(Reuters) - LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat have rolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs and now face the familiar, but unpredictable, Indiana Pacers as the last hurdle to another NBA Finals.
Miami, who have lost one game this postseason, are looking to become the first team to win three straight NBA titles since the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000s, but the brawny Pacers could present a challenge.
Indiana will host Miami in Sunday’s opener of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals by virtue of finishing first overall in the East with a 56-26 record, two games ahead of the second-place Heat.
But which Pacers team shows up at Bankers Life Fieldhouse is the question after a regular season that saw Indiana soar to lofty heights only to sputter at the end of the campaign.
Indiana, who last year pushed the Heat to seven games in a grueling East Final, looked like world beaters for much of the season as smooth forward Paul George, a dogged defender with a silky jump shot, raised his game.
They charged out to a 46-13 mark, yet turned lackluster toward the finish, losing 13 of their last 23 games and then struggled to beat the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in seven games in their opening playoff series.
Rumors swirled about Frank Vogel’s future as coach as the imposing Roy Hibbert went into a funk and seemed to disappear, quite a trick for a 7-foot-2 (2.18 m) center.
Hibbert, who averaged 22 points in last year’s bruising playoff series against Miami and their smaller front line, was held scoreless in two games and averaged a mere five points a game in the Atlanta series.
The big center came back to life with 28 points in a Game Two win in Indiana’s six-game series triumph over the Washington Wizards in the second round.
The younger, deeper Pacers will need more of that kind of performance to end the run by the Heat, whose leading man James is averaging 30 points a game in the playoffs including a 49-point outburst against the Brooklyn Nets in round two.
“We’ve been through a lot,” veteran Pacers forward David West said after scoring a game-high 29 points in their series clinching win over the Wizards on Thursday.
”This group has stayed strong. We trusted in one another even when we had some internal turmoil.
“It’s only going to get tougher. We’ve been talking about this series all year,” West said about getting another crack at Miami. “We’re going to need everything from everybody.”
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue