Heat, Pacers stumble into final meeting

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Both the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers have struggled mightily to close out the season. The two teams face Friday night in a game that could all but determine the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the East.

For much of the 2013-14 regular season, the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat were comfortably ahead of every other team in the Eastern Conference. It was widely assumed that those two teams would undoubtedly meet in the conference finals. And while it is still likely that we'll see an Eastern Conference Finals rematch this year, both teams have played unevenly to close out the regular season. The Heat briefly took ahold of the top seed, but lost it Wednesday night after losing to the Memphis Grizzlies and seeing an Indiana Pacers team that rested its entire starting five squeak by the lowly Milwaukee Bucks.

This marquee matchup will therefore come between a rested Pacers team with a wounded Heat team. The question for Miami is how wounded. It would certainly be a welcome sight to simply see Dwyane Wade put on a uniform and play after sustaining his hamstring injury in his last meeting with the Pacers. He nearly played both against Brooklyn and Memphis -- two close losses that have ended up costing Miami dearly in the standings. In Miami's only win against Indiana this season in December, Wade scored 32 points and looked especially spry. Hopefully Wade will be back and healthy Friday.

But it's not just Wade. If the Greg Oden experiment can come to anything, he must at least show that he can effectively defend Roy Hibbert (without fouling) for stretches. Chris Andersen also missed the Heat's loss to the Grizzlies Wednesday night, and he is a crucial part of this team. Erik Spoelstra may again use a lineup of Wade, Ray Allen, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Andersen to close out the game. And Udonis Haslem, who has recently seen a revival of sorts and emerged back in the rotation, was also out against Memphis.

The Pacers came into the season wanting to grab home court advantage throughout the first three playoff rounds. A series of missteps for both teams have allowed neither squad to pull ahead. The Heat have a chance to deliver a psychological blow to Indiana in the midst of a tough stretch right before the playoffs. Even if it means a tougher second-round series, Miami will take it.

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