Wednesday 13 December 2017 / 04:10 PM

Conference Finals Preview

The first two rounds of the 2014 NBA Playoffs were a whirlwind of awesomeness. Thrilling Game 7s, near-miss upsets, monster comebacks and all sorts of other dramas and side stories.

Now with the dust settled, the field has been whittled down to just four teams:

Western Conference: #1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #2 Oklahoma City Thunder

Eastern Conference: #1 Indiana Pacers vs. #2 Miami Heat

 

Boring and predictable, eh?

 

Not so fast.

Truth be told, this is just the fourth time in the history of the NBA (since the 16 team playoff format was implemented in 1984) that the top teams in both conferences made it to the Conference Finals.

The last time it happened was 2005, when Gregg Popovich’s second seeded Spurs knocked off the Phoenix Suns four games to one en route to a thrilling title win in seven over the Detroit Pistons.

And only once in the past 13 seasons have the top seeds from the East and West met in the Finals (2008 Boston vs. LA Lakers).

Our conference finalists may look predictable on paper, but the reality is that NBA fans are rarely treated to #1 vs. #2 showdowns. And so while I love shocking upsets just as much as the next guy, I can’t wait to see the top four squads from the regular season battle it out.

The rematch that we were all waiting for.

 

Last season the Pacers pushed the Heat to seven before losing the final and deciding game on the road. Ever since the 2013-14 campaign kicked off, fans knew there was a good possibility that George, Hibbert, and Stephenson would get a second crack at James, Bosh, and Wade. This time around, however, the series tie-breaker would be played in Indianapolis.

That being said, Indiana hasn’t played all that well at home in the playoffs. They gave up home court advantage to both the Hawks and the Wizards, bumbling through both series in less-than-convincing fashion.

But according to LeBron James, the Pacers’ late-season frustrations and lack of domination in the post-season are hardly precursors to an easy win for the Miami Heat.

“It’s the two best teams in the Eastern Conference,” James said. “It’s that simple. Both teams defend at a high level, both teams share the ball. Both teams get into the paint, and both teams have a desire to win.”

Indiana is the top seed for a reason, and that reason is because they’re an exceptionally good basketball team. Miami may have fewer losses in these playoffs (just one to the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3), but sometimes adversity can bring a team together and help them rise to the occasion.

According to Pacers’ guard Lance Stephenson, the challenges his team has endured will only push them to fight harder. “We worked so hard to get here,” Stephenson said. “The Hawks, the Wizards, they put us through a lot.”

What to expect from the Heat-Pacers series:

 

Over the past two seasons these two teams have split their 14 regular season games right down the middle, with the home team victorious in 12 of those contests. They know each other well, so in terms of Xs and Os there won’t be too many surprises out there on the court.

At the end of the day, if the Pacers hope to knock off the two-time defending champs they’ll need to do it by imposing their will on defense. When Roy Hibbert is playing his game, he does as good a job as anybody at slowing down King James, especially with help from Indiana’s other defensive master, Paul George.

And make no bones about it. Slowing down LeBron will be paramount for a team that’s not known for outscoring their opponents with spurts of offense. James is shooting 56% from the field and averaging 30 points and 7.1 rebounds in the playoffs. As the Pacers routinely score in the low 90s, they simply can’t afford to give up one third of their total to a single opposing player.

But disrupting Miami’s four-time MVP’s game can most certainly be filed into the “duh!” category of game strategies. If Indiana’s D flounders, this series will be over in five. What may be more interesting to watch is whether Indiana can reverse some of the offensive struggles they’ve faced this post-season.

During the playoffs, only Atlanta and Memphis were less efficient in half-court offense. Lance Stephenson will need to work for easy baskets in transition to help offset the Pacers’ woes in offensive sets.

But while fast breaks can provide quick buckets, an up-tempo game speed overall benefits the Heat. Look for Indiana to move the ball around the perimeter to control the clock and keep the game low scoring. This strategy will rely heavily on David West and other weak-side shooters to nail their shots from the wing. Hibbert will also need to be effective on the inside as he’s got the ability to get good looks down low when Indy’s offense can pass the ball around faster than Miami can rotate.

Second chances are also a great way to boost a struggling offense. Last year the Pacers excelled at grabbing offensive rebounds and turning them into quick and easy put-backs. This time around crashing the offensive boards has not been a strength. Finding a way to reverse this trend will not only help Indiana score more points, but more time of possession keeps the ball out of the hands of Miami’s dangerous playmakers.

For the Heat, the game plan is simple. Force the Pacers into turnovers and score in transition. Don’t force James to score too many points in half-court sets as Paul George excels at eluding picks and Hibbert’s presence down low has historically forced James to take 20% less shots in the paint than he’s accustomed to. In fact, we may see Miami play Chris Bosh at center to try and pull Hibbert away from the rim.

It’s really not rocket science for Erik Spoelstra’s squad. They’ve been the most dominant team of these playoffs and they’re the gambler’s favorite to win the series. All they’ll really need to do to win this series is not allow Indiana to dictate the pace of the game; when scores approach triple digits, the Pacers just can’t hang.

How the West will be won.

 

Two things are certain in Spurs-Thunder series: Kevin Durant will score tons of points, and Serge Ibaka will be a non-factor. Ibaka suffered a left calf injury against the Los Angeles Clippers, and he’s expected to miss the rest of the 2014 post-season.

Ibaka is averaging 12.2 points on 69-of-112 (.616) shooting from the field, 7.3 rebounds and over 2 blocks per night in thirteen post-season games. During the regular season, he notched career-highs with 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds, while leading the league in total blocks for the fourth consecutive (219).

In short, he’ll be missed.

But the road to an NBA championship is never without challenges to surmount, and so there’s not much else for the Thunder to do other than lace up their sneakers and move forward. Last season the loss of Westbrook proved to be OKC’s undoing, but as disappointing as it is to face another inopportune injury, the loss of Ibaka can be overcome.

You’ll hear a lot about how this series is a match-up of youth versus experience, but the Spurs proved in the Conference Semis that they’ve still got plenty of oomph left in the tank. Plus, OKC’s got plenty of deep playoff experience to hold their own.

Much ado was made about the Spurs’ aging roster when they faced off against a young and vibrant Blazers team in the second round. But even with a less than 100% healthy Tony Parker, San Antonio thumped Portland and squashed any doubts that analysts may have had about how much stamina is left in those old legs. Soon the old guard of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker will be ghosts of the past (they’re only under contract for one more season) but for now this team looks as strong as ever and is still hungry for another trophy.

Over the past two seasons the Thunder have enjoyed great success against the Spurs, winning 10 of the past 12 games. And of course you’ll remember the epic six-game stunner in the 2012 Western Conference Finals when OKC came from two games back to win four straight and win the series 4-2.

None of these facts mean anything, of course, as the playoffs are all about starting over with a fresh slate.

For the Spurs to be victorious they’ll need Tony Parker to run the transition game and attack the basket in the half-court offense. While the Spurs have a ton of shooters and a Hall-of-Famer in Tim Duncan, Parker is the glue that holds Popovich’s insanely deep roster together. He’s also their go-to guy in clutch situations. Should Parker’s hamstring flare up, the Thunder’s chances will drastically improve.

On the other side of the court the Thunder balk at the idea of needing a balanced attack on offense to be successful. More often than not, either the reigning MVP or Westbrook are called on to make a play. More often than not, they do.

Is Kevin Durant good enough to carry this team on his shoulders? Absolutely. He absolutely is. Kawhi Leonard has got his work cut out for him as he’ll be called on to do his best at slowing OKC’s scoring machine.

Predictions:

 

You can’t fault the Pacers for getting back to the Conference Finals come hell or high water, but in the end they beat two teams that they should have beat to get there and at times they looked downright awful. I’d like to see Indiana play a consistent series from start to finish, but I don’t see it happening. Miami in 6.

There’s no question that the Spurs are the better team. They’re deeper, more well-rounded, and are one of the best-coached teams of all time. But, this has been Kevin Durant’s year and when the going gets tough he’ll prove why he’s the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. Oklahoma City in 7.

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Michael Airhart

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