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.