The Indiana Pacers have quickly shed the dark horse label and have now become a serious threat to win it all.
The Eastern Conference has belonged to the Miami Heat the last two years, though, and if the Pacers want to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June, chances are they'll have to get past the Heat.
In the 2012 playoffs, the Heat eliminated the Pacers by winning three consecutive games after being down 2-1. If that series showed anything, it was that the Pacers could play with the best of them. After all, they put up a great fight against the eventual champions.
The Pacers have since improved, most notably is the emergence of first time All-Star forward Paul George. He has taken on the scoring load with the absence of Danny Granger and has become a leader for the team.
The Pacers have put themselves in a position to win the title, and overcoming the Heat is more than a realistic possibility.
Let's look at a few of the advantages Indiana has over Miami.
Against a Miami team that ranks dead last in rebounding and is the only team that fails to average at least 40 rebounds per game, the Pacers have more than a clear edge in this category.
They've shown it on the court, too. In their two meetings this season, the Pacers have won the rebounding battle against the Heat 55-36 in their first game (including 22 offensive rebounds by the Pacers).
In their second contest, the Pacers continued the trend, winning 34-25 on the boards.
If the Pacers can continue rebounding at a high rate, it could be a deciding factor should these two teams face off in the playoffs.
The Pacers are tied for first in the league in points allowed per game, but what stands out the most is that they hold teams to just 45 percent effective shooting (first in the league). They also have the best defensive efficiency in the NBA, holding teams to just under 96 points per 100 possessions (according to Team Rankings).
Indiana has been able to contain Miami's explosive offense, holding them to just 77 and 89 points in their two meetings so far. Both scoring outputs are well below the Heat's average of 102.8 points per game.
Apart from being a great defensive team collectively, they have great one-on-one defenders. Hibbert, George and West all have a defensive rating of 98 or lower, all falling inside the top 11 in the league (per basketball-reference).
This allows them to match up well against the Miami's best. George played very well against Dwyane Wade in their second contest, holding him to just 17 points on 7-for-16 shooting. Hibbert has fared very well against Bosh, holding him to a total of 27 points across both games.
They've allowed LeBron James to get whatever he wants, but they've done a great job on everybody else, and that's what they'll have to do against them in the playoffs.
Frontcourt and Bench
The Pacers have a big advantage up front with Hibbert and West. In their last meeting, West dominated Miami's frontcourt, scoring 30 points on 12-for-15 shooting.
Overall, Hibbert and West have outscored Bosh and Haslem 57-31 and out-rebounded them 38-14 in their two games.
The bench play has also played a big role. Miami's bench has been a non-factor against Indiana, posting a combined 28 points in the two games to Indiana's 48.
The Pacers' depth is another thing Miami has to worry about. The Heat have been unable to get any production from their second unit, mostly due to Indiana's defense, but the Heat haven't fared well when both teams' benches are on the floor.
Once Granger is back in the lineup, Lance Stephenson will be a great asset off the bench, and could be an even bigger problem if Miami's bench players don't defend him well.
Indiana has done a good job focusing on the players around LeBron and not letting them get into rhythm. Defensively, the Pacers will make the Heat struggle, and nine times out of 10, they'll also win the rebounding battle.
Whether or not the Pacers can beat the Heat in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but it's definitely a possibility.
Indiana has fared extremely well against Miami so far, and if they can carry that success into the playoffs, they could very well be the East representatives in the NBA Finals.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!