more athletic player who stretches the floor offensively and as hit 7-of-15 from the arc in the postseason. Hibbert simply will not chase Bosh to the 3-point line and Miami is bound to challenge him with pick-and-pops. Hibbert has been allowed to be aggressive at the rim, defensively, but it would come as a surprise to no one if the officials decide to change the definition of verticality for this series. Advantage: Heat
Last year, the Pacers outscored the Heat when the starters were on the floor, so the object of the offseason was to improve the bench. That mission was not accomplished. Pacers Coach Frank Vogel’s approach has been to minimize the demand on the second unit players, leaning much more heavily on the starters – all five of whom have averaged at least 34 minutes in the postseason. Sam Young can bring defense and hustle, Ian Mahinmi is a solid defensive presence and D.J. Augustin can hit the open 3-pointer, but whether Tyler Hansbrough can find a way to have an impact remains to be seen. Miami counters with the most prolific 3-point shooter in league history in Allen, a dynamic energy player in Andersen, a hot-shooting guard in Norris Cole and, of course, Battier. Advantage: Heat
Vogel has done wonders with the Pacers, building their confidence and cohesion while establishing a template for play at both ends of the court that is largely unaffected by the opponents’ approach. He can sometimes be stubborn and slow to make changes, but is a sound in-game tactician and has the benefit of an elite staff of assistants. Erik Spoelstra is in the unforgiving position of coaching a team laden with superstars so will likely never get full credit for his coaching ability. Advantage: Pacers
Miami has been where the Pacers want to go. That, in and of itself, gives the Heat a major edge in a series of this import. But Wade’s knee will be a question mark throughout the series, and a potential momentum-shifter. The Heat has not yet had to break much of a sweat, brushing aside the overwhelmed Bucks and undermanned Bulls, while the Pacers had their edge sharpened by the Knicks. The issue of pressure will also come up, because anything short of a championship is unacceptable for the Heat and any slipup will be magnified. Advantage: Pacers
The Pacers will put up a much greater fight than most in the national media expect but, ultimately, management’s inability to strengthen the bench will take its toll on the Pacers. The Heat will need seven games, but will advance.