While the Eastern Conference semifinals produced some drama, the Western Conference semifinals featured domination by the Spurs and Thunder.
It’s unlikely that the domination with continue. The Spurs and Thunder are well-matched, with the old-school Spurs trying to hold off the younger Thunder.
Like the West, the East should be a very competitive series featuring two of the NBA’s marquee teams. Like the West, it’s also old school (Celtics) vs. new school — or at least newer school (Heat).
Sixers fans are familiar with both the Celtics and Heat. The Celtics eliminated the Sixers in seven hard-fought games. The Sixers were eliminated by the Heat last season.
With Rajon Rondo, the Celtics have a clear advantage at point guard. But, with Avery Bradley out for the rest of the postseason due to shoulder surgery, it’s unclear who will cover Dwyane Wade. The Heat’s weakness is their bench, but the Celtics don’t have the depth to take advantage of that weakness. They also don’t have the rebounding strength to dominate the glass in Bosh’s absence.
In the West, the Spurs have been dominating during the postseason. Not only did they sweep the Jazz and Clippers, but they won by double digits in the first three games of both series. In Game 3 against the Clippers, the Spurs scored 24 points in a row to erase a 24-point deficit. They eventually won by 10 points.
With many teams, there might be a question concerning how they will fare when forced to play tight games. There shouldn’t be any such questions surrounding the veteran-laden Spurs.
The Thunder have been almost as impressive as the Spurs. Facing arguably tougher competition, the Thunder swept the defending champion Mavericks, then eliminating Kobe Bryant & Co. in five games. Kevin Durant has demonstrated the ability to make tough shots at the end of the game, when the pressure is at its highest.
I won’t guarantee my playoff predictions, but I will point out that in this supposedly unpredictable season, with its condensed schedule, I correctly predicted 15 of the 16 playoff teams (the Blazers instead of the Jazz was my only mistake). In the first round, I correctly predicted six of eight series, with the Sixers-Bulls and Grizzlies-Clippers series, which I described as the toughest series to predict, being my only mistakes. I went 4-for-4 in predicting the conference semifinals.
The conference finals are tougher to predcit than the previous two rounds, where there were some clear-cut favorites. This round will be more competitive, but I have one prediction I’ll almost guarantee: the Spurs will lose their first playoff game this season.
The following is a preview of the conference finals:
(seeding in parentheses)
HEAT (2) vs. CELTICS (4)
Heat: The Heat begin this series without their big three intact. Chris Bosh strained an abdominal muscle at the beginning of the Pacers series and won’t be ready for the start of the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James (27.1 points), Dwyane Wade (22.1) and Bosh (18.0) were responsible for more than two-thirds of the Heat’s offense during the regular season. Without Bosh, even more of the load has fallen on the shoulders of James and Wade. James and Bosh are also the Heat’s top rebounders (7.9 per game), and James (6.2 assists) (left), and Wade (4.6) are the team’s best distributors. Point guards Mario Chalmers (9.8 points, 3.5 assists) and Norris Cole (6.8 points) contribute offensively, but the Heat need more offense from Mike Miller (6.1 points), Udonis Haslem (7.3 rebounds, 6.0 points) and defensive-minded Shane Battier (4.8 points). Center Joel Anthony can help on defense, but he’s a non-factor (3.4 points) at the offensive end. Haslem has replaced Bosh in the starting lineup.
Celtics: After being below .500 at the All-Star break, the Celtics got their act together during the second half of the season. The spark was point guard Rajon Rondo (11.9 points, 11.7 assists). Veteran Ray Allen (14.2 points) also helped out by accepting coming off the bench, showing that the team comes before the individual, but he missed the final nine game of the regular season with bone spurs and missed two more during the first round. Allen is thrust back into a starting role because Avery Bradley has season-ending shoulder surgery last week during the Sixers series. Paul Pierce (19.4) can still close out games, and center Kevin Garnett (15.8) can still close down opponents. Power forward Brandon Bass (12.5) has been a nice complementary player, and, as the Sixers found out, can be more than that if opposing defenses leave him alone.
How they got here: The Heat beat the Knicks, 4-1, and the Pacers, 4-2; the Celtics defeated the Hawks, 4-2, and outlasted the Sixers, 4-3.
Prediction: The absence of Bosh may not be as big a deal as many expect. The Celtics, with Garnett, have been relatively successful at limiting Bosh. Conversely, the Celtics’ loss of Bradley may have a larger impact on the series than many expect. Without Bradley, there is a question about who will cover Wade. The hobbled Allen can’t stay with Wade. If Rondo covers Wade, there is the danger of Rondo getting into foul trouble. Point guard is where the Celtics have the biggest advantage, so they can’t afford to let Rondo get into foul trouble. Not having Bosh in the lineup frees up Garnett to help out more on defense, but it’s still difficult to see how the Celtics will be able to slow down Wade. HEAT in 7
SPURS (1) vs. THUNDER (2)
Spurs: The Spurs, who overtook the Thunder down the stretch to earn the top seed in the Western Conference, have been building for the playoffs all season. Head coach Gregg Popovich has been judicious with Tim Duncan’s time, playing him just 28.2 minutes per game during the regular season. That decision has paid off, with Duncan playing a more featured role during the postseason. Manu Ginobili plays just 23.3 minutes per game and was limited to 34 regular-season games by injury. With Duncan (15.4 points) and Ginobili (12.9) spending more time on the bench, point guard Tony Parker (18.3) has been the face of the Spurs this season. Guards Patrick Mills (10.3) and Gary Neal (9.9), a former La Salle player, provide scoring balance. In fact, the Spurs have a remarkable six players averaging between 9 and 10 points. They are also the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA. The Spurs’ veterans have received additional rest after sweeping the Jazz and the Clippers.
Thunder: The Thunder swept the defending-champion Mavericks in the first round, although three of the four games were close, and then dispatched the Lakers in five games. The Thunder have plenty of talent, but talent alone won’t win them the NBA title. The talent begins with Kevin Durant (28.0 points), the NBA’s leading scorer. Point guard Russell Westbrook (23.6) is a force to be reckoned with, as is James Harden, who was an overwhelming choice as the NBA’s sixth man of the year. Some of the intagibles are supplied by forward Serge Ibaka, who averages 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and an eye-popping 3.65 blocked shots. The Thunder rely heavily on these four players. Former Laker Derek Fisher (5.6 points) provides a veteran and championship presence, but nobody outside the big four averages more than Fisher.
How they got here: The Spurs swept the Jazz, 4-0, and Clippers, 4-0; the Thunder swept the Mavericks, 4-0, and beat the Lakers, 4-1.
Prediction: Can the old-school Spurs squeeze out one more championship before stepping aside for younger teams such as the Thunder? We’ll find out within the next two weeks. I don’t like changing picks, and the Thunder were my preseason pick to win the championship. The Spurs, however, have won 18 straight games, including eight playoff victories. It’s difficult to pick against a team that hasn’t lost since since April 11, but, with games every other day, the Spurs won’t have time to rest. That tips me back to the younger Thunder, my preseason pick (or maybe I’m just searching for reasons to pick the Thunder). THUNDER IN 7