No. 1 INDIANA (56-26 regular season, 8-5 in playoffs)
vs. No. 2 MIAMI (54-28, 8-1)
Season series: Tied, 2-2. The home teams held serve in each of the four meetings between the teams with the best records in the conference. The first three games of the series were decided by a total of 10 points before the Heat blew out the Pacers on April 11 to briefly move ahead of Indiana in the standings. Roy Hibbert was his enigmatic self in the series, averaging 22.5 points in Pacers wins and 5.5 points in the two losses. LeBron James averaged 28.8 points in the series, including 38 and 36 in the final two meetings.
Story line: This is a series everyone has been waiting for. The teams seemed destined for an Eastern Conference finals rematch after the Heat beat the Pacers in seven games last year en route to their second straight title. The Pacers surged out of the gates when this season opened, but staggered down the stretch and looked sloppy for long stretches of their first two rounds against Atlanta and Washington. The Heat took a more measured approach to the season and dispatched the Bobcats and Nets with ease in the playoffs.
Key matchup I: Hibbert vs. Heat frontcourt. The Pacers big man has been a mystery for most of the last two months, but he does have the size to give the Heat trouble in the paint. If he plays with the aggressiveness and confidence that he did in Indiana’s two wins in the regular season, the Pacers will have a chance. If not, it could be a quick series.
Key matchup II: Heat’s poise vs. Pacers’ volatility. The Pacers can look like confident world-beaters one night and a disjointed team falling apart the next, a sign of a group that is still getting used to life in the spotlight. The veteran Heat have lived in the headlines going on four years now and rarely get rattled, which serves them well during a long playoff series.
X-factor: Dwyane Wade. The Heat guard missed 28 games in the regular season for injuries or rest, all with an eye toward being ready for this series. He’s averaging 17.9 points on 50 percent shooting in the postseason, including 28 in the clinching victory over Brooklyn in the semifinals.
Prediction: Heat in 6.
No. 1 SAN ANTONIO (62-20, 8-4)
vs. No. 2 OKLAHOMA CITY (59-23, 8-5)
Season series: Oklahoma City won 4-0. Both teams were missing key players at different points of the season series, so it’s hard to draw too many conclusions. But the Thunder’s athleticism certainly stood out. OKC grabbed 23 more rebounds in the four games and had an average margin of victory of 9.3 points.
Story line: The rematch. These teams, which have been the most consistently successful squads in the West over the last five seasons, squared off in the 2012 conference finals. The Spurs jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but OKC ripped off four wins in a row before losing to Miami in the NBA Finals. All told, the Thunder have won 10 of the last 12 against the Spurs, bringing the latest in a long line of doubts about San Antonio’s ability to stay on top.
Key matchup I: Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard. The league’s MVP meets one of the NBA’s rising young stars in Leonard, the unflappable third-year swingman who relishes a challenge. The 6-foot-7 Leonard will be asked to defend one of the most unguardable players in the league, but he has had some success against Durant in the past.
Key matchup II: Gregg Popovich vs. Scott Brooks. Popovich has won coach of the year honors two of the last three seasons. and is widely considered the game’s best coach. All Brooks has done is win at least 50 games in four of the last five years and lead the Thunder to the finals in 2012. But he is often criticized when the offense stagnates and could still be on the hot seat if Oklahoma City falls short this season.
X-factor: Reggie Jackson. The Thunder guard averaged 21.3 points on 68 percent shooting against San Antonio in the regular season. “If anybody watched our games, they watched Reggie Jackson basically be the Spur killer every time we play them.” — Popovich.
Prediction: Spurs in 7.