After watching five of eight first-round series go seven games, it would have been nice to see at least one of the conference semifinals do the same. But as the cream of this season’s NBA rises to the top, it has become clear who the favorites are — and as it turned out, those teams are exactly the ones you expected.
For the first time since 2005, the top two seeds in each conference will vie for the right to play in the NBA Finals, and just as it was then, the Spurs and Heat will be among them. But this time it will be the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers joining them after each knocked off a pesky underdog on the road Thursday night to close things out.
While Washington and LA certainly would have been fun for fans of chaos, it’s probably appropriate that the two better teams emerged. And while a chalky second round may have sucked some of the fun out of one of the best postseasons in recent memory, there should still be plenty of pandemonium in the conference finals to keep things interesting.
THUNDER 104, CLIPPERS 98
Thunder win 4-2
Takeaway: This felt like a series that deserved to go seven games, and if the basketball gods had a heart among them, it would have. But, alas, that fortune wasn’t meant for us (or the fans in Staples Center on Thursday night), as the No. 2 seed Thunder held off the third-seeded Clippers on the road to finish off the only truly exciting series in the second round of the playoffs. And unfortunately for Clippers fans, Game 6 was one another of those contests that that left them with more "if onlys" than they care to count. After a devastating collapse in Game 5, everything was coming up Millhouse for Los Angeles early on as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook struggled to find their shots in the first quarter, while Chris Paul and Blake Griffin seemed to be finding everybody, dishing out 12 of the team’s 17 first-half assists — the 17 dimes coming 18 field goals.
But the Clippers had to know they couldn’t hold down the Thunder buddies for too long, and in the second half, KD and Russ combined for 42 points while LA blew an 11-point third-quarter lead in the loss. Don’t be surprised to hear Clippers fans gripe about the officiating yet again after this one, as both Paul and Griffin were whistled for offensive fouls in the midst of a last-ditch rally (though Paul’s was certainly the more questionable of the two). But after squandering lead after lead throughout the series, this certainly wasn’t a finish that felt wrong. I just wish we’d gotten to see them settle it over 48 more minutes of action on Sunday.
Star Review: After Oklahoma City escaped with a win in Game 5 both because and in spite of Westbrook’s insistence on trying to do everything late, I implored the Thunder to let Durant be "the man" and make him the team’s first option more often in Game 6. Early on, that wasn’t looking like such a bright idea as Durant hit just 1 of 7 shots in the first quarter while Westbrook was tied to the bench in foul trouble. But coach Scott Brooks — and more importantly, Westbrook — stuck by Durant, as coaches and teammates should when dealing with a newly crowned MVP, and KD rewarded that loyalty with a dominant second quarter, a perfect third quarter and 11 fourth-quarter points that helped the Thunder put away the Clippers for good. Altogether, Durant finished with 39 points on 12-of-23 shooting, including 5 of 8 from 3 — and it was a good thing too, because Westbrook didn’t make a bucket in the first half and never truly found his shot (despite finishing with 19 points in the game). On the Clippers side, Griffin (22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists) flirted with a triple-double before fouling out, as did Paul (25 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds), but it wasn’t enough to force a Game 7 against a Thunder team that was finally utilizing its immense talent properly.
Looking Ahead: Western Conference finals Game 1: Oklahoma City at San Antonio, Monday, 9 p.m. ET
What To Look For: The Thunder had their fair share of success against the Spurs in the regular season, sweeping the series by an average of just over nine points per game. But before OKC supporters start getting too riled up about a few regular-season wins, they should probably consult a few Brooklyn Nets fans and see how that worked out for their team. It probably also wouldn’t hurt them to revisit the 2012 Western Conference finals, when Oklahoma City rallied to beat the Spurs four times in a row after losing two of three to San Antonio in the regular season and the first two games of that series on the road. None of that is to say that either of those series could or will impact the road ahead for the Thunder, but there’s probably a lesson to be learned in there about becoming overconfident in the postseason.
As for the matchup itself, the Thunder know what they’re going to get from San Antonio, mostly because we all know what the Spurs bring to the table at this point. The Spurs are well-coached and methodical — a team that will win in a majority decision more often than via TKO — and they’re not a team that will give away leads in the way the Clippers did in each of the last two games of the conference semifinals. San Antonio will enter the series well-rested — one of the benefits of having each of their four wins in a five-game series over Portland come by blowout — and should be especially hungry in what could end up being the dynasty’s last best chance at a championship. But as Clippers coach Doc Rivers said in his postgame remarks Thursday, OKC has a couple guys named Durant and Westbrook on their side, and even if the Spurs have most everything else going in their favor in the series, that alone, as Rivers put it, should give the Thunder a fighting chance.
PACERS 93, WIZARDS 80
Pacers win 4-2
Takeaway: I’m still not so sure what to make of this Pacers team, which, this time two weeks ago, was warding off complete implosion against an Atlanta Hawks collective that won 38 games this season. But after handling the Wizards in the conference semifinals, maybe there’s something to the idea that Indiana is getting its swagger back, despite all the behind-the-scenes turmoil and on-court tomfoolery it has partaken in since the postseason tipped off. There were times against Washington — several of them, in fact — when the Pacers had us wishing that the Hawks had bested them in Round 1, if for no other reason than to spare us the indignity of having to watch the Pacers play on. But when they got things right, they got things right, and on Thursday, in sending Washington to its Waterloo, the Pacers got it right.
Over the last 8:30 of Game 6, the Pacers outscored the Wizards 20-6, hitting eight of their final 12 shots while holding Washington to 2-of-14 shooting in that span. David West played like someone picked him up and dropped him in 2008, Lance Stephenson finally showed up for a game and Roy Hibbert did more than just stand there looking lost, which qualifies as a step in the right direction. There’s still got to be some concern over the inconsistency of the team’s best player, Paul George, and certainly the Heat will bring forth a much better effort than the Wizards — who, like the Blazers in the Western Conference, had already exceeded expectations just by being where they were. But at least Indiana won’t wobble into the conference finals like it just finished a dizzy-bat race, and if nothing else, that’s a good place to start.
Star Review: On a Pacers team with little in the way of true veteran leadership, the two-time All-Star and resident old fogey West is something of a patriarch, so when it came time for someone to step up and close out the Wizards, it seemed appropriate that it was West who brandished the sword. After plodding along through the first five games, neither taking over nor completely disappearing, West was a monster in Game 6, nearly matching a season high with 29 points, 18 of which came in the second half. During that 20-6 run to close the game, West scored eight points on 4-of-7 shooting, torching the Wizards on mid-range jumpers that effectively sealed their fate. As for the Wizards, Marcin Gortat was once again the team’s best player — a sentence that still feels funny to type — with 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting, and Nene showed up again on Thursday, too, with 15 points of his own (though his minus-22 plus-minus was the worst on the team). But in order to beat the Pacers, Washington was going to need John Wall to be great, and he simply wasn’t. Playing in the most important game of the most important series of his career to date, Wall hit just 5 of 16 shots and missed all four of his 3-point attempts. Bradley Beal (19 points) picked up some of the slack, but it wasn’t nearly enough, and so the Wizards and their two young stars will have to be content knowing that they exceeded expectations and that their futures are among the brightest in the league, which isn’t so bad.
Looking Ahead: Eastern Conference finals Game 1: Miami at Indiana, Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET
What To Look For: If you can look past the last few weeks for the Pacers and think in terms of the bigger picture, this is the upshot we expected all along — a rematch with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. And though Miami has looked like the superior team thus far this postseason, it would be foolish to rule the Pacers out just yet. As with any series, there are several factors that will be at play in this one, but the two players on whom Indiana’s success will be most contingent are the two players you’d expect to need to step up with a Finals berth at stake. It’ll all start with George, who has been erratic at best throughout the first two rounds. George is Indiana’s best player, and if he takes a backseat at any point during the Miami series, things could get ugly.
Last year’s conference finals amounted to something of a coming out party for George — at least until he went all shrinking violet on the team in Game 7 — and this series could be the same if he can put the last 13 games behind him, play off LeBron James’ intensity, and reclaim his stake as a star. The same could be said for Hibbert who, on paper, should be a huge mismatch against a Heat team still operating without a true center. In two home games against the Heat this season, Hibbert scored 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting and 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and in two games at Miami, the big man scored 11 combined points on a total of 4-of-10 shooting. Indiana lost two of those games — I’ll let you guess which ones — and Hibbert would be wise to apply what he learned in the other two going forward.