The highly anticipated matchup between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers is finally here. Before the rivals square off in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals (Sunday, 3:30 ET on ABC, ESPN Radio), our panel of experts examines the showdown.
1. Fact or Fiction: Roy Hibbert is back.
Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: I'd lean fiction, based on the belief that "fact" would mean he won't completely disappear for a game or two. No doubt he's made significant progress since a disastrous April, but I think his continuing fragility was on display in his Game 5 no-show versus Washington. I would expect him to be targeted by Miami, and if they can get to him early, then he could very well regress.
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: Faction. He's back in the Eastern Conference finals. He's back to playing against the team that tends to make him look good. But that doesn't mean he's back to the guy who averaged 39-plus minutes, 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds like he did in last season's ECF. He'll be a factor, just not that kind of factor.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: Fact. Typically we think of a player being "back" on the offensive end, but he never left defensively. Opponents are shooting a ghastly 34 percent at the rim when he's nearby. That's Roy Hibbert at his finest. Offensively, he'll get his against Miami. He always does.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Fact. But let's not act as if Hibbert was Hakeem Olajuwon to begin with. He's an awkward, 7-foot-2 center who isn't exactly athletic or extremely coordinated. But Hibbert knows who he is and what he's expected to bring against the Heat. This opponent has been like an elixir for Hibbert, who tends to rediscover his dominance for stretches on both ends of the court against Miami.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Fiction. Back schmack as David Stern would say. He does appear to be out of the depths of the slump that enveloped him earlier in the playoffs. But to really be "back" against the Heat means bringing those 20/10 performances he did in last season's Conference finals. That's what the Pacers really need, and I'm not sure Hibbert has it.
2. Fact or Fiction: Miami is a better team than last year.
Donahue: Fiction, but barely. LeBron is as good as ever, and Chris Bosh is terminally undervalued, but most of the other players are showing understandable wear and tear of their experience. They are all capable of making key contributions, but they have to ration it a little more. It may not matter until the Finals, though, as the Pacers have taken a definite step backward from the level at which they were playing last May.
Gutierrez: Fiction. The idea was a healthier Dwyane Wade and a deeper bench (Michael Beasley and Greg Oden) would make Miami better at this point in the year. But that depth hasn't developed as planned, and Wade's relative health has only made up for a decline in other places (Shane Battier and point guard play). So they feel very similar to last year, but not better.
Haberstroh: Fiction. They're the same. Is that a cop out? LeBron's transcendent. Dwyane Wade's limited. Bosh is stretchy good. Birdman flies. And the rest of the bench is on their last legs. Michael Beasley and Greg Oden haven't changed the equation.
Wallace: Fiction. The Heat are a year older, the supporting cast is less reliable, and the depth isn't quite what it was, although coach Erik Spoelstra has been willing to tweak his rotation on a whim. Defensively, there has been a drop-off with this year's Heat team and the continuity just isn't what it was when Miami was at its peak form a year ago. That said, this team is healthier at this point in the playoffs than it was last year.
Windhorst: Fiction. This is its thinnest team in three years both in terms of depth and consistency. I would go down the list, but just consider that no player on the roster is currently playing better than he was a year ago except for LeBron, who is having the best shooting playoffs of his career. But the Heat do have tremendous faith in their system and collectively they're still very potent.
3. What's the key to this series for the Pacers?
Donahue: Winning the first two at home. They've wasted little time giving away their home-court advantage in each of the first two rounds, but doing it against Miami will not be survivable. In an evenly matched series, the value of home-court advantage isn't that you don't have to win on the road ... it's that you don't have to win twice. I don't think this series is evenly matched, so the Pacers will have to find a way to be home-court dominant again.
Gutierrez: Pace and 3-point defense. If the Pacers minimize the total number of possessions for Miami and contest 3s well, the Heat will be playing Indiana basketball, and that would give the Pacers a significant edge.
Haberstroh: Taking away what the Heat want. That's 3-pointers and rim buckets. And good news for the Pacers: That's what their defense does well. This is what makes this series so compelling. Strength against strength.
Wallace: Establishing Hibbert and getting a steady dose of production and maturity from Lance Stephenson. Those two players are the true wild cards in this series for the Pacers. Miami simply doesn't have an answer for Hibbert when he's on his game, and Stephenson is a triple-double threat when engaged and poised. If they play well and the Pacers defend their turf at home, they have a legit shot to reach the Finals.
Windhorst: Hibbert. They need him to be a force at both ends on a regular basis. This means the Heat must be forced to change their preferred styles to deal with him. This happened last season in the playoffs -- Hibbert was a defining player in that series. He was the reason it got to seven games.
4. What's the key to this series for the Heat?
Donahue: They need to turn the Pacers over like hotcakes. The games Miami wins will almost certainly feature a spurt much like we saw in the third quarter on April 11. When any team pressures the Pacers, they can come apart -- see Game 5 of the Washington series. Miami may be better at this than anyone, and it's the best way to get a squirrelly team like the Pacers rattling around their own heads.
Gutierrez: Pace and rebounding. Miami wants to speed up the game, force Indiana to defend often and play faster, potentially fatiguing that defense. And while Miami doesn't have to "win" the rebounding battle, the Heat can't get trounced in that department, giving Indy too many extra possessions.
Haberstroh: Can Ray Allen, Chris Bosh, James Jones and Mario Chalmers hit enough 3s to compensate for the lack of easy shots at the rim. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade need some driving lanes. Three-point shooters will clear the path.
Wallace: Three-point shooting. The health of Dwyane Wade is always the biggest key for the Heat. But beyond that, they have to get to their game and stretch the floor by knocking down 3-pointers. That means the onus is on Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Chris Bosh and Shane Battier. If they get hot from deep, then Indiana will be forced to adjust to Miami's style and pace as opposed to the other way around.
Windhorst: They need to find more balance and consistency. Their playoff record is sparkling, but they haven't been trending well, they're more reliant on James, they're game is migrating away from the paint more than is optimal and the defense has been picky. They need a more even effort; this is a better opponent.
5. Who wins the series?
Donahue: Miami in 5. The Pacers have yet to win a Game 1 on their home floor, but they have had the luxury of playing against the mediocre Hawks and the not-ready-for-prime-time Wizards. Indiana wasn't ready for those guys, so it's difficult to see them handling this huge leap in quality of opponent well. I think Miami gets Game 1, then holds serve in South Beach, and this rattling, wheezing Pacers season finally ends in Game 5.
Gutierrez: Miami in six.
Haberstroh: Miami in 7. LeBron James is healthy, but he won't look it against Indiana. This is going to be a throwback '90s bloodbath.
Wallace: Heat in 7. This is the Pacers' best shot at unseating the Heat. They have everything they need to get it done. But Miami is healthy and is as mentally strong as this team has been since LeBron James arrived. I've got it essentially a toss-up, but the Heat get a slight edge because of their experience and stability.
Windhorst: Miami in 6.