Pacers-Heat vs. Spurs-Thunder

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Of the 30 NBA teams, 29 reside in the U.S. while the Toronto Raptors are, obviously, from Canada. The 2013-14 season started last Oct. 29. Now, seven months later, it’s down to the last four.

It’s No.1 vs. No.2, in both conferences. This hasn’t happened since 2005 — when the top four seeds advanced. In fact, during the first round last month when five of the eight match-ups reached Game 7, we thought there’d be some upsets; but no, the best squads advanced.

LeBron James. Is there any doubt who’s the best? Ha-ha. Yes. There’s Kevin Durant, the undisputed MVP. But when the Playoffs arrive, nobody rises higher to the expectations than Miami’s No. 6. In the first two rounds, the Heat scored 8-1. And this was the Florida-based team that was criticized for being weaker than their previous two years? “On the outside, there’s more doubt,” said Udonis Haslem. Well, after compiling a 54-game winning record in the regular season (12 less than last year), it’s understandable for fans to be insecure. But there’s no one more secure than the South Beach players. “Within here,” adds Haslem, “we’re still confident in one another. We still know what we can do.”

It’s a rematch. Pacers-Heat. During this time 12 months ago, they reached Game 7. Twenty four months ago, Indiana led Miami in the playoffs, 2-1. But they couldn’t overtake Dwayne Wade’s team. Now it’s different. Why? Right after their Game 7 loss last year, Pacers coach Frank Vogel huddled his downtrodden players and vowed to accomplish a mission: grab the No. 1 seed and gain that home-court edge over the Heat. Mission accomplished. Will their goal to “Beat The Heat” be realized in the coming weeks?

Let’s see. What we can foresee is another nail-biting series. With games 1, 2, 5 and 7 to be held at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, this changes the dynamics of the contest. The question is: Which Pacers will show up? At the start, they won 16 of 17 games. Unbeatable, the journalists proclaimed. But in the end, they sputtered, closing on a 10-13 collapse and barely escaping Atlanta in the first round.

Miami is great, that’s a given. This is NBA’s version of “The Avengers.” If Indiana, led by the erratic plays of Paul George and Roy Hibbert, don’t elevate their game, it will be a routine six-game-series win for the two-time defending champs.

“In their fourth season together, the Heat know exactly who they are,” wrote John Schumann in an NBA.com piece. “They have the best player in the league, who draws the attention of the entire defense. He doesn’t force anything and he trusts his teammates. As a group, they take what the defense gives them. More importantly, the Heat don’t panic. And when you have talent, teamwork and resolve, you win big games.”

That’s in the East. Over at the West, it’s a repeat of the 2012 confrontation. It’s Tony Parker vs. Russell Westbrook; Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant. “The Spurs don’t make mistakes and instead capitalize on their opponents’ all the time,” said Adi Joseph of USA Today. “They will look to divide and conquer, forcing Westbrook and Durant onto islands without help scoring while attacking the Thunder’s inconsistent role players on both ends.” He believes that’s the key for San Antonio, who have the home-court advantage. Plus, Serge Ibaka is injured.

Still, Oklahoma has to be confident, having passed two tough rounds against Memphis (4-3) and the Clippers (4-2), including the distractions swirling around racist Donald Sterling.

“Durant and Westbrook are two of the five-or-so best players in the world,” said Adi Joseph, this time arguing in behalf of the Thunder. “No one on the Spurs can match them individually, and Leonard is the only player on the team with hopes of defending either one-on-one. The Spurs have struggled against elite athleticism this season, and the Thunder are chockful of that.” As evidence of the Spurs’ struggles, they lost all four regular season games against Durant & Co.

In all, this will be another amazing few weeks for the NBA whose slogan reads, “Where Amazing Happens.”

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