NBA Playoffs: Conference Finals Preview

After perhaps the most entertaining first round of the NBA playoffs we have ever seen, the second round provided much less parity and excitement. In the first round, six of the eight series went to a Game 7. In the second round, two of the series ended in five games, and the other two in six. It’s not like there weren’t still exciting moments in each series, though.

In the Thunder and Clippers series, we saw the Thunder blow a huge lead in Game 4, and the Clippers do the same in Game 5, along with a lot of controversy over this out of bounds call on Matt Barnes with 11 seconds left.  In the Heat and Nets series, we got to see LeBron drop 49 points, and Joe Johnson make a lot of absurd jump shots, so that was fun. In the Pacers and Wizards series, we saw the Pacers get out rebounded 62-23 one night, and then win an elimination game on the road two nights later pretty handily. The Spurs and Blazers series provided the least excitement of all, which was pretty surprising. There were not any close games, and the Blazers were only able to win one game.

Despite all the caziness of the playoffs, we got the four teams in the conference finals that just about everybody expected a few months ago. The only exception is the Pacers, and that is just because of how badly they have played for a few months, including a lot of stinkers in the playoffs.

Heat vs. Pacers. 

This will be a very interesting series. After everything the Pacers have been through, they are exactly where they want to be. They have home court advantage, and they get their shot at the two-time defending champs, the Miami Heat. In February, I might have been tempted to pick the Pacers to win this series. Even though I don’t think Miami is as good as last year, I still pick them to win this series. It will be competitive, because the Heat have brought out the best in the Pacers every time they play, including at the end of the year when the Pacers were otherwise awful.

The Pacers biggest advantage is Roy Hibbert. They will go as Hibbert goes in this series, which is a scary thought for Pacers fans because of how inconsistent he has been this postseason. Paul George is about as good of a matchup for LeBron as anybody in the league, and you know what you are going to get from David West every night. I have more faith in the Heat’s supporting cast for LeBron than I have in the Pacers to consistently show up. I think the Pacers will play well enough to win a few games, but in the end, the Heat will be just too much for them.

Game 1 will be in Indiana Sunday at 3:30 ET.

Prediction: Heat in 6. 

Thunder vs. Spurs

First thing is first. As I pick this series, I will do so assuming both Tony Parker and Serge Ibaka will be healthy. Parker told the San Antonio Express that he had a grade 1 hamstring strain, which was less severe than the grade 2 hamstring sprain he played through in the NBA Finals last year. Ibaka left last nights game against the Clippers with a calf injury, and his status has yet to be determined.

This is a very interesting matchup. In the regular season, the Thunder swept the Spurs 4-0, and even won once without Westbrook. The Thunder have had the Spurs number since their meeting in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, where the Spurs jumped out to a 2-0 series lead and the Thunder won four straight after that.

Kawhi Leonard has given Durant some problems in the past, and I think he will make Durant work hard. However, it will be nothing like his first round struggle with Tony Allen. The best way to defend Durant is to get up in him and take away his dribbling ability. That is not how Leonard will defend him. He will rely on his length and athleticism, and less on doing his work before Durant catches. With Durant’s height, wingspan, and ability to create separation with his dribble, it is almost impossible to contest his shot.

Russell Westbrook has always been an incredibly tough matchup for Tony Parker. Westbrook is quick enough to play good defense on Parker, and Parker does not stand a chance when guarding Westbrook on the other end. Parker will find a way to get in the lane against anybody not named LeBron, but Serge Ibaka will be waiting for him.

Ibaka’s athleticism and shot blocking is always a problem for Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan. Duncan is too great to not be heard from, but he will have his fair share of struggles if Ibaka is playing.

However, after saying all of that, I think the most important aspect of this series will be the Thunder’s ability to run the Spurs off the three point line. Even if the Thunder have the matchup advantage with the Spurs best players, you can always count on guys like Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli to step up. If the Thunder can run them off the three point line, that will limit their effectiveness.

I think the difference in this series is the Thunder have so much athleticism, that they can help and recover well enough that the Spurs ball movement will not be as effective as it is against almost everybody else.

Game 1 will be in San Antonio Monday at 9:00 ET.

Prediction: Thunder in 6. 

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