After an exciting opening round of the playoffs, then a less dramatic second round that didn’t feature any seven-game series, here we are at the conference finals, with the top two seeds in the East and the West facing off.
Upstarts Washington and Portland have both been vanquished, but have seemingly bright futures after advancing further in the postseason than observers expected, while the aging Nets appear to be headed in the opposite direction and the Clippers have bigger problems off the court in Donald Sterling, but also were revealed to be lacking that certain something to enter the realm of true title contenders. The quartet of remaining teams—Indiana and Miami in the Eastern Conference, San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the West—were supposed to get to this stage all along, despite bumps in the road that led to varying degrees of skepticism along their respective paths.
The Pacers famously melted down during the second half of the regular season, were pushed to the limit by eighth-seeded Atlanta in the first round and looked ripe to fall victim to the Wizards, coming off a triumphant conquest of the higher-seeded Bulls, after Game 1 of the conference semifinals. But although their inconsistency remained all series, the team with the best record in the East regained some of its swagger (All-Star center Roy Hibbert, in particular, finally started resembling himself again) and now has their wish: A conference-finals rematch with the defending champions, complete with home-court advantage.
While the Heat didn’t necessarily play up to its potential against Brooklyn, business was handled via the combination of LeBron James’ brilliance and just enough from his supporting cast. Whether or not that formula works against a more complete team, equipped with superior size, remains to be seen, but mentally-tough Miami has an edge against its more emotionally unstable opposition at a point when being steady matters most.
Assuming the Heat has one more inspired series left in them—this would be an appropriate time for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to start delivering on a more consistent basis—and Pacers’ All-Star swingman Paul George doesn’t revert to his form a year ago, where he went head to head with James without flinching, expect Miami to advance in five games over dysfunctional Indiana.
As for the Western Conference, the Spurs are clearly playing at the highest level of any team in the playoffs, as evidenced by how easily they dispatched the Trail Blazers after struggling with the Mavericks, their in-state and conference rivals who took them to seven games. But the Thunder should also get credit for its own fortitude—not to mention some luck along the way—in winning two tough series over the talented Clippers and physical Grizzlies, no small feats.
Even more of a burden will be placed upon the shoulders of the All-Star duo of the enigmatic Russell Westbrook and league MVP Kevin Durant, as Oklahoma City’s third-best player, Serge Ibaka, has been ruled out for the upcoming series against San Antonio after suffering a calf injury in the close-out game of the conference semifinals. That means the athletic shot-blocker won’t be present to defend future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, protect the rim against All-Star point guard Tony Parker or provide his underrated offensive contributions.
Meanwhile, the underappreciated Parker, who is coming off his own slight hamstring injury, once again looks like the NBA’s best floor general in the postseason, young small forward Kawhi Leonard continues to emerge and the Spurs’ cast of role players are simply clicking on all cylinders, with an impactful performance from the likes of sixth man Manu Ginobili, center Tiago Splitter or reserves like Patty Mills and Boris Diaw coming on a near-nightly basis. It’s hard to imagine San Antonio, even with the problems the Thunder presented in the regular season (didn’t Brooklyn look dominant against Miami, too?) regressing at this stage in the game.
The prediction here is the Spurs in six games, meaning an NBA Finals rematch seems to be in the works, a result that after last year’s thrilling series, nobody should complain about.