The Battle In South Beach didn’t prove to be much of a battle. The Miami Heat used a 33-16 run through the second quarter to blitz the Indiana Pacers in anticlimactic 99-76 win to win what was otherwise an excellent series to settle the championship of the Eastern Conference.
Miami’s win proved every adage that the NBA lives by. It’s better to have championship-tested veterans, even hurt and maybe a little past prime, rather than rising young talent that hasn’t been there before. You have to wait your turn and get your heart broken before you can win. Those are clichés, but they are the truest explanation for what happened last night.
Dwayne Wade has been a shell of himself for this series, obviously slowed by the knee injury that’s bothered him all year. Last night he looked like something resembling the D-Wade of old. It’s not just the 21 points, though that was impressive enough. It’s the nine rebounds, and the constant sight of him in the mix for loose balls.
Then there was Chris Bosh, perhaps still unable to get untracked scoring, but going for eight boards. These were the biggest factors in why Miami outrebounded Indiana 43-36, a stat that by itself would tell you the end result.
On the flip side, there was Indiana looking to young for the moment. I had a bad feeling about what would happen with Paul George. He’s a genuine rising star in this league and will likely get future chances at this level of the playoffs, but last night he looked like what he was—someone at his first rodeo. George shot 2-of-9 from the floor and was a non-factor.
As a team, Indiana reverted to its bad habits from last year and much of this season, and it’s settling on the perimeter rather than pounding down low. They attempted 20 three-point attempts, four more than Miami, in spite of the Heat being the team ostensibly built around the trey. Lest you think Indiana was hot, they only made six. I’m sorry, you aren’t going to beat anyone, much less the champions on their home floor, when Gerald Green is shooting threes at the expense of Roy Hibbert or David West seeing the ball down low.
I don’t buy the excuse that Indiana settled for threes because they were behind. If that’s the case—and it probably is—it’s yet another sign of a team that’s too young and panicked too early. Comebacks don’t happen when you get out of your game and start wildly jacking up shots. Comebacks happen when you lock down on defense, stabilize the game and then gradually get back into the flow. Indiana never gave themselves that chance, and Hibbert & West’s combined 32 points/12 rebounds were too pedestrian.
Finally, the turnovers. Indiana committed 15 in the first half when the game was decided, and ended up with 21 on the game. This wasn’t a byproduct of Game 7 nerves, though it could be reasonably taken as such. Indiana had this problem all series long, indeed all season long. A good ball-handler at the point will surely be a top off-season priority.
Let’s bring it all together and look at all of these factors, any one of which would be a clear indicator of a Miami win, and collectively add up to a blowout…
*Wade gets on an offensive roll and again looks like a legit #2 scorer to LeBron James
*The combo of Wade & Bosh lead Miami to a rebounding advantage
*Indiana settles for three-point shots at the expense of the post game
*The Pacers turn the ball over left and right
*Paul George implodes
Oh, and LeBron? He had 32 points/8 rebounds/4 assists. Just another day at the office. Bring on San Antonio.
Speaking of Miami-San Antonio, the NBA Finals will start on Thursday night. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will be back tomorrow to preview the series.
We’re headed for Game 7 in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals. Over the last three nights, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers have traded decisive wins on their home floors to set up the big battle on South Beach on Monday night. Our purpose here is to look back at the lessons of Games 5 & 6, and use those to point ahead to the one-game showdown coming up.
THIRD QUARTER BLOWOUTS
Both Games 5 & 6 followed an odd similarity. In each case, a mostly competitive game was blown open in the third quarter. Miami won the third quarter of Game 5 by a 30-13 margin, wiping out a four-point halftime deficit and winning 90-79. Indiana trailed by a point at intermission of Game 6 and used a 29-15 run in the third period to pave the way to a 91-77 victory.
INDIANA PERSPECTIVE: WHAT BOTHERS ME ABOUT GAME 5
Say what you will about LeBron James’ great third quarter performance. Make no mistake, it was as great as you’ve heard in the national media. He scored 16 of his 30 points, dished four more assists and by all accounts became the vocal leader he’s often been accused of not being. But his final stat line—30 points/8 rebounds/6 assists, was essentially matched by Paul George, who slapped up a 27/11/5. Why then, didn’t Indiana get this win?
The biggest reason is that they didn’t rebound—at least not the way they have in every other series. Indiana only won the battle of the boards by a 33-32 margin. The Pacers need big edges on the glass to win games. That’s why, while Roy Hibbert’s 22 points were great, his six rebounds were woefully inadequate. The reality is this—Indiana can win even if LeBron has a great game. The Pacers just have to win every other battle, which is a tall order, but a realistic one given the talent matchup. They came nowhere close to doing it on Thursday night.
MIAMI PERSPECTIVE: WHAT BOTHERS ME ABOUT GAME 6
When you’re a three-point shooting team, you know you’ll have off games, especially against the good defenses in the playoffs. The media can get all excited if you lose a game or two, but in a best-of-seven, you’re betting that your outside shots come around. Well, for Miami, the shots came around on the road in Game 6. The Heat hit six treys right out of the gate and were 10-of-18 behind the arc. Mario Challmes, Norris Cole and Mike Miler combined to go 5-for-7. Furthermore, LeBron had a 29/7/6. Why then, didn’t the Heat close this out on Saturday night?
Because the problems with constructing a team around three-point shooters became readily apparent. Indiana reasserted itself on the glass, with a monstrous 53-33 advantage. Hibbert was back to being a beast inside, with a 24/11. David West, playing with a respiratory infection grabbed 14 boards, and Lance Stephenson crashed in from the backcourt to pick up twelve more.
If I’m Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, I get that I can’t match up with Hibbert. But are you telling me that Chris Bosh can’t at least fight West to a draw and that nobody can box out Stephenson?. If I’m Spoelstra, I saw my team shoot the ball well from the perimeter and still get beat pretty handily. And that scares me.
LOOKING AHEAD TO GAME 7
Game 7 in the NBA playoffs starts with homecourt advantage, and based on the history of the league—especially the history in marquee matchups—I’d be surprised if Miami loses this game on Monday. But I’m also surprised this game is even being played, and that’s because the Indiana team a lot us knew existed is growing up before our eyes.
Paul George is becoming a player who can at least mitigate LeBron to some extent—not so much stop him, but answer at the other end. The Pacers aren’t settling for three-point shots and are merciless at pounding the ball to Hibbert and West in the paint. They’re allowing their strengths—defense, rebounding and physical post play on the offensive end to carry them and these first six games have demonstrated Miami cannot match up.
But intangibles are also enormous here. Since about the time that Miami found its back to the wall in this same playoff round in Boston a year ago, we’ve seen a different LeBron. Even when he was struggling on Saturday night in Game 6, you could see him embracing the leadership role and looking to will his team to a win. It’s just very difficult to beat a star on his home floor who has that kind of mentality.
Furthermore, I’m concerned that the pressure of this game will cause Indiana to wilt back into some of its bad habits. How will George respond to the biggest game of his life? Will the offense keep going down low to Hibbert? As well as Indiana has matched up with Miami, the Pacers have had plenty of moments where they commit to many turnovers and in general look like an “almost-there-but-not-quite-yet” kind of team. I’ve been saying since last year that they control their destiny—they have the raw material to beat Miami. But they’re still maturing, and I just don’t have a good feeling about where this is going in Game 7.
I’m pulling for Indiana, and if you want to sell me on them as the favorite for next year in the East (pending, obviously the coming offseason moves), I might be ready to bite. I really do think this team is growing up in front of us. But I’m not ready to believe this Miami team, after winning 66 games, embracing all the pressure and having the game’s best player, is going to lose prior to the NBA Finals.
TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will come back Tuesday morning to rehash Game 7. The Finals begin on Thursday and we’ll have a preview before the final round begins.
If we’d been told at the start of the conference finals that one of these series would end up in a sweep, while the other was knotted 2-2, my guess is that most people would have assumed that San Antonio-Memphis were in a dogfight, while Miami showed Indiana who was boss. But it’s been the opposite. With both Game 4s in the books, San Antonio is celebrating its spot in the NBA Finals, while Miami heads home to South Beach hoping that homecourt advantage can help them survive the final leg of the Eastern Conference Finals.
A HEATED HOMESTRETCH IN THE EAST
Indiana continues to show how much they’ve grown as a basketball team since losing to Miami last year—heck, even since letting Atlanta back into their first-round series. The Pacers are making full use of their big interior advantage on the Heat. Indiana won the rebounding battle in Game 4 by a decisive 49-30 count, and Roy Hibbert continues to be right in the discussion with LeBron James for who’s been the best player in this series. Hibbert had 23 points/12 rebounds.
And last night, Hibbert got help in the backcourt. Lance Stephenson, who had done nothing for three games, stepped up with 20 points. Indiana also clamped down defensively, holding Miami to sub-40 percent shooting and it added up to a 99-92 win that squared the series.
Miami was inefficient in its own backcourt. Dwayne Wade and Mario Chalmers combined for 36 points, but it took 11-of-29 shooting to get their numbers. With Udonis Haslem having come back down to earth after a big Game 3, LeBron James simply did not have the help necessary to get his team over the top. The Heat have to dominate the backcourt if they are going to win this series—at least presuming Indiana keeps working its frontcourt advantage. It’s not enough for Miami’s guards to play well, they have to own the night. With Wade and Chalmers inefficient, and Ray Allen and Norris Cole invisible all series long, this has to concern head coach Erik Spoelstra.
One item that might get interesting in the back stretch of this series is free throw attempts. Indiana had enjoyed a substantial edge in foul shot opportunities in the first three games. In Game 4, the gap narrowed to a manageable 33-27. And with Miami shooting 23 three-point shots, it’s not like the Heat were challenging the Pacers down low and getting to the line. Conspiracy theorists will be alert to whether the league office, quivering in fear at the prospect of an Indiana-San Antonio finals, makes sure LeBron spends a lot of time at the free throw line.
I’m not a full-blown conspiracy theorist, but the NBA has earned enough skepticism on this topic over the years, that I’ll at least assume Miami starts breaking even on free throw attempts—and when you’re the perimeter-oriented team in the series, that means it takes a lot of 50/50 calls going your way to make that happen.
SAN ANTONIO SWEEPS IN THE WEST
I had picked the Spurs to win this series, believing their veteran ability to close out tough games would be the difference. But in no way did I think San Antonio would do it every single time. These teams are competitively matched if you cut the game off with five minutes to go, but in those key moments, the Spurs edge is much greater than even a sympathetic observer thought it was.
Game 4 saw San Antonio grab a 10-point lead after a quarter and then basically keep Memphis at arm’s length the rest of the way, en route to the 93-86 win that secured this series. It came on the heels of consecutive overtime wins in Games 2 &3.
Tony Parker was the undisputed lead story, shooting 15-of-21 and scoring 37 points. But the underrated secondary story is that San Antonio, as they have all year, are playing defense at a very high level. They held Memphis to 37% shooting, including forcing Mike Conley and Zach Randolph into rough 4-of-13 shooting nights. Pau Gasol had a pedestrian 14 points, and with the Grizzlies’ big guns silenced, Quincy Pondexter’s 22 off the bench was not going to be enough.
Furthermore, we have to note that San Antonio gets this win in spite of shooting poorly from behind the arc (3-for-13) and being outrebounded, 41-34. It was a so-so game from Tim Duncan, who had 15 points and 8 rebounds. Everything should have been in place for the Spurs to get beat and have to close it out back home. That they still won the game, and kept it in control the entire way speaks to how well this team is both playing defense, and executing its offense inside the arc.
We know there’s at least two more games before the Finals begin, and Miami will host Indiana at 8:30 PM ET on TNT. The same network will host Game 6 back in Indy on Saturday night, also an 8:30 PM ET tipoff. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will return on Sunday morning. We’ll either be celebrating another conference champion, or looking ahead to a Game 7 on Monday.
The NBA playoffs are renowned as a time for the veterans and when being battle-tested matters more than anything else. That truism held in Game 3 of both conference finals matchups, as the San Antonio Spurs put an ironclad grip on the West, and the Miami Heat prevented the Indiana Pacers from getting any ideas in the East.
SPURS A GAME AWAY
No one has forgotten how San Antonio won the first two games at home in last year’s Western Conference Finals, only to lose four straight to Oklahoma City. Least of all, the Spurs themselves. They took Memphis’ best punch in the first quarter of Game 3, when the Grizzlies ran out to a 29-13 lead. But San Antonio settled back down, had the lead mostly wiped out by halftime and ended up getting a 104-93 win in overtime.
What stands out the most is the rebounding—the Spurs beat the Grizzlies on the boards, 50-48. It’s a narrow edge to be sure, but this is the area that Memphis was supposed to dominate. Even more interesting is that this didn’t happen through any fault of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Memphis big men combined 29 rebounds, and 30 points to boot. San Antonio countered some of that with a big night from Tim Duncan, who had 24/10. But it’s the Spurs’ depth that ultimately delivered them. Kawhi Leonard had 11 rebounds. And Manu Ginobli not only scored 19, but he chased down seven rebounds. Add it all up, and San Antonio’s quantity of talent was able to overtake the quality of Randolph, Gasol and Mike Conley.
It’s now just a matter of time for San Antonio to wrap this up, either tonight on the road or on Wednesday back home. Games 2 & 3 were as competitive as I, and most observers, expected out of this series. But we underestimate San Antonio’s ability to consistently close at the end, winning both games in overtime.
HEAT TAKE CHARGE ON THE ROAD
After Indiana stole Game 2 on the road, the pressure had shifted to Miami last night when the series went to the heartland. Miami easily responded, with a 114-96 win where they took command in the second quarter and never looked back.
The key story here was the surprise emergence of Udonis Haslem, who scored 17 points and 7 rebounds, and at least gave the Heat some type of inside presence. Miami is never going to be a post-oriented team, but a game like this from Haslem at least neutralizes some of Indiana’s substantial edge in down low, and makes Miami virtually unbeatable.
Indiana still got a good game from David West (21/10) and a great one from Roy Hibbert (20/17). But Miami clamped down defensively on Paul George, who shot just 3-of-10 from the field. And the Pacers have got to get something from Lance Stephenson, who’s had a miserable series in the backcourt. Indiana also needs to shoot its free throws better. They had a 44-28 edge on Miami in attempts, but only translated that to a 30-24 margin on the scoreboard.
There isn’t any reason for Indiana to panic. They didn’t revert to settling for jumpers, kept going down low and it’s unlikely Haslem is going to keep playing like he did on Sunday night. Furthermore, Indiana seems to have found some way of preventing LeBron James from racking up assists. LeBron had been good for seven or so a game in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but his passing has been quiet in the last two games. I expect Indiana to win Game 4 tomorrow night.
But ultimately, this game showed that the Heat have that “other gear” that veteran, tested teams seem to find in the playoffs. Whether it’s the lockdown defense on George, or the unlikely contribution from Haslem, this is the way veteran teams find a way to win. And it’s why I think Game 4 is the last one Indiana will win.
The Spurs-Grizzlies resume tonight on ESPN with a 9 PM ET tip. Tomorrow night it’s Heat-Pacers with an 8:30 PM ET start time on TNT. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will be back on Wednesday with an overview once both Game 4s are in the books.
The Indiana Pacers have done what they needed to do to raise interest in their Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Miami Heat. After pushing the Heat literally to the last second in a Game 1 overtime loss, Indiana stepped up and won Game 2 last night, evening the series as it heads back to the Midwest. Since this is the more compelling of the two conference finals thus far, an overview of Pacers-Heat will lead up this morning’s NBA commentary.
Each game—Miami’s 103-102 win to start the series, and Indiana’s 97-93 triumph last night to square it is filled with storylines and angles, none of which point in a clear direction. Since the question most people have is “Can Indiana really win this thing?”, we’ll start by summarizing the positive developments the Pacers can point to.
*The frontline is active and involved—unlike last year’s conference semifinal loss to Miami, where Indiana got passive and settled for perimeter jumpers, the Pacers are getting the ball to the paint. Roy Hibbert scored 48 points in the two games at South Beach, David West had a 26-point showing in Game 1 and played well in Game 2. And small forward Paul George has given the team a mix of scoring off the dribble and with the jumper, producing 49 points in the two games combined. George also hit a miracle three-point shot to force overtime in Game 1.
*Indiana is getting to the foul line. They’ve won the free-throw scoring battle both times, 24-16 in the opener and 26-18 in Game 2. Some of this is because Miami is mediocre at the foul line to date, but in either case, the Pacers are getting more attempts. This is a direct byproduct of controlling the interior. It also suggests that, thus far anyway, they’re getting some fair officiating. Although given the NBA’s history in this regard, you’ll have to color me skeptical that such would continue if Indiana really gets in position to knock the Heat out of the Finals. If you don’t believe me, ask the good people of Sacramentoabout such matters.
*It’s only a failed coaching gambit that’s preventing Indiana from being up 2-0. Leading by a point with a two seconds left in overtime of Game 1, Pacer coach Frank Vogel inexplicably kept Hibbert—only one of the league’s best shotblockers—off the floor when Miami inbounded for the final possession. LeBron James’ eyes lit up and he took it to the hole for an uncontested layup. I suppose Miami might have hit a perimeter jumper to win it had Hibbert been in the lineup, but the odds of pulling that off are less than 50 percent.
But before we get carried away with the underdog, there’s some good things Miami can point to…
*While the Heat have been outrebounded in both games, it’s been by manageable margins. They lost the battle 43-38 in Game 1 and 39-32 in Game 2. Given that Miami is attempting to win this series on the perimeter while Indiana’s trying to dominate down low, that’s good enough on the glass. The bigger problem is that Ray Allen and Shane Battier are just cold from three-point range. But they’re hanging in there with Indiana’s big men.
*The backcourt defense in Game 1 was stifling, as George Hill and Lance Stephenson did nothing. And it was still pretty good in Game 2. Even though Hill had a good game for Indiana, Stephenson was again unproductive. Defensive dominance in the backcourt is a prerequisite for a Miami victory and the early signs here are positive.
*LeBron is still LeBron. He had a couple big turnovers last night that get the media attention, but he dropped a 30/10/10 in Game 1 and scored 36 in Game 2. And this isn’t a Carmelo Anthony kind of 30-point night, where LeBron’s taking 35 shots to do it. He continues to shoot efficiently from the floor and get his teammates involved. Again, the bigger problem is that his three-point shooters—Allen and Battier are not hitting their shots and the result was that LeBron’s assist numbers plummeted in Game 2’s loss.
*The argument I made above—that Indiana could be up 2-0—can be refuted by noting that Miami would have come out extra intense for Game 2 had they lost the opener and that it’s highly unlikely the Pacers shoot 50 percent from the floor against a desperate team.
So where’s it all going from here? At the start of the series I picked Miami in five games, and presumed that Indiana would win one of the middle games at home. But I also said that if Indiana stayed focused and kept going inside that this series was very close to even, and you can even argue the Pacers are better. TNT’s Kenny Smith has accurately noted that it’s tough to win multiple championships when you are not a good rebounding team. Miami is not.
Hence, we can’t assume that the Heat can just flip a switch. In reality, it’s the Pacers switch we have to watch. If they keep going down low and working their game plan they can defend their home floor and put Miami on the brink. If they revert to last year’s form and shoot 25 treys each of the next two games, Miami can go home up 3-1. I’ll split the difference with the safe pick and say Indiana gets one win at home and just adjust my pre-series pick to say Miami in six.
This was the more interesting series when it began, has turned into the less compelling one, but there’s still opportunity for Memphis to turn it around. San Antonio came out blazing in Game 1, built a big early lead and won 105-83. The Spurs continued to be in command for three quarters of Game 2. It was then Memphis made a lineup change, locked down on the defensive end and forced overtime before finally coming up short, 93-89.
I’m inclined to write off Game 1 as an anomaly. The Spurs got a combined 8-of-11 three-point shooting from Kawhi Leonard and Matt Bonner. On the Memphis side, Zach Randolph only scored two points. Give great credit to the Spurs—it speaks well to their preparedness that they had a plan for Randolph, and to the depth. But giving credit is different from saying it’s likely to happen again. None of those developments are.
Memphis got its rebounding mojo back in Game 2, with Randolph and Pau Gasol leading a team-wide 60-46 advantage on the glass. This is the type of advantage the Grizzlies need to sustain—it’s also where the Pacers need to be in their series. Memphis further did a good job on Tony Parker, forcing him into a 6-for-20 shooting night.
But Parker did what veterans do and that’s find a way to contribute when his shot wasn’t falling. He handed out 18 assists and the balanced Spurs lineup was able to prevail. Their underrated defense held Memphis to 34 percent shooting in the process.
I liked the Spurs to win a long series win this started. I’m obviously not changing my mind on San Antonio, but nor am I changing my mind about the long series. Memphis gave guard Jerryd Bayless some extra minutes in Game 2 and got 18 points from him. If he can replace the unproductive Tony Allen in the lineup and join with point guard Mike Conley, then Memphis will have the backcourt support that it’s frontline needs. I expect some good games this weekend, but also feel like the Grizzlies will win both and turn this back into a series again.
San Antonio-Memphis resumes tonight at 9 PM ET on ESPN. Sunday night it’s Miami-Indiana with an 8:30 PM ET tip on TNT. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will return Monday morning with updated overviews on both series after their Game 3s.
The conference finals in the NBA playoffs are set, as the Indiana Pacers eliminated the New York Knicks, 106-99 in Game 6 of their second round series. We’ll briefly recap the Pacers-Knicks game, and then dive into previews of the next round—Memphis-San Antonio in the West and Indiana-Miami in the East.
THE KNICKS DON’T MEASURE UP
What other conclusion can you reach when New York does everything they could be reasonably asked to do, and still lose the basketball game? The Knicks had their three-point shooting game going, hitting 13-of-30 from behind the arc. Carmelo Anthony was hot inside the arc, knocking down 39 points on 15-of-29 shooting. New York got a big performance from Iman Shumpert who buried five treys. As a team the Knicks made all 18 of their free throw attempts. And yet they still lost.
New York couldn’t match up with Indiana’s strength down low. The theme of this series again played out last night in Indy. The Pacers decisively won the rebounding battle and their control of the interior led them to a decisive edge at the foul line. Even with New York shooting 100 percent from the stripe, Indiana got the line 46 times and with 34 makes, had the scoring edge that made the difference.
Roy Hibbert was the key player on all counts. He got the ball in the low post, something that’s certainly not always the case with this team. Hibbert was 9/12 at the line, and had overall numbers of 21 points/12 rebounds/5 blocks. His biggest block came with a snuff of Anthony at the rim late in the game and that play was the momentum-changer that enabled the Pacers to pull away.
Indiana got great backcourt play from Lance Stephenson and George Hill. Stephenson had 25 points/10 rebounds, while Hill scored 12 and the two guards combined to go 14-of-15 from the free throw line. In the end, the Pacers won because they are a better, more complete basketball team than the Knicks, and before this offseason in New York degenerates into some form of complaining against Melo or Mike Woodson’s coaching, the front office may as well just realize that and get better and younger on the frontline.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: SAN ANTONIO-MEMPHIS
This series starts this afternoon in San Antonio and you can make excellent cases for either team to advance to the Finals. No one is playing better basketball right now than Memphis—I exclude Miami because the Heat have faced such minimal competition through two rounds it’s hard to know how well they’re really playing. The Grizzlies are known for their tough defense and rebounding, and Zach Randolph and Pau Gasol have both come up big in the series wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City. The duo has combined for a 38 points/17 rebounds per game average in the playoffs.
Mike Conley has stepped into his own at the point guard spot. He’s always been a great passer, and is getting seven assists a game, but now he’s scoring—18 ppg in the playoffs—and making defenses pay if they collapse on Randolph or Gasol. Quincy Pondexter has chipped in with some good three-point shooting, Tony Allen kicks in 11 ppg and Tayshuan Prince provides both veteran leadership and a defensive stopper.
The quality of the Grizzlies play can be illustrated by this—even though they were 18th in the NBA in offensive efficiency during the regular season, they’ve been the fifth-best of the playoff teams—in spite of playing very good teams in each of the first two rounds. This team has balance and they’re peaking. What more could you want?
Well, I suppose you could want an opponent that’s not quite as battle-tested. I can’t rattle off the array of names that the San Antonio Spurs bring to the table—you know they get great backcourt play from Tony Parker, solid post work from Tim Duncan and both veterans provide leadership, but after that it’s role players stepping in and out. I can’t throw out silver-bullet stats. All I can do is just point out that the Spurs responded to a major challenge from Golden State and drastically increased the quality of their defensive play as that second round series went on. If there’s an intangible edge to be had against any opponent—including Miami—the Spurs will find it.
And one thing I have liked about San Antonio all season long is the quality of their defense. They were third in efficiency during the regular season and continued to defend at a high level in the playoffs. It’s an area that marked improvement has been made from last season. The key in this series will be getting rebounding—first from Kawhi Leonard, who’s averaging eight boards a game in the playoffs, and from Tiago Splitter. Duncan alone won’t be enough against Gasol and Randolph.
Based purely on the matchups, there’s no reason not to pick Memphis. But the NBA playoffs are a time for veterans and I think the Parker/Duncan combo, with Gregg Popovich orchestrating on the sidelines, has got one more big series win left in them. I think the bad taste of last year’s loss to Oklahoma City in this round is going to be a driving force. And the defensive performance the Spurs have delivered all year gives me a reasonable basis for this belief, rather than just guessing on intangibles. San Antonio in seven games.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: MIAMI-INDIANA
I know the media is disappointed that we don’t get a Heat-Knicks conference finals matchup. The LeBron-Melo showdown would have been good for publicity, and the archivists could have dug out some highlights of the fierce playoff wars these teams waged from 1997-2000. But Heat-Pacers will make for a more compelling basketball matchup.
The reason is simple—New York can’t counter anything Miami does. If you’re built around one star (Melo, in this case) and the other team’s star is better, how do you expect to win? Indiana, on the other hand, has the option of going right at Miami’s underbelly, which is the low post.
I’ve felt Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made a brilliant decision when he decided to quit forcing minutes onto mediocre centers just to have his lineup meet some esoteric ideal. The Heat’s strength was its perimeter depth and the amazing versatility of King James, so Spoelstra played to that and spread the floor. Miami was only 21st in the NBA in rebounding, but made up for it with good defense and great offensive execution, an area they were the league’s best.
But making the most of the way your roster is constructed doesn’t mean you don’t have a weakness and Indiana is one of the few teams (along with Memphis, and perhaps San Antonio) who have the personnel that can go after that. The Heat have no way of matching up with Hibbert and David West down low if Indiana persists in going after it. Chris Bosh has had a good postseason, but he’s not enough, and if you put LeBron down low too much you take away from his strength and potentially get him in foul trouble.
The question then becomes twofold—will Indiana stay focused enough to execute this game plan, and if they do, can Miami compensate by obliterating the Pacers on the perimeter?
We’ll start with the latter question. The health of Dwayne Wade’s knee has been in question all year and it’s a big X-factor in this series, but right now Wade looks to be ready to play, so we’ll assume he can be productive. Wade is shooting a solid 45 percent in the playoffs and Norris Cole has been excellent supporting piece. Mario Challmes runs the offense and you have veteran three-point shooters in Ray Allen and Shane Battier.
Indiana, by contrast has Stephenson and Hill. If the latter two play like they did last night, the Heat will have problems. More realistically though, the Heat can indeed obliterate the Pacers on the perimeter if it comes to that. Which would put pressure on Indiana small forward Paul George to not simply play well, but be a star. George has had some great games in these playoffs, but if his team is going to win this series, he needs a string of 20 points/12 rebounds/8 assists showings .
My bigger concern though is whether the Pacers will stay focused enough to pound the ball to the paint. They had this same edge in the playoffs last year, and won two of the first three games against Miami. But they settled into three-point shooting. And that tendency has continued to show itself at different points through their series wins over Atlanta and New York.
What it comes down to this—I know what I’m getting from Miami. LeBron’s got a playoff average of 24/7/7 and he’s so consistent it seems like exactly that every night. I know they’ll play defense and this being the NBA, I know they’ll get a few calls down the stretch.
I don’t know what I’m getting from Indiana. If I get the smart, disciplined Pacers that showed up last night, they can not only compete, they can shock the world. But I’ve seen nothing that tells me that Hibbert will get the ball down low over and over for several games in a row. That’s why I see Miami holding serve at home, stealing one of the middle games on the road and winning this in five games.
It’s a weird schedule this week for the conference finals. Miami and Indiana won’t start until Wednesday night (8:30 PM ET, TNT). By then Memphis-San Antonio will have two games under their belt—both today (3:30 PM ET, ABC) and Tuesday (9 PM ET, ESPN). Then the West gets a few days off while the East catches up and by the weekend each series will be ready to start Game 3 and go every other day.
TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary therefore, will wait until Saturday morning to return. We can review what went down in the first two games of both series and look ahead to what might happen when the lower seeds get their home games.
In the meantime, be sure to check out our NHL analysis, as the second round heats up this week, along with MLB coverage, where next week will mark a time to fill out early All-Star ballots and individual award leaders in both leagues.