The Usual Suspects

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The Usual Suspects

Javier Cortez, Sports Editor

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To no surprise, the Thunder, Spurs, Heat and Pacers are back in their respective conference finals. At times in the last month, it looked like there would be a few upsets and teams on the rise, but all in all the early season favorites are still here.

Looking back over the first two rounds, the roads to the conference finals have been quite similar for these teams.

The Thunder & Pacers: Struggling to find a groove

Both of these teams have struggled throughout the playoffs and at times seemed to be going on an early vacation. The biggest problems for both teams have been bad play at home and even worse match ups. Neither team has been consistent in starting games off well, nor at crunch time when the shot selection has been suspect at best for both teams.

Going into the conference finals, both the Thunder and Pacers are going to be the underdogs. There is a theory that as a new series begins, teams can have a clean slate. Maybe that is true, but you cannot completely erase what has happened over the past month of basketball.

Spurs & Heat: Prepping for the rematch

It’s no surprise that both the Spurs and Heat are back in the conference finals, and for the most part each team has made it back with ease. The Spurs struggled in the first round with the Mavericks, but in the conference semis against the Blazers, they were in top form.

The Heat, on the other hand, were dealt with a great match-up against the Bobcats in the first round, and outplayed the Nets in the conference semis. Many people thought the Nets would pose a serious problem for the Heat considering the fact that they swept the Heat in the regular season. Once again, the Heat showed they have another gear once the playoffs comes around.

 

Analyzing the field and each team’s chances

Oklahoma City– the Thunder will not beat the San Antonio Spurs because they are not the same team they once were two years ago, or even one day ago. The Thunder will always be haunted by the fact that they traded James Harden. Losing his bench scoring is something that Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson have not been able to replace since his departure.

The Thunder do not have a consistent third scorer, which is something they will desperately need playing against the Spurs. James Harden was that X-factor for the Thunder two years ago and the Spurs could not match up. The two-man scoring machine that is Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will not beat a fine tuned machine like the San Antonio Spurs.

What really puts the Thunder in a bind is the loss of Serge Ibaka for the rest of the playoffs due to a calf injury. Ibaka was the team’s third-best scorer and best interior defender, and without him they lose depth in the front court and a solid 10-15 points per game.

Perkins, Adams and Collison will now have to deal with Tim Duncan and company in the front court and a slashing Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Perkins struggled against the Clippers and was not seen at crunch time as Steven Adams and Nick Collison were the primary big men.

Adams and Collison will struggle to match up with Tim Duncan and a much-improved Tiago Splitter. Teams win NBA championships not individual players. Even though Durant and Westbrook have improved, their team has not.  Spurs in 6.

 

Indiana– this team has been on a roller coaster since the last month of the regular season. To say the least, they have lacked consistency and have been shown to crack under pressure. Granted they did have a match-up problem against the Hawks in round one, but the Pacers improved and advanced.

Then in the next series against Washington, the Pacers struggled once again. A fast and athletic back court outplayed a veteran Pacers’ group for more than half of the series. At the end of the day, experience proved king and the Pacers advanced.

Whether it was match-up problems, team chemistry or internal problems within the locker room, the Pacers showed major flaws. The first being they are a different team when the expectations change, and when adversity hits the ship, players start to go overboard.

Indiana struggled mightily with a 38-win team in Atlanta and somehow found their way through the inexperienced Washington Wizards. A team with championship prospects cannot struggle against mediocre and inexperienced teams, then go into a series against the two-time defending champions, Miami Heat, and win four times. Heat in five.

 

San Antonio– No team has been more consistent this season than the Spurs. Great coaching, great players and great overall cohesion has brought this team to the top of the western conference once again. Their last series against Portland showed that they are still playing the best basketball in the NBA.

It was a virtuoso performance by the Spurs as they routed a very good Portland team. The youth and athleticism that the Blazers brought to the series was squashed by the experience and savvy of the Spurs. The Spurs’ average margin of victory in the series was 17 points, and defensively the Spurs looked very good, holding the Blazers to 95.4 points per game, which is a far cry from what they averaged against Houston in round one at 113.3.

This regular season and in the past, the Thunder have posed problems for the Spurs, but the regular season record is misleading. The Heat just proved that against the Nets this past week and so will the Spurs. The bigger problem will be the team in South Beach.

The Heat are primed for a fourth consecutive trip to the finals and they are the Spurs biggest problem. The biggest question for the Spurs is how will they guard LeBron James? Last year, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich gave James space to shoot, and when it counted most James made him pay with 37 points in game seven.

Whichever way the Spurs guard James, they will bear the consequences. If the sag off and give him space, he will make them pay, and if they double him down in the post, his 3-point counterparts will make them pay dearly. The Spurs are a great team, but they do not have an answer for a player as impactful as LeBron James. Heat in 7.

 

Miami– As I already said, the Heat are the favorite to once again win it all, and for one simple fact– LeBron James. He is playing his best basketball in the post season–posting a player efficiency rating over 32 and shooting 56 percent from the field.

An added bonus is his counterpart Dwyane Wade. Although his numbers might not be catching anyone’s attention, his health seems to be intact. Last postseason, Wade was dealing with serious knee problems and a bad bone bruise that really limited him. Now Wade seems to have his mid-range game back and seems to be able to give the Heat 20-5-5 when needed.

Miami understands that history is at stake here. They will only be the fourth team in history to reach for straight NBA finals and a three-peat will put them in an elite class. The Heat have stayed consistent and hungry all season long considering their second-best player was out for 30 games.

It is as simple as this though, the Heat will go as LeBron goes. When LeBron played average against the Spurs, they lost, but when LeBron played great they were rewarded with another NBA championship. Whether it is the Heat vs. Spurs or Heat vs. Thunder, Miami will be back in the winner circle. Three-peat for the Miami Heat.

Javier Cortez may be reached at [email protected]

 

 

 

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