Say what you want about the Indiana Pacers, but never let it be said they aren’t a resilient bunch.
They may have sputtered since the All-Star break. They may have locker room issues and they may need to put out a weekly APB to find center Roy Hibbert’s game.
Conference finals matchups
No. 1 Indiana vs. No. 2 Miami
Opener » Sunday, 1:30 p.m., ESPN
Breakdown » This is what the Pacers have been waiting for — and crowing about — all season. The chance to take down LeBron James and the mighty Heat, with the home-court advantage. Even with the Pacers’ struggles getting here, they are well equipped to finally beat Miami. Indiana is the best defensive team in the NBA, and Paul George is playing at a high level. Yes, the Pacers struggle to score, and they have chemistry issues. But the Heat are more vulnerable than at any stage of the Big Three era. James is by far the best player in the league, but Wade is a shell of his former self and the supporting cast is a year older and appears to have slowed down. That makes this the best opportunity in three years for the Pacers to finally advance to the NBA Finals. Prediction » Pacers in 7
No. 1 San Antonio vs. No. 2 Oklahoma City
Opener » Monday, 7 p.m., TNT
Breakdown » We know that OKC historically gives the Spurs issues. We know that back in 2012, the Spurs won the first two games of the conference finals and the Thunder blew past them in four straight. Will history repeat itself? We don’t think so. There was no Kawhi Leonard to guard Kevin Durant in 2012. Leonard can’t stop him, but he can make it interesting. There was also no significant injury for OKC two years ago. If Serge Ibaka can’t play in this series, that’s a major blow to the Thunder defense. And nobody to guard Tim Duncan on the interior.
Prediction » Spurs in 6
But here they are, back in the Eastern Conference Finals, back for another crack at the Miami Heat and armed with home-court advantage this time.
That means, if nothing else, the Pacers are survivors.
It all sets up an NBA dream scenario, at least in terms of television ratings. Miami and Indiana on one side, Oklahoma City and San Antonio on the other.
There is little question that these are the best four teams in basketball. And even though three of the four teams — only the Heat have made it through relatively unscathed — have encountered significant adversity in the last month, most thought this would be what the conference finals would look like.
Of course, that sets up a few dream individual matchups. There’s LeBron James against Paul George. There’s Kevin Durant against Kawhi Leonard. There’s Tony Parker against Russell Westbrook. Dwyane Wade against Lance Stephenson.
The Heat and the Pacers represent the NBA’s best current rivalry, a series that promises to hold significant doses of contempt. The Spurs and the Thunder are quite intriguing as well.
San Antonio was far and away the best team in the league during the regular season with its machine-like offensive efficiency.
Oklahoma City, however, is the one team that consistently gives the Spurs problems. Westbrook in the past has overwhelmed Parker with his speed and athleticism. Durant has typically given San Antonio fits.
One wild card to this series: OKC power forward Serge Ibaka has been diagnosed with a calf injury and is expected to miss the remainder of the postseason. Without Ibaka, the Thunder will have little rim protection defensively and will need to play small with a lot of lineups.
How will that affect the series? Stay tuned.
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