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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Conference Finals Recap/NBA Finals Preview

The Conference Finals round featured two much anticipated matchups but neither series went the distance. The Indiana Pacers took a 1-0 lead over the two-time defending champion Miami Heat but then the Heat won four of the next five games, exposing the Pacers as a good team that does not have quite enough talent or mental toughness to take the next step. Lance Stephenson had a solid series statistically (14.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.0 apg) but he embarrassed himself and his team with his foolish and at times reckless behavior. The Pacers did not look, act or play like a championship team. LeBron James had a subdued series by his lofty standards (22.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 5.5 apg, .559 FG%) but he controlled the action and asserted himself as the best player when it mattered most. Dwyane Wade has settled very comfortably into a secondary role, conserving his energy during the regular season and providing just enough postseason production to supplement James' all-around greatness. Chris Bosh's contributions will always be underrated by people who do not understand basketball; he is overmatched physically as a center but his agility and outside shooting touch make him the perfect center at both ends of the court for a speed-based team like the Heat. The Heat have two future Hall of Famers who are in or near their physical primes (James and Bosh), plus a declining future Hall of Famer who is still a potent threat (Wade) and a future Hall of Famer who is a key asset as a sharpshooting role player (Ray Allen).

Bill Russell (1957-66 Boston Celtics), Magic Johnson (1982-85 L.A. Lakers) and Larry Bird (1984-87 Boston Celtics) are the only players prior to LeBron James to lead their teams to at least four straight NBA Finals appearances; Russell's Celtics won nine titles in those 10 years (and 11 out of 13 years overall during his career), Johnson's Lakers captured two titles in those four years en route to becoming the team of the 1980s with five championships and Bird's Celtics won two titles in those four years (and three overall during his career). Some critics belittle the Heat's accomplishments by noting the relative lack of strength of the Eastern Conference in recent years but the fact that only four teams in NBA history have made it to four straight Finals proves that the Heat are, at the very least, a special team in the context of their own era--and a third title, which would represent two straight Finals' wins over a franchise that has claimed four championships during the Tim Duncan era, would solidify Miami's place as one of the NBA's top dynasties.
The Oklahoma City Thunder won all four regular season games versus the San Antonio Spurs and defeated the Spurs four straight times in the 2012 Western Conference Finals after dropping the first two games of that series but in the 2014 Western Conference Finals the Thunder never quite recovered after falling into a 2-0 hole. Serge Ibaka missed the first two games due to injury and his return in game three provided a big spark for the Thunder but the Spurs ultimately rode home court advantage into the NBA Finals, winning all three of their home games before closing out the series with a 112-107 overtime victory at Oklahoma City. If Ibaka had been healthy in the first two games--or if Russell Westbrook's regular season injuries had not cost the Thunder home court advantage--then the series may have had a different outcome. As Hall of Fame Coach Tex Winter says, "Everything turns on a trifle."

The much-criticized Westbrook shined during the Western Conference Finals, leading both teams in scoring (26.8 ppg), assists (7.3 apg) and steals (3.2 spg), and 2014 regular season MVP Kevin Durant averaged 25.8 ppg but the Thunder lost the series defensively; without Ibaka for the first two games, they could not contain the Spurs and it was not realistic to expect to come back from a 2-0 deficit two times in three years against a great team. San Antonio's Tim Duncan no longer posts gaudy individual numbers but he has gone from being recognized as perhaps the greatest power forward of all-time to being one of the most underrated players in the league; he controls the paint defensively and his post presence anchors the Spurs' half court offense. That said, Tony Parker's ankle injury could prove to be the biggest story of the NBA Finals; in order to beat the Heat, it is essential to attack the paint both in the post (which Duncan can do) and with dribble penetration (which is Parker's forte). The Spurs must both score in the paint and also utilize their paint attacks to collapse Miami's defense and create open three point shots.

Manu Ginobili is a perfect third option for the Spurs; he can score, he can create scoring opportunities for his teammates and he is a crafty defender but because the Spurs have Duncan and Parker plus a solid bench they do not need Ginobili to play at an All-Star level in every game. The role he has filled for the Spurs is the role that James Harden should have accepted for the Thunder, as opposed to making contract demands that resulted in him being traded to Houston.

The Spurs showed during last year's NBA Finals that they have the necessary personnel, playing style and toughness to defeat the Heat; they can pose matchup problems for Miami at both ends of the court--attacking the paint offensively and containing the Heat's speed game defensively--and in game six they came about as close as any team in NBA history has come to winning a championship without sealing the deal. Ginobili is healthy this time, unlike last year, though that may be mitigated by Parker's injury. The Heat have been very good this season but they seem to lack that extra gear that they found during their previous two playoff runs; maybe that is because no team has pushed them to the limit (something that both Indiana and San Antonio did during the 2013 playoffs) but I wonder if after four grueling campaigns the Heat still have that gear if/when they need to use it. At the start of the playoffs, I picked the Thunder to dethrone the Heat, so there is a certain logic to predicting that the team that ousted the Thunder will beat Miami. I think that Tim Duncan will win the 2014 Finals MVP and ride off into the sunset, finishing his career with five championships overall plus a 2-1 Finals record against James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:39 AM