NBA Round Two Review, Round Three Preview

Posted: 05/18/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

How amazing is it that, after all the panic about the Pacers and after both the Spurs and Thunder were nearly eliminated in a first round series, the final four is exactly what we thought it would be before the season? It’s a reminder that in the end, the better team usually wins an NBA best of seven series. That’s among the major differences between it and the NHL, where “parity”- an overused word in sports- is greater and any given team can lose any given series. I think there are a few reasons for the difference between the NBA playoffs and NHL playoffs. The first is that, in hockey, for all a team’s talent, the most important player in every single game is the goalie. Period. That makes is a lot easier for an underdog with a hot goalie to upset a favorite. Secondly, basketball’s stars simply play a lot more often than hockey’s stars. Kevin Durant, for example, is averaging 44.5 minutes per game, or close to 90% of all available minutes when factoring in overtime games. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, the best player in hockey, was at 21:19 of ice time per game in his two series’. When factoring in overtime, that’s just 34% of available minutes. Hockey’s simply the more tiring sport, so the stars have to sit longer, which means the more talented teams are without their best players more often. Just imagine the Thunder playing Kevin Durant a third of the time rather than nine tenths. Would the Thunder be in this position? Definitely not. Same goes for any number of star players, from LeBron James to Paul George to Russell Westbrook and so on. It’s simply harder to pull off an upset in basketball than it is in hockey. Anyway, we get the two series we were expecting and hoping for as the season kicked off. The problem is that what has led to these two matchups have really dampened my, and other people’s for that matter, expectations. In the East, Miami has been very good, if not the same caliber that they were last year. The problem is that the rest of the East, Pacers included, is much weaker than it was last season. We’re at the point where the only team we can compare the Heat to is previous Heat teams. That’s a problem. Whereas up until the all-star break the Pacers seemed likely to challenge the Heat, since then they have imploded. The fact that they have made it this far says less about them and more about the teams they have faced and the overall quality of the East. Would the Pacers have made it out of the first round in the Western Conference? I doubt it. I think they’d have lost to any of the top nine teams in the West, which includes lottery-bound Phoenix. Instead, the Pacers struggled to the Eastern Conference final, where they now have a chance to do what they wanted to do all along. They don’t deserve the shot at the Heat, but the conference’s are unfair that way.
Meanwhile, in the West the Spurs are the ones who are now humming along, much like they did last season. After being taken to seven games against the Mavericks in the first round, I jumped off the bandwagon, as I’ve done way too many times when it has come to the Spurs. They promptly dismantled the Trailblazers, sending them home after five short games. And the other series in the West, between the Clippers and Thunder, which I thought had the potential to be the most exciting series in the playoffs, disappointed. It went six generally close games, but there was a lot of sloppy play and some mistakes, a lot of which probably had to do with what was happening off the court in the Donald Sterling fiasco. It’s a shame that the Sterling thing ended up affecting the actual play, but I think that’s exactly what it did. And then, just as the Thunder were wrapping up a run in the fourth quarter of game six to put the Clippers away and looking ahead to the Spurs, we learned that Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s clear-cut third best player, would miss the rest of the playoffs. It’s a huge blow, and one that greatly lessens OKC’s chance at beating the Spurs.
What we’re left with are two series’ with clear favorites. If everything goes according to plan, we will see a repeat of last season’s NBA finals. That would probably be great, and many people want it to happen, but I’d rather see some fresh blood competing for the championship. Even after the Thunder’s loss of Ibaka and the Pacers’ recent poor play, can either of the favorites be upset in the Conference finals?

Indiana Pacers vs Miami Heat: You can see it happening, can’t you. I know I can. “Pacers Band Together, Cool Heat” or other unimaginative headlines in that vain could be appearing across the nation in a week or two. It makes sense.. kind of. The team rolls through the first half of the season, loses focus, struggles through the rest of the season and first two rounds of the playoffs before banding together. This is the team they’ve wanted another shot at beating all season, after all. This is the team they were meant to match up well against and eventually topple. And, believe it or not, the Pacers actually have home court advantage. Had they been gifted that last season as they were this year (Miami seemed to be avoiding the #1 seed by design), they might have gotten over the proverbial hump last season. Then again, maybe not. Miami’s not scared of playing on the road. Anyway, back to the Pacers fairytale story. Roy Hibbert regains his confidence and destroys Chris Bosh and the Heat, who have no answer for Hibbert’s height, on the boards. Paul George plays his heart out and nearly matches LeBron. Lance Stephenson tears a hobbled Dwyane Wade to shreds on the fast break. And David West has seven straight field days against suspect interior and mid range defending. The Pacers, 5-0 after a loss so far in the playoffs, send the mighty Heat, who don’t have the depth they had last year, packing in game seven in their own packed arena.

That would all be great. I just don’t think it’s likely to happen. I don’t believe that a team can be so mediocre- and let’s face it, that’s a kind word to bestow upon the Pacers after their 20-18 run since the beginning of March- through two playoff series and just turn it on in their third. After going an NBA-leading 35-6 at home in the regular season, they’ve struggled to a 3-4 home record in the playoffs, including that 102-79 embarrassment in game five against the Wizards, who outrebounded Hibbert and the Pacers by a resounding 62-23. Never have I seen a margin so large in a playoff game. The Pacers just don’t have going what they need to have going to beat the Heat. Hibbert, their main matchup advantage, is discouraged and doesn’t believe in himself. He’s averaging 8.5 points and 4.5 rebounds this postseason. The offensive rebounding, which was so key in forcing last year’s Heat powerhouse to seven games, was mediocre in the regular season and worse in the playoffs.

On the other side, the Miami Heat are not flawless. Again, this team is worse than it was last year. Ray Allen and Shane Battier in particular were huge assets deep into last year’s postseason but have looked way over the hill for most of this season. Mike Miller is gone. Dwyane Wade is probably good for one explosion a series, as opposed to two or three last year. LeBron James has had to take more and more of the scoring responsibility, and for the first time in perhaps his entire career, he has looked tired on many occasions. The Heat are coming off back-to-back championships, but do you really think we’d be saying that if Derrick Rose had been healthy the past two years? This isn’t a dominant Heat team, and I don’t want anyone to think otherwise.

In the end, the Miami Heat have LeBron James, and the Indiana Pacers do not. Can the Pacers, who are just 8-5 this postseason against mediocre opposition, turn it around and shock Miami? It’s possible, but I doubt it. I like the Heat in 6.

San Antonio Spurs vs Oklahoma City Thunder: Why do I resent the Spurs? That’s a viable question, because this is the most well run and classiest organization around. It’s the NBA’s outlier: every other team has their upswings (well, maybe not some teams) and definitely their downswings. Except for the Spurs, who are great every single year. In the end, that’s probably why I resent the Spurs. They just win too much. Many signs point to them winning again here: the main one is that Ibaka is out, which should both enable Tim Duncan to get his patented shot off much more easily and allow Tony Parker to drive to the rim without as much hindrance. Ibaka has been a nightmare for the Spurs to defend, with his potent mid range shot and newly developed ability to hit a three point shot. That stretches Duncan and Tiago Splitter in a way that they are not accustomed to being stretched. Luckily for the Spurs’ big men, they won’t have to deal with Ibaka this time around.

I wouldn’t count the Thunder out, though. They have been a notoriously bad matchup for the Spurs, sweeping them this year and winning 10 of their last 12 meetings dating back to the 2012 playoffs. Some of that is negated by Ibaka’s injury, but the Thunder do still have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and the Spurs still have no answer for those two.

That, however, is basically all the defense I can find in picking the Thunder. For me, it’s enough, but I’ll get to that later. The Spurs simply have the next eight best players after OKC’s big two. That’s a problem. Also a problem is the fact that the Thunder are down to three big men, one of whom is named Kendrick Perkins. The other two are Nick Collison and Steven Adams. I like Nick Collison and Steven Adams, but the problem with those three is that they provide no offensive threat. The other problem is that those three, with Perkins included in this, nearly always get into foul trouble. On a team with Serge Ibaka, that’s not a huge problem. On a team without Serge Ibaka, that means Hasheem Thabeet might get some playing time. In the playoffs. That’s a huge problem. The Thunder’s best bet might be going small against Duncan and Splitter and rolling with a lineup of Reggie Jackson, Westbrook, Caron Butler, Durant, and Adams. You have your slashers, shooters, and big time enforcer (Adams) in that lineup. Of course, Scott Brooks loves playing Kendrick Perkins, so that kind of starting five will never happen, but I think it would be OKC’s best bet.

I’m picking the upset. I know I’ll probably be wrong, but I just can’t help it. Westbrook and Durant need to be amazing, and I think they will be. I also think someone who’s not getting a lot of recognition right now will step up. Whether that’s HASHEEM or Jeremy Lamb or Adams or Collison or someone else, I don’t know. It’s going to be someone though. I think the Thunder continue their dominance over San Antonio and shock the Spurs in game 7 in San Antonio. Yup, that’s the second straight time I’ve picked the Spurs to lose game seven on their home court. It didn’t work well the first time, and it probably won’t this time around, but oh well.

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