Western Conference Finals Preview

The Western Conference Finals starts tonight, as the Spurs take on the Thunder in San Antonio. It’s not really surprising that either team is still playing, as they’ve pretty much been the top two teams out West all season. What should we expect from this match up?

To me the thing to watch is the injury factor, for both teams. Spurs point guard Tony Parker strained his hamstring in the second round against Portland, but he is expected to play tonight. Obviously the Spurs need him to be effective, as he’s unquestionably their most important player offensively. Fortunately the Spurs are deep and balanced, but Russell Westbrook is a nightmare to cover on a good day, now imagine doing so on a bad hamstring. For Oklahoma City, Serge Ibaka is expected to miss the rest of the post season, although the Spurs are skeptical. Without Ibaka, someone will have to step up for the Thunder as a third scoring option behind Westbrook and Durant, as well as help protect the rim. Ibaka helps draw opposing big men from the paint with his strong mid range game, and Kendrick Perkins ain’t scaring anybody from outside, so it could be troublesome for OKC to move Duncan and Tiago Splitter from where they’re comfortable.

Two years ago these teams matched up in the Conference Finals, and San Antonio won the first two games, extending their win streak to 20. Oklahoma City proceeded to win the next four games to advance to the Finals, losing to the eventual champion Heat. I don’t think either team will win 4 straight in this series, but I do expect Oklahoma City to win. I think it’s incredible what the Spurs have been able to do (I wrote about it here), but I think they’re running into a team that is younger, fresher, and perhaps feeling more pressure with their newly crowned MVP. I know it seems more logical that the Spurs would face more pressure, being that they are older and another year closer to the end of their run, but at this point they’re almost playing with house money. They shouldn’t be doing what they’ve been doing for so long, but OKC has two superstars entering their prime, with nothing to show for it yet. Can they get back to the finals, or continue to regret trading James Harden? We’ll see.

To be clear, I’m not picking OKC because of pressure, or anything like that, it’s only one factor. The Thunder offense, when clicking, is just too explosive for San Antonio. The Spurs do have excellent three point shooting on their side, however, and I do not like the way OKC executes late in games. I’m not one to jump on Westbrook like many members do, because I think OKC needs him to be his explosive, attacking self to be able to advance, but Durant needs to ball late in games. I expect one or two of Steven Adams, Jeremy Lamb, or Perry Jones to step up and make significant contributions in this series. Kawhi Leonard will certainly bother Durant defensively, but he hasn’t blossomed into the offense force expected of him yet, and there’s still this to worry about:

Westbrook

I’m picking Thunder in 6, but of course it wouldn’t at all be surprising if the Spurs advanced. They are the Spurs, after all, and they just do not die.

Featured image credit: Mark D. Smith- USA Today Sports

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Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Finally the matchup we’ve all been waiting for all season is here. The Heat and Pacers took different paths to get here, and this should make for an interesting series.

Down the stretch of the regular season both teams played relatively subpar basketball, with the Heat finishing at 3-6 in the month of April and the Pacers at 10-13 from March 4th on. Typically you can attribute this kind of play to two teams sitting comfortably atop the conference and resting for the playoffs. Few truly questioned whether Miami would turn it on for the playoffs, and after steamrolling the Bobcats and Nets in 9 games it’s clear that’s what they’ve done. Something has been different about this Pacers team since their scorching hot start to the season, though. There was Roy Hibbert calling out his teammates, rumors of fights between players, and some weirder stuff going on. There was also the trade sending longtime Pacer Danny Granger to Philadelphia for Evan Turner, which many have speculated ruined the team’s chemistry (I think that’s somewhat of a copout, but whatever). While the Pacers have succeeded in advancing this far, it hasn’t been easy. The team played a seven game series against an awful Atlanta Hawks team and looked inconsistent in defeating Washington in six.

So what can we expect from this series? Despite the mind-boggling inconsistency the Pacers have played with for several months, I expect them to look better against Miami. These two teams seem to bring out the best in each other, so I wouldn’t count out the Pacers just because they look like they forgot how to play team basketball for two and a half months. Last year’s series was intensely physical. The Pacers typically try to take the Heat off their game with chippy fouls, but the veteran Heat are usually not too bothered. The important thing for Indiana is Center Roy Hibbert playing like a 7’2″ all star, not playing entire games without recording a point or rebound. Indiana has good size and when Paul George plays like he’s capable of playing they are a tough team to beat. If the Pacers got any positive contribution from the maddening Lance Stephenson it would be an enormous x-factor, but I wouldn’t count on it. His immaturity was on full display in their previous matchup, when Dwyane Wade baited him into a senseless ejection.

It was widely talked about when the Heat took a flier on Greg Oden that he would be their answer to Hibbert, but interestingly the Heat have used Udonis Haslem instead, to relative success. Haslem is a pro’s pro, at times a team enforcer, and his contributions are rarely reflected in box scores, but his defense on Hibbert will be crucial to the Heat returning to the Finals for a fourth straight year. He will be helped by “Birdman” Chris Andersen, who at 35 is as active as ever down low. Otherwise the keys for the Heat are relatively straightforward. LeBron has to be the MVP, scoring, creating for teammates, while locking down Paul George on the defensive end. Wade needs to make the most of his rest days so he can attack the Indiana defense, and it will be important for Chris Bosh to stretch the floor and draw the Pacers’ big men out of the paint.

My prediction for this series isn’t groundbreaking, it’s a victory for Miami, but I do think it will be a better series than most would have you believe. These two teams dislike each other too much for the Heat to roll through the series as they did in the previous two rounds. Look for a lot of hard (dirty-ish) fouls and trash talking, and probably a couple close finishes. I just think the Heat are playing better basketball, maintain their composure better in big games, and have enough three point shooting coming off their bench. At this point it’s hard get a feel for what kind of team these Pacers truly are, and I think the two time defending champs are a considerably safer bet. Oh yeah and they have the best player in the world, which is always a plus. Look for the Heat to win in 6.

Western Conference Finals preview to follow.

Featured image credit: Steve Mitchell Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

What the hell happened yesterday?

Yesterday’s Mother’s Day NBA schedule featured two games that were each wild in their own way, and kind of left me scratching my head as to how the hell they ended how they ended.

The first game happened out west at the Staples Center, with the Clippers pulling off a stunning upset over the Thunder, winning 101-99. That was the kind of game that can turn a series around. There is a world of difference between being down 3-1 and being tied at 2-2, and the Clippers are now right back in it. This despite all the noise coming from their lunatic soon-to-be former owner. The Clippers trailed by as much as 16 with 9 minutes to go, and trailed by 12 with under 8 to go before the Clippers began their run. It started with Chris Paul’s personal 6-0 run, as he continued to show anyone crazy enough to doubt him that he is still the league’s best point guard. From there the Thunder struggled to score for the most part, with Chris Paul amazingly guarding Kevin Durant, forcing him into tough isolation possessions. Blake Griffin’s three point play with 1:50 remaining was one of the two biggest plays of the game for me, as it tied the game, along with Jamal Crawford’s clutch 3 (what else is new) with 1:23 to go. Darren Collison was also terrific in the fourth, scoring 12 points and using his speed in the open court. The Thunder don’t seem to have much of a plan in terms of late game execution on offense, so the crunch time edge will continue to go to the Clippers with Chris Paul’s ability to create off the dribble. Check out this gif of CP3 and DeAndre Jordan connecting on a nice alley oop:

The second game of the day was even weirder to me. The Wizards dropped a crucial game 4 to Indiana 95-92, now heading back to Indy down 3-1. This was a golden opportunity for the Wizards to get right back into this series, but they let it slip away. The opening quarter ended with the Pacers up 27-26, with the game staying mostly in the half court, which favors the Pacers dramatically. It wasn’t until the Wizards’ old guys checked in that Washington went on their run. The AARP club of Andre Miller, Drew Gooden, and Al Harrington played terrific all night, and looked like they could run away with it after outscoring Indiana 29-11 in the second quarter. But Paul George was the difference as he played his best game so far this postseason, with 39 points and 12 rebounds on 7-10 shooting from the 3 point line. Something is just plain wrong with Roy Hibbert, as he has trouble putting up consecutive quality quarters and repeatedly got blocked in the pain by smaller defenders. Also Lance Stephenson is one of the most erratic players I’ve ever seen, and I wouldn’t want him within a mile of my team, especially after he nearly blew the game with a late, bone headed turnover. Watching this game, you could see Indiana hanging around but all of a sudden they had a lead and you weren’t quite sure how they got there. I’m still far from convinced by this Pacers team, but once again they got it together just enough to survive and move closer to the Easter Conference Finals. John Wall’s awesome, buzzer beating layup to end the first half here for your viewing pleasure:

Both games yesterday were entertaining and sort of befuddling. The Thunder seemed to lose any semblance of a plan in the fourth quarter, and the Wizards managed to squander a vital game on their home court. Both series seem to be heading in different directions, with the Pacers likely to close things out in 5 (though I wouldn’t bet anything on it), and the series out west seems destined to be a 7 game classic. What do you think?

Featured Image Photo Credit: http://galleries.nba.com/gallery/Gamer_Action%3A_May_11

Biggest NBA winner of the NFL Draft?

Well that would be a certain point guard who plays for Brooklyn. Deron Williams, who I should note is signed for the maximum 5 years $100 million, played for 37 minutes in last night’s Game 2 in Miami. He and I scored the same number of points. ZERO. All I can really say is D-Will is very fortunate that the game conflicted with the NFL Draft, because he would be, and should be, getting crucified in headlines today. Here’s a look at last night’s ratings:

We all know the NFL is King when it comes to TV viewership, and all anyone is talking about today is the draft. But seriously, 0 points? Brooklyn’s leading scorer last night was Mirza Teletovic with 20. Mirza can certainly score, but if he is leading your team in scoring you probably won’t win a series against Miami. The Nets need D-Will to play like an All-Star, but he has continually looked like a shell of his former self. I would guess injuries are largely to blame, as Williams has suffered from ankle problems for the last couple of years, but he just can’t contribute at a high level with any kind of consistency. Kyle Lowry severely outplayed D-Will in the opening round series vs. Toronto, but point guard is not a position of strength for the Heat and he should be exploiting that every single game. Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like those days might be behind him. A good player, sure, but not a hundred-million-dollar-face-of-the-franchise star anymore. This is not to blame all of the Net’s struggles on one player, which would be unfair, but with that contract comes expectations that far exceed this kind of performance. If some Brooklyn home cooking can’t energize this Nets team and force a long series, the NFL Draft won’t be there so save D-Will this summer.