But at last, after what looked to be a stacked Western Conference where shakeups were bound to occur and an Eastern Conference that was just as unpredictable with the poor play of the Indiana Pacers, the No. 1 and No 2. Seeds from each conference have prevailed.
The Conference Finals are upon us.
Eastern Conference Finals: Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers
After a dramatic playoff journey that put the Pacers on the verge of being bounced in the first round of the playoffs, the Pacers have miraculously found themselves back in the same spot as they were a year ago.
Last year’s Eastern Conference Finals between the Heat and the Pacers was one for the ages. Paul George became a superstar. LeBron James became a legend. And this series ignited the best rivalry currently in basketball.
Yesterday’s Game 1 was a blowout, but not in the direction we all anticipated.
The Pacers defeated the Heat 107-95 behind the play of struggling big man Roy Hibbert, who dropped 19 points against the smaller Miami Heat lineup.
Hibbert’s impressive performance last night is a dagger to the Miami Heat, who lacks the physicality and size at the forward/center position.
This situation, among many more, is something to keep an eye out for in this series.
Here’s everything you need to know about the rest of this highly anticipated series.
How They Got Here:
- Defeated the Charlotte Bobcats 4-0 in Round 1
- Defeated the Brooklyn Nets 4-1 in the Conference Semifinals
- Defeated the Atlanta Hawks 4-3 in Round 1
- Defeated the Washington Wizards 4-2 in Conference Semifinals
Star to Watch: LeBron James
Simply put, he’s the best basketball player on the planet.
In the 2014 playoffs, LeBron is averaging 30 ppg, 7 rbg, and is shooting a ridiculous 56 percent from the field. Not to mention LeBron tied his playoff career high with 49 points in Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets.
In last year’s Conference Finals versus the Pacers, LeBron played brilliantly and showed once again why he is a four-time MVP.
Countless times LeBron put the Heat on his back and single-handedly took games over when the Heat were on the brink of collapse.
Although he was relatively quite in Game 1 with just 25 points, LeBron will take over this series at some point.
With the surprisingly strong start from the Pacers, Game 2 could be LeBron’s “takeover night.”
Either way, he is the engine that ignites the Heat, and he’s the number one star to watch in this series.
The Underlying Stat: 4-4
Before their Game 1 win against the Heat, the Pacers were just 4-4 at home during this year’s playoffs.
Pacers players and Head Coach Frank Vogel said that if last year’s Game 7 had been played in Indiana, things would’ve gone very differently.
On a mission to earn the No 1 seed, the Pacers finished with a league best 35-6 home court record this season.
But something has happened to the Pacers in the 2014 Playoffs. The strong chemistry of this Pacers team has suddenly faded away, and evermore so present with their poor play at home this postseason.
If the Pacers want to have any shot at stopping the Heat from winning a third consecutive title, they will need to play like the Pacers of old, especially at home.
If this series is as entertaining and intense as the one a year ago, the Pacers home court advantage for Game 7 may be the difference between a Heat 3-Peat or a Pacers upset.
The X-Factor: Roy Hibbert
Where has Roy been?
Hibbert means everything to the Pacers in this series.
In the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, Hibbert dominated the series. He averaged 22 ppg and 11 rpg, and kept the smaller Heat lineup on their heels and dependent upon LeBron to bail them out.
In the attempt to slow down Hibbert in anticipation for this year’s Conference Finals rematch, the Heat signed injury-plagued center Greg Oden during the offseason.
But now the Heat stand in the same position they were a year ago; no one to stop Roy Hibbert.
Although Hibbert has been in La-La Land for most of the playoffs, Hibbert is the X-Factor in this series. If Hibbert can be 50 percent of what he was in last season’s Conference Finals, this series may very well go the Pacers way.
Watch for Hibbert’s play in this series. If he continues to give the Pacers the inside edge as he did in Game 1, this series could go all the way to Game 7, and who knows what will happen then.
Prediction: Heat in 6
The Pacers inconsistency in these playoffs has been shocking considering how great they were for almost all of the regular season.
Although they played their best game of the postseason yesterday, the Heat will rebound as they always do.
LeBron will do what he does best, and the strong start from Dwayne Wade (27 points in Game 1) will be a foreshadowing for the rest of his play in this series.
The Heat are a great team because each role player serves their purpose perfectly. Ray Allen hits 3’s when they need it most, Chris Anderson plays a great hybrid center, and Shane Battier plays great defense when LeBron needs a break.
Expect the Heat role players to pick up their play in this series, especially with the Pacers bench going equally as deep.
This will be an entertaining series, but ultimately LeBron and company end this series in Miami and Game 7 never even goes down.
Western Conference Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs
Ibaka is the most important player on the Thunder team. He may not make the headlines every night, but Ibaka does so much for the Thunder. He plays great defense and has progressively opened up his offensive game where he now possess a very good mid-range game.
With Ibaka gone, the Spurs now have a huge advantage inside. Tim Duncan could dominate this series if Steven Adams and Nick Collison can’t contain him.
In the 2012 Conference Finals, the Spurs went up 2-0 on the Thunder and everyone assumed the series was over.
But the young Thunder charged back and won four straight to get to the NBA Finals.
This time around, the Thunder are not only without Ibaka, but most notably James Harden, who led the comeback with his great play and 3-point dominance back in 2012.
The Spurs have once again defied age, proving that they only get better every year.
Nonetheless, this will still be a wild series. Here’s the lowdown.
How They Got Here:
Oklahoma City Thunder:
- Defeated the Memphis Grizzles 4-3 in Round 1
- Defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 4-2 in Conference Semifinals
San Antonio Spurs:
- Defeated the Dallas Mavericks 4-3 in Round 1
- Defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 4-1 in Conference Semifinals
Star To Watch: Kevin Durant
If LeBron James is the Drake of the NBA, then Kevin Durant is certainly Kendrick Lamar.
After receiving his first MVP award this year, Durant has once again been the best of the best in the postseason.
Durant is averaging a ridiculous 31 ppg and is shooting 34 percent from the 3-point line this postseason.
But Durant’s resume lacks one major notch: an NBA title.
Last season, Durant and the Thunder’s quest for a title came to an abrupt end when All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook got hurt in the Conference Semifinals.
Without Westbrook at Durant’s side, the Grizzles shocked the basketball world and defeated the Thunder in five games.
But now that Westbrook is back and healthy, the Thunder have once again put themselves in a position to reach the NBA Finals.
If the Thunder want to beat the reigning Western Conference champs, Durant will have to bring out his inner Michael Jordan and take down the never-aging Spurs.
Durant is the MVP of this league. There’s a reason they gave it to him, and he needs to be the star of the show if the Thunder have any chance of returning to the finals.
The Underlying Stat: 4,804
In Game 4 of the Conference Semifinals, Tim Duncan passed Karl Malone to become fifth place on the all-time playoff-scoring list.
Since the day Duncan was drafted No. 1 overall by the Spurs in 1997, Duncan has quietly become one of the greatest power forwards of all-time.
Every year they say Duncan is too old to still be an elite player in this league, yet he continues to excel with his unique arsenal of moves in the post and his great defensive awareness.
Duncan’s presence will be felt in this series, especially with the loss of Serge Ibaka.
He’ll quietly go about his business as he always does, but there will be one game in this series where Duncan goes off, and that may be the difference.
The X-Factor: Kawhi Leonard
Leonard is one of the most unique players you’ve never heard of.
Coming out of San Diego State University, Leonard was drafted by the Pacers but then traded to the Spurs on draft night.
In each of his three seasons in the NBA, Leonard has increased his scoring output, shooting percentage, and three-point percentage.
Leonard is unique because of his flexibility to guard so many positions on the floor. He can guard almost anyone on the floor besides the center, and you can expect Leonard will play on Durant for most of this series.
Leonard is averaging 14 ppg this postseason, and had 22 big points in the clinching win against the Trail Blazers.
If Leonard can continue to play as well as he has so far this postseason, the youth and experience of the Spurs may be too much for the Thunder to overcome.
Prediction: Spurs in 6
The pain is numb, but without Serge Ibaka the Thunder will not be able to counter the Spurs in the paint. Although they possess the two best players on the court, the Thunder lack enough inside scoring and defensive presence without Ibaka.
The combination of Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, and Steven Adams will be solid, but it won’t replace what Ibaka brings to the table.
Ibaka is the Thunder’s best scoring option after Durant and Westbrook, and the Thunder are a much better team when Ibaka gets 10 or more shots a night.
Without Ibaka, Popavich knows that the Spurs now maintain a sizable advantage in the frontcourt, so look for Pop to exploit it with a heavy dose of Duncan, Tiago Splitter, and Tony Parker drives to the basket.
If Ibaka was playing in this series, I really believe the Thunder would have the edge. But the loss of their best defensive player will be the difference and ultimately give us a 2013 NBA Finals rematch we’ve all been secretly cheering for.
Enjoy the beauty of Conference Finals basketball. Let’s get it popping.