Heat face improved and experienced Pacers team

USA TODAY Sports

The Heat defeated the Pacers in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals, and this year they'll match up in the Conference Finals. But how different is Indiana from last year?

Last season, the Miami Heat beat the Indiana Pacers 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals on their way to the NBA Championship. It was a tough, physical series covered with flagrants, technicals and suspensions. Now, they'll face each other with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.

But how different or similar are the Pacers from the team the Heat beat last year? Let's examine some important notes about the Pacers.

Danny Granger isn't playing
Danny Granger has been the Pacers leader since Reggie Miller retired. And this season has been one to forget for him, missing mostly every single game. Last year, Granger averaged 13.3 PPG in the series against the Heat. But it wasn't his scoring that made him important to the team, it was his leadership. He routinely tried to get under LeBron James' skin by getting in his face. Granger, although not a superstar, was a good player and without him the Pacers are less deep. They now have one less defender to rough up you know who. But his absence has opened the way for two surprising upstarts.

Lance Stephenson can play
There were two things that you would know Lance Stephenson for before this year. 1) Making a choke sign to LeBron as he missed a third quarter free throw and then being confronted by Juwan Howard about it. 2) Getting clotheslined by Dexter Pittman at the end of Game 5. Other than that, Stephenson was a bench player who didn't see much time. This year, Lance got nearly 30 minutes per game and has averaged 9.8 PPG in the playoffs. He has taken the starting role missed by Granger. His defense, intensity and passion are key to Indiana's success.

Stephenson isn't as talented offensively as Granger, but he doesn't have to be as good. Stephenson will be able to halt Dwyane Wade or LeBron, whichever assignment he gets and will make them work for every single basket. But one thing Lance is not superb at is his mind. He will make a bonehead play or two and do something that he isn't capable of doing.

Paul George is a star
With Granger out, Paul George has emerged as a star, making the All-Star team and playing at a high level. Last year, that was not George. This year, he has the confidence of his teammates, in himself, and of his coach. This year, George averaged 17.4 PPG and 7.6 RPG. The thing about George is that he rarely is the center of the Pacers' offense. Roy Hibbert and David West start the offense and Paul George feeds and finished off of them.

The Heat will need to learn how to slow George down, especially in Indiana as he can really get the crowd going. George creates a dynamic that Miami hasn't faced yet this postseason with a talented wing scorer, but it will focus-in LeBron James on defense and hopefully bring out the best of the team.

Notable Improvements
The Pacers changed their bench a bit. Still anchored by Tyler Hansbrough, the Pacers downgraded from Darren Collison to D.J. Augustin, who isn't much of a threat. But they did that in order to get their hands on Ian Mahinmi who can cause problems. Off the bench, Mahinmi can stretch the floor and be a big body to bang down low.

The Pacers as a team have also made improvements. This year, they moved to being the #1 rebounding team in the NBA, and the Heat finished last. They also improved to 2nd in defensive PPG.

Here's what we know: the Pacers are all geared up to play the Heat and they believe they can win. Miami will have to earn everything they get against the Pacers. It should be a teriffic series. But the Pacers are a different team than they were last year and nothing is guaranteed.

Heat
It should also be noted that the Heat are a different and better team with the additions of Chris Andersen and Ray Allen, as well as the growth of LeBron James. And of notable significance: Chris Bosh will play this series despite only playing 2 quarters of the Heat's 4-2 series win over the Pacers last season.

The Heat have lost 3 games in the last 15 weeks. To keep them from moving on, the Pacers have to beat the Heat 4 times in the next two weeks.

Make sure to tune in to Game 1 on Wednesday at 8:30pm & check back with Hot Hot Hoops for all your coverage.




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