The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat have been on a crash course with each other since their sensational seven-game series in last year’s NBA Finals, and on Wednesday, both teams took one more predictable step forward on the path toward a rematch. It’s not that the Brooklyn Nets and Portland Trail Blazers were pushovers, but each team’s season seemed destined to skid to a halt in the conference semifinals from the start, and each series’ Game 5 served as little more than an inevitable end for the underdogs.
For Miami, the series against Brooklyn was a test of wills. In order for something to truly go awry, the Heat would have to beat themselves, but at the same time, they knew they were playing a Nets team full of playoff vets who would be ready to pounce should the defending champs slip. Fortunately for the Heat, when they did lose their footing, it was only temporary, and Brooklyn never had the firepower to pounce when the door was open.
The Spurs, meanwhile, engaged in a thorough dismantling of a Blazers team that was just happy to be there. No one ever gave Portland all that much of a chance — and for good reason. They simply weren’t better than the Spurs at anything, much less everything. Eventually the Blazers’ time will come as they continue to build around Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and Terry Stotts and his team certainly have a lot to be proud of. But at the same time, a thorough shellacking at the hands of a dynasty never tastes good, and hopefully Portland can use that as motivation going into next season.
Takeaway: After Miami erased an eight-point deficit in the final five minutes against the Nets on Wednesday to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth straight year, Heat forward Chris Bosh described the team’s rally by saying, simply, "You’ve got to make s**t happen." Unfortunately for fans of the Nets, Brooklyn couldn’t make much of anything happen down the stretch in the decisive Game 5, and now the latest iteration of the great Brooklyn Nets experiment, like the first one, can be dubbed a failure. There were times in the game when Brooklyn looked up for the challenge the Heat presented, particularly during a first half in which the Nets held Miami to 34.1-percent shooting, including a 1-of-16 mark from 3. But the final five minutes of action saw Brooklyn go 2 of 11 from the field while Miami made three of its five shots, including two 3s, and got to the line six times, and that was the difference in the game and the series. Like the Clippers on Tuesday night, the Nets may have had a legitimate gripe with the late-game officiating, as Paul Pierce appeared to have been fouled along the sideline with his team down by two with 9 seconds to play — a foul that, if called, sends Pierce to the line with a chance to tie. And like Los Angeles, Brooklyn had a chance to redeem itself on the game’s final possession. But just as Chris Paul struggled to find a look on the last play Tuesday, Joe Johnson, too, was unable to even get up a shot for the tie or win Wednesday — in large part because coach Jason Kidd drew up the worst after-timeout play in the history of basketball — and what could have been an ending for the ages turned out to be something of a dud.
Star Review: Ray Allen made just one of his seven 3-point attempts Wednesday, but the one he sunk couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Heat, as it gave his team a two-point lead with 32 seconds to play. His two free throws on the next possession then pushed the lead to four, and it can now be said without exaggeration that Miami would likely be playing again on Friday had it not been for his late-game heroics. Normally, one wouldn’t need any more reason to be excited after a win — and Allen is too classy to admit as much, himself — but there also had to be a certain degree of satisfaction for the veteran in coming up huge while also eliminating former teammates Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the latter of whom may have ended his career with a two-point, eight-rebound dud. Pierce was somewhat better, scoring 19 points on 8-of-18 shooting, but the real star for Brooklyn was Johnson (that final play notwithstanding), who hearkened back to Games 3 and 5 of the Toronto series with a game-high 34 points on 15-of-23 shooting, including a corner 3 to cut the Heat lead to one with 11 seconds to play. But alas, that still wasn’t enough against a Miami team paced by LeBron James’ 29 points, which somehow looked lazy after he sniffed 50 on Monday. Add to that 28 points from Dwyane Wade, who did most of his damage in the first half, and 16 points from sudden 3-point sharpshooter Chris Bosh, and you’re quickly reminded what makes the two-time defending champs so good.
Looking Ahead: If Indiana beats Washington on Thursday, Game 1 between the Heat and Pacers will be Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Indianapolis; if the Pacers-Wizards series goes to seven games, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals will be Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET, site TBD.
What To Look For: A long layoff between the first and second rounds didn’t seem to do the Heat much harm, and they don’t seem too eager to find out who they’re playing in the Eastern Conference finals just yet, either. After Wednesday’s game, Shane Battier made a crack to reporters that he hopes the rest of the Pacers-Wizards games go "five or six overtimes" and said he wishes the NBA would tack more games onto the series "because it’s such great basketball." Those comments were made in jest — I think — but they also kind of give you a sense of Miami’s state of mind as it awaits its next challenge. The Heat have been virtually untested in these playoffs thus far and will be well-rested in the conference finals against either the postseason’s most inconsistent team or a huge underdog coming off of a seven-game series. And in either case, you’ve got to like Miami’s chances. All season long, the thought for most has been that a conference championship was a foregone conclusion for Miami, and while detractors were certainly hoping for a letdown at some juncture, it would be a shock, at this point, if the Heat come up short in that pursuit.
Takeaway: Give the Portland Trail Blazers this much: They had a great season and exceeded most everyone’s expectations in the tough Western Conference. But as good as they were during the first 82 — and as impressively as they slid past the Rockets in the first round — the Blazers never had a chance against a veteran Spurs team that was quite literally better in every facet of the game for the duration of the series. In putting Portland out of its misery in Game 5 and advancing to the Western Conference finals for the ninth time in the Tim Duncan era, San Antonio hit repeat on the same game plan that it followed in the first three wins of the series — get up big early and coast from there — and the Spurs again executed it to perfection. Portland, for all its individual talent, hasn’t come close to mastering the team game that has made the Spurs so effective over the years, and the discrepancies in cohesiveness and game plan execution were evident from beginning to end. The Blazers knew they would need to be perfect to have a chance of hanging with the Spurs, and shooting 40 percent and turning the ball over 18 times in an elimination game was just never going to be the right recipe for success. There’s no shame in losing to the Spurs in the playoffs, however, and while Portland surely would have liked to have put up a more staunch defense, they’ve got to be pleased with what they accomplished to get to where they did.
Star Review: The biggest question for the Spurs coming out of yet another game in which no one played great but everyone played well is the status of the one guy who hardly played at all. Tony Parker left Game 5 with hamstring tightness after just 10 minutes of action and didn’t return to the game. And if he’s not back to full health in time for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, it could make things interesting for whomever the Spurs end up playing. Patty Mills did fine in place of Parker on Wednesday, scoring 18 points on 8-of-17 shooting, but San Antonio, for obvious reasons, would rather have the 2007 Finals MVP on the floor in his place. Thankfully for coach Gregg Popovich, everyone around Parker seems to be fine — and by fine I mean nauseatingly consistent. Tim Duncan scored 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting in the win, while Kawhi Leonard continued his stretch of consistent play with 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting and Danny Green added 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting in his best game since Games 6 and 7 of the Dallas series. Meanwhile, the Blazers proved, one final time, that they’re just not ready for the spotlight. Nicolas Batum (10 points and 12 rebounds), Aldridge (21 points and 10 rebounds) and Lillard (17 points and 10 assists) each had double-doubles Wednesday, but nearly all of them have their own pride to thank for that, as Stotts left the starters in far longer than was necessary in yet another blowout loss.
Looking Ahead: The Western Conference finals schedule is officially still TBD, but logic would suggest that Game 1 will be Monday night in San Antonio if Oklahoma City finishes off Los Angeles on Thursday, and Wednesday night if the Thunder-Clippers series goes to seven games.
What To Look For: Like the Heat in the East, the Spurs aren’t a team that will complain about getting a little extra rest between opponents, so they’ll likely be more than happy to sit back with their feet up while the Clippers and Thunder beat each other to a bloody pulp for the right to advance to the conference finals. As long as Parker is healthy — and all indications are that the rest Wednesday was largely precautionary; they certainly didn’t need him — the Spurs will be fine, and whether the same old song and dance is enough to get them to the Finals yet again remains to be seen. On paper, you’d have to imagine that San Antonio would rather be facing Los Angeles than Oklahoma City when Game 1 rolls around — after all, the Thunder swept the Spurs this season, while the Clippers lost two of three meetings — but as Miami showed against Brooklyn in their matchup, a regular season sweep doesn’t guarantee anything in the playoffs, anyway.