The Miami Heat's fourth straight Eastern Conference crown is on the line. Can they bounce back from a loss in Game 5 and punch their ticket to another NBA Finals? Or will we get repeat performances from Lance Stephenson and Paul George? Our panel breaks down Game 6 (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
1. Lance Stephenson's antics: funny or "buffoonery"?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Hilarious! The Ear Blow Heard 'Round the World was all in good fun, the type of annoyance and subtle "getting under the skin" tactic that Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman was famous for. We've become so twisted as a society that if Stephenson clotheslined LeBron in transition, we'd applaud it as a "good, hard foul." But if he blows in his ear, the world stops in outrage!
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: Can it be buffunny? Because it's clearly ridiculous behavior that is hard to argue passes the boundaries of professionalism, but it is equally hilarious. At least the ear blowing is. Joining Heat huddles is just annoying. And sticking his foot under a jump-shooting LeBron, as has been suggested he did in Game 5, is flat-out dangerous.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: Funny! When it happened, I couldn't believe what I was watching. Not out of outrage but because of the pure comedy. Sure, if I were a member of the Heat, I'd throw it in the "buffoonery" category. But I'm not. We'll be talking about that one for years.
Jared Wade, Special to ESPN.com: Both. The flopping is egregious, embarrassing and takes him out of plays. Sneaking into a huddle is considered "savvy" when guys such as Jason Kidd do it, so nothing wrong there. The ear thing was silly and thus funny for us watching, but it is closer to J.R. Smith untying sneakers than competitiveness, and it is probably costing him money in free agency. That crosses a line into the type of stupidity nobody wants to be associated with.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Neither. It's total playground material. Considering the reaction the past two days, you would have thought Lance had committed a first-degree felony on the court. It was a harmless tactic to throw LeBron off his game. The antic was inappropriate, but so was using the term "buffoonery" to describe it.
2. Paul George's heroics: signal or noise?
Elhassan: Signal, in the sense that Stephenson guarding LeBron allowed George to conserve some of the massive amounts of energy he was exerting on defense, and divert them to the offensive end. George's shot selection isn't always the most efficient, and his limited handle prevents him from being able to consistently attack the rim. But freeing him from the burden of guarding the best player in basketball allows him to focus more on scoring, which Indiana desperately needs.
Gutierrez: Noise, unless he does it again. It's hard to predict another heroic performance from George when he's been so inconsistent these past two rounds. But he did have 23 points on 8-for-16 shooting in Game 4 in Miami, then the brilliant 37 in Game 5. So it's possible he's heating up at the right time. But he's a Pacer, so predictability isn't a strength.
Haberstroh: Noise. Dwyane Wade blanketed George on most of those jumpers, and he hit eight of his 11 attempts on Wade. That's not sustainable; I don't care who you are. George is an amazing player, but heroics are unlikely. That's why they're called heroics.
Wade: Signal. He has had a few similar moments this season, hitting huge 3s in a valiant loss to the Blazers, making a four-point play to send a game versus the Kings into OT and drawing three free throws on a game-winning attempt against the Knicks. He also hit a game-tying 3 to send Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals into overtime. Late-game heroics are becoming common for PG.
Wallace: Signal. We've always known that George has superstar potential. What he lacks is superstar consistency. He responded with a desperate performance in Game 5, but it will be tough to duplicate on the road in Game 6. Still, I expect George to deliver a strong effort with his season at stake.
3. What's the key to Game 6 for the Heat?
Elhassan: Ratchet up the pressure and force the Pacers to turn it over. Indiana has turned the ball over in 17 percent of its possessions in the three losses to Miami this series, and the threat of the live turnover (and Miami's brilliance in capitalizing on them) makes Indiana more hesitant in throwing long passes, allowing the Heat to in turn be more aggressive fronting the post and playing help D.
Gutierrez: Pace and possession. The Heat would prefer not to be in a slugfest, making for a tight finish. But most importantly, the Heat need the ball, so turnovers have to be limited. Another 17-turnover performance like Wednesday night and this thing could easily go back to Indiana for Game 7.
Haberstroh: Make sure LeBron James gets to the arena. After that, they should be all set. James has fresh legs, motivation and an anxious home crowd. As long as he's suited up, they'll be in good hands. An engaged LeBron is the scariest LeBron.
Wade: Forcing turnovers. Indiana thrives when comfortable. The Pacers turned the ball over just twice in the second half in Game 5 after coughing it up 11 times in the first two quarters, and it is no coincidence that they outscored Miami 60-48 after halftime. We saw similar results in Game 1 when Miami's defense was lethargic and Indiana operated without heavy resistance. If the Heat can turn the Pacers over consistently, they should move on to the Finals.
Wallace: Attack the basket. The Heat took just eight free throws in Game 5, mainly because, as coach Erik Spoelstra said, their "main attacker" was on the bench saddled with foul trouble. If Miami gets back to being aggressive and less willing to settle for 3-pointers, it puts plenty of pressure on the Pacers and puts the Heat on course for a fourth straight trip to the Finals.
4. What's the key to Game 6 for the Pacers?
Elhassan: Attack the offensive glass. Miami's small lineups leave the Heat susceptible on the defensive boards, and Indiana holds a decided size advantage. In last year's playoffs, offensive rebounding was almost a source of offensive production for the Pacers, as they would miss shots to get easy tap-ins and putbacks. That hasn't happened as much this year, and they need to go back to it.
Gutierrez: Make shots. Whether it's in the paint, which would mean Roy Hibbert and David West are properly involved, or from the perimeter, which is what won them Game 5, the Pacers are probably going to need to score in the mid-90s or higher to win this one. And keeping the Heat off the foul line would help, too.
Haberstroh: Roy Hibbert. He's the antidote to the Heat's attack. He's holding opponents to just 41 percent shooting near the rim when he's nearby this postseason. Against a team that preys on the basket like piranhas, Hibbert is essential. A confident Hibbert is their only hope against a motivated LeBron.
Wade: Defense. They have spent years building up their identity as a defensive powerhouse. Now it's time to show it isn't just a reputation. Indiana can live with LeBron or Wade going off, but the Pacers must defend the 3-point line and make sure players such as Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis don't beat them.
Wallace: Weathering Miami's early storm. Considering how the last game played out, the Heat are determined to start fast and deliver a knockout blow to crush Indiana's confidence early. If the Pacers can avoid racking up early fouls and stay within striking distance midway through the fourth quarter, all of the pressure shifts to the Heat.
5. Who wins Game 6?
Elhassan: Heat. They're at home, and they've been consistently better for most of the series.
Gutierrez: Heat. If ear blowing and foul trouble from Game 5 isn't enough to bring out a motivated, beastly LeBron, the idea of reaching a fourth straight Finals via one single home win certainly would be. Expect a masterful performance from, as George put it Wednesday, "the smartest player in this league."
Haberstroh: Heat. Call it good ol' home cooking. If you told Pacers fans in March that they'd push the Heat to six games in the Eastern Conference finals, they'd take it every night and twice on Sunday.
Wade: The Pacers. Maybe. Who knows. But I miss all the Game 7s of the first round, so let's have one more of those.
Wallace: Heat. They are 9-0 in home closeout games since James, Wade and Chris Bosh became teammates in 2010. Yes, the Pacers are essentially playing with house money at this point, which should make them loose and dangerous. But Miami hasn't made a habit of squandering these opportunities with so much at stake.