It’s been nine years since we saw a conference finals with this much chalk – and few likely projected two 1-2 matchups after the wild opening round that was — but it’s hard to imagine that anyone is complaining that the NBA’s two Finals bids have come down to the two best teams from each conference, especially given the star power that all four remaining teams boast.
In the Eastern Conference, LeBron James will lead the Miami Heat into what he hopes will be the team’s fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals, and if the San Antonio Spurs have their way, it’ll be them standing in the Big 3’s way for the second straight year once the dust has settled on these conference finals. But there are legitimate questions as to whether the Spurs have the athleticism to get the job done again, while the Heat couldn’t be playing with a bigger target on their backs.
Accordingly, it would be unwise to sleep on the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers, two uber-talented teams looking for their first NBA championships. (And no, Seattle’s ’79 title doesn’t count for the purposes of that stat.) Because while the two clubs might not have the pedigree of the opponents standing between them and the Larry O’Brien Trophy, both have the individual talent on their rosters to get the job done if the series’ other factors shake out right.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a breakdown of the NBA’s Eastern and Western Conference Finals.
Coaches: Everyone loves to talk about Erik Spoelstra’s evolution from Heat video coordinator to head coach, but after one championship as an assistant coach, two as a head coach and now four straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s probably time we give him his due and stop treating him like a 25-year-old intern (even if he still looks like one). The guy can flat-out coach – one must look no further than some of his after-timeout plays to see that – and he’s found a way to strike an accord and keep from ruffling feathers with a star-studded roster for years, which is easier said than done.
On the other bench, 40-year-old Frank Vogel was, for a time, being tabbed as the next Erik Spoelstra, but after a late-season collapse and an early scare against Atlanta, there was a thought that he was coaching for his job against Washington. Vogel might have saved his bacon with a six-game recovery against the Wizards, but a poor showing against the Heat could put him right back on the hot seat.
X-Factors: For the Pacers, it’s got to be Roy Hibbert. If there’s one area on the floor where the Pacers have a distinct advantage over the Heat, it’s down low, and when Hibbert is playing well, it makes a world of difference; he averaged 22.5 points per game on 56.7 percent shooting in Indiana’s two wins over Miami this season but scored just 5.5 points per game on 40 percent shooting in the two losses. Hibbert has been something of an enigma in the playoffs, his scoring and rebound totals slashed in half from the numbers he posted in last year’s postseason, and if he can’t find a way to use his 7-foot-2 frame to his advantage against a Heat team that rarely rolls with a true center, the Pacers could be in trouble.
As for Miami, one feels inclined to look to Ray Allen. The ageless sharpshooter won’t be the type to take over a game – those days are long behind him – and he’s been struggling a tad shooting of late, knocking down just two of his last 13 shots from 3-point range. But each of those two 3s came at a critical juncture of a game — to push the lead to five with 2:48 left in Game 4 against Brooklyn and to give Miami the lead with 32 seconds left in Game 5 – and as the Spurs learned last year, Allen has a way of coming up with big shots when his team needs them most.
Breakdown: For most of this season, there was a growing sense that this could be the year that someone unseats the Heat in the Eastern Conference, and when Indiana is playing well, they have all of the tools to do just that.
Problem is, they haven’t been playing very well at all this postseason, even in the vast majority of their wins. It’s hard to look at the teams’ resumes through the playoffs so far and think that the Pacers have more than an outside shot at pulling it off, so unless a completely different Pacers team shows up for the conference finals – one that includes Paul George actually playing like an All-Star and Hibbert utilizing his considerable mass and talent – you’ve got to figure Miami keeps rolling.
Led by LeBron James, who is playing as fiercely and freely as ever, the Heat are just playing too well right now, and unless someone gets hurt or the Pacers can suddenly regain whatever mojo they’ve lost over the last few weeks, the question won’t be whether Miami wins, but how quickly.
Prediction: Heat in 5.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20, 8-4 postseason) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23, 8-5 postseason)
Season series: Thunder won 4-0
Coaches: This series pits arguably the two best coaches in the Western Conference against one another, and given how good a job each has done with his team, it’s no surprise that they’ve gotten to where they are.
Already a lock for the Hall of Fame someday, Gregg Popovich’s connection with his team seems to almost be such that his players know what he wants them to do without him having to tell them, but that shouldn’t lead anyone to discount Popovich’s immense talents as a tactician and game manager. He knows which buttons to push and which strings to pull to get the best out of his roster – the core of which feels like it’s been playing together since George Gervin was bouncing a red-white-and-blue ball for the franchise — and though he’s not one to give himself the credit (especially if you bother him about it during an in-game interview), he’s simply the best in the game today.
The Thunder’s Scott Brooks, of course, hasn’t been honing his craft long enough to earn Popovich-level dap, but what he’s been able to do with the Thunder, despite the loss of James Harden to Houston, has been commendable. Eventually, Brooks is going to have to win a championship or two to cement his status on the OKC bench, but as long as he’s able to build upon the level of success he has reached far, that title should one day come.
X-Factors: Kawhi Leonard has improved from the previous year in each of his three NBA seasons, and this playoff run has seen the Spurs’ starting small forward blossom into a star in the making. Leonard has averaged 15.9 points on 54.4 percent shooting over the Spurs’ last eight games, including 46.2 percent from 3, and he’s often like an espresso shot for the Spurs’ straight coffee offense.
But Leonard’s biggest contribution in this series will have to be on defense, where he’ll only be tasked with trying to stop the best scorer alive. Certainly no one expects Leonard to stifle the MVP Kevin Durant, but if he can at least make life difficult for KD, it could be the difference in the series.
On Oklahoma City’s side, Reggie Jackson will be a guy to watch. Jackson’s emergence has been part of the reason Harden’s departure last year has stung so little, and he seems to play his best against the Spurs – scoring 21.3 points per game on 67.9 percent shooting and an unreal 72.7 percent from 3-point range in four games this year. It’s hard to see Durant and Russell Westbrook give Jackson that kind of freedom to lead the offense in a playoff scenario, but if he can offer up that same effectiveness in smaller doses, the Thunder’s blossoming third star could put OKC into the Finals. The two stars will need all the help they can get with the news that defensive stalwart Serge Ibaka will miss the remainder of the playoffs.
Breakdown: Dating back to the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Thunder have won 10 of their last 12 meetings with the Spurs, including each of the last five. But if it’s a lopsided affair you’re after over the next couple weeks, you’re not likely to find it out West. After a back-and-forth battle against Dallas in the first round, San Antonio coasted against Portland in the conference semis, giving the team’s aging stars some much-needed R&R.
And if you think Tim Duncan & Co. are going to roll over in what could be the team’s last great shot at a title for a while, then you’re not giving this team enough credit. Yes, the Thunder offer matchup problems that most foes don’t, and yes, Oklahoma City boasts the two best players in this series, but if San Antonio can contain OKC’s other guys and limit the Thunder’s transition chances, their ability to execute in the half court and keep an even keel could put them over the top. Oklahoma City’s time will come — just probably not this year.