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.