The missing links: 2014 NBA Conference Finals preview
Even the best NBA teams are not perfect. There are minor blemishes, weaknesses that can be exploited, and cracks in the system which – if discovered and attacked – can become gaping holes. The lower down the totem pole you search, you’re likely to find more weaknesses, more cracks. But as we get into the exclusive territory of the league’s best, the cracks become harder to find. Beating one of these teams – especially if they are motivated and tactically prepared with true championship aspirations – can become the toughest job in basketball. But, to be the best, you have to beat the best.
We are now only a few hours away from the beginning of the 2014 NBA Conference Finals. 26 of the 30 teams that started the season have been eliminated and only four remain: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, and Thunder. All four teams were top two in their respective conferences in the regular season and owned four of the five best overall season records. They have overcome all types of strife, worthy challengers, outside doubters and even some internal unbalance. In most cases, they have played stretches of great basketball and in some cases, found stretches of great fortune.
These four teams are also the ones with the fewest weaknesses or blemishes to exploit. The challenge for all the Conference Finals rivals now, against each other, is to find those few blemishes – those missing links in an otherwise successful system – and find a way to turn a minor crack into a wide crevice.
After a historic First Round, the Second Round – although still exciting – seemed to have passed by relatively quietly. The Indiana Pacers – who despite struggling with consistency – have won six of their last eight games and survived a motivated Wizards side to win the series 4-2. Indiana was a juggernaut, looking motivated in their wins, but completely classless in their defeats. Eventually, their post-season experience trumped over the young and springy Wizards. Paul George and Lance Stephenson came up big in the series. Roy Hibbert continued his role as the playoffs’ most unpredictable performer on a nightly basis. And David West valiantly closed the series out. After all the drama and the struggles, the Pacers are back in the Conference Finals, and equipped to give Miami a run for it’s money.
Speaking of the Miami Heat: even though they have won eight of nine playoff games, the process has been far tougher than the result. LeBron continues to be one of the two best players in the world, taking on the top scoring, passing, rebounding, and defending responsibilities for his team every night. But Miami beyond him look weaker than they ever have in the last three years. Still, they had enough in the tank to defeat an old and broken Brooklyn Nets side in five games. For Miami, their biggest strength now (beyond LeBron of course) seems to be their late game poise; this team never panics, and has figured a way to close out games better than anyone else in the league.
The strongest remaining team at this point seem to be the San Antonio Spurs, who had little trouble disposing of the Portland Trail Blazers in five relatively easy games. This has been said numerous times before, but the Spurs are a well-oiled machine at this point. While the First Round against the Dallas Mavericks went on longer than anyone expected, San Antonio woke up in Game 7 of that series and continued that form through to the Second Round, holding an 18.5 point advantage in each of their victories.
The most competitive Second Round series – unsurprisingly – was the Oklahoma City Thunder vs. the Los Angeles Clippers. After two huge comeback wins, controversial late-game calls, and heroic performances by all four superstars in the series – Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin – OKC won the series 4-2. The Thunder still have issues figuring their offense out beyond the brilliance of Durant and Westbrook, but they were good enough to outlast the Clips.
Moving on to the next round, it won’t be each team’s strengths that leads them through to the NBA Finals, it’ll be the small weaknesses of their opponents. To preview the Conference Finals, I recap each team’s missing links, and then, I predict the last two teams standing.
East: Pacers vs. Heat
The Pacers’ weaknesses are well known and have been especially well publicized over the last few months. Indiana are the worst offensive team still standing; through two rounds, only the Bulls and the Wizards scored less points per game than the Pacers (91.4) in the playoffs. When things are going bad for them, they go real bad. Their offense can disappear for worryingly long stretches and Miami is good enough defensively to capitalize on them on nights when Paul George’s shots aren’t falling, Lance Stephenson is not being aggressive (or being too aggressive) and Roy Hibbert is displaying his vanishing trick again.
The Heat looked great against the weak Bobcats in the First Round and did an admirable job closing out in the close games against the tricky Nets. Still, they would be foolish to be complacent at this point. Everyone in the Heat except for LeBron has been wildly inconsistent and their other two All Stars – Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – have to show up big if the Heat want to make their fourth consecutive Finals appearance. They are still a smaller team and might start rolling out bigger lineups against the frontline of West and Hibbert for Indiana.
The Verdict: Indiana have been constructed particularly for this match-up. It doesn’t matter how difficult the route was to get this far; they’ve been preparing for this series for a year. This is their shot at redemption after last year’s seven game loss to Miami in the Conference Finals. Unfortunately, Indiana seems to have lost their mojo and go into too many stretches of pure horrible basketball. Despite their offensive weaknesses, Indiana is usually above average on defense on every possession. But Miami has the ability to be above average on both ends of the floor, and that will ultimately prove to be the difference. Heat in 7.
West: Spurs vs. Thunder
The Spurs are rolling and are clicking perfectly with each other on both ends of the floor at this point. They are well rested, have the experience, have the star power, and a deep bench to deal with most opponents that come their way. But they do have one weak point: defending against quick perimeter players and defending pick-and-rolls. Monta Ellis and Devin Harris exploited this in the First Round, and now, they have to deal with the two-headed monster of Westbrook and Durant. While Kawhi Leonard is an exceptional defender, there is really no easy way that the Spurs can stop the two Thunder superstars. Another potential issue for the Spurs is their offensive over-reliance on Tony Parker: Parker is a fantastic penetrator and creates numerous opportunities for San Antonio. He may be a little hobbled by injury, but even if he’s healthy, it’s going to get tiresome to play against Westbrook on one end and then be at full stride creating on the other.
For OKC, we must first start with a link that is really going to be missing for the rest of the playoffs: Serge Ibaka. Ibaka has been ruled out for the post-season to a calf injury he suffered in the last game against the Clippers, a huge blow to a team that relies more on their talent than an actual working system to defeat opponents. Ibaka has been brilliant again this season, and he was especially disruptive against the Spurs in their four meetings. His presence on the floor as a defensive deterrent truly hurt the Spurs in the sweep they faced in four games versus OKC. Without him, the Spurs can attack with more reckless abandon, and there will be shot stoppers against Parker/Ginobili’s penetration or Duncan’s work in the post. Additionally, the Thunder will continue to have their offensive woes: their offense currently is simply a ‘your turn, my turn’ game between Durant and Westbrook, and other players are never involved easily in scoring the points for OKC. The Spurs are smart enough to exploit OKC’s lack of offensive imagination.
The Verdict: OKC did sweep the Spurs in the regular season, as San Antonio had simply no answers for Durant (and Westbrook when he played). The Spurs will still struggle to contain these two talents, but the absence of Ibaka might be a little too much for the Thunder to overcome. Durant will have to take up many of Ibaka’s responsibilities that might hurt other aspects of his game, and the likes of Nick Collison and Steven Adams can’t be a substitute for Ibaka’s mixture of talent and athleticism either. I expect the series to go back and forth until the end, but the Spurs should have enough juice to return to the NBA Finals. Spurs in 7.
So there you have it: my prediction is that the 2014 Finals will be a rematch between the Heat and the Spurs, recalling the memorable Finals series from a year ago. But before they can look too far ahead, all remaining teams must focus on the challenges at hand: at limiting their own weaknesses while making the most of their opponents’ missing links.