After what felt like a historic first and second round, with underdogs battling and big dogs struggling at times, we’re right back where we always seem to be at this time of the year. The favorites are moving on and the little guys are going home. Despite not being able to close at home, the Pacers used a 5-1 road record in these playoffs to sneak by the Hawks and then run by the Wizards. And that will give them the honor of playing LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Indy fought all year for home court, and even though they haven’t played well at the Fieldhouse lately (3-4 at home in the playoffs), it could end up finally paying off for the Pacers.
In the West, the Spurs cruised past the Blazers more easily than most thought was possible, while the Thunder beat the Clippers, with some luck, some shady officiating, and because Kevin Durant is better at basketball than Chris Paul. Here are the previews.
No. 1 Pacers vs. No. 2 Heat
When the No. 1 seeded Pacers found themselves in a tough matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, I took the Hawks. When the Pacers then faced a Wizards team that crushed the Bulls, I again went against the Pacers in Round 2. And now I’m a two-time loser, while the Pacers are right where they were planning to be since Christmas. I’m still not sure how they did it. Countless blowout losses in front of their home fans, down late in a deciding Game 6 in ATL, and having to win at Washington to avoid a Game 7. David West might be the most underrated player in these playoffs and he put his time on his back when the Pacers answered a Bradley Beal 3-pointer with a 12-point barrage to put the game away on Thursday night.
And if David West is the most underrated player, Paul George might be the most overrated. After some dating and social media trouble during the season, he disappeared at times in the playoffs and the only highlight you’ll really see from Thursday’s closeout game is him yapping at fans instead of focusing on the game. None of that matters now, as George will have to step up his game on both ends of the floor and figure out a way to slow LeBron down, while also keeping Dwyane Wade in check. If you throw out George’s 12-for-20, 39-point Game 4 against the Wizards, he hit just 20-of-54 shots in Games 2, 3, 5 and 6, good for just 37 percent, while scoring 15 or fewer points in three of those four games.
Roy Hibbert appears to finally be back, or at least alive and living again. He had just four points and two boards in Game 5, but came back strong for Game 6 with 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. Over his last five Hibbert is averaging 14.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks, which is a major improvement over what he did against the Hawks, as well as the end of the regular season.
More than any other team, the Heat have cruised through these playoffs, sweeping the Bobcats and taking out the Nets in just five games. Some of their wins over Brooklyn weren’t as easy as they would have liked, but they did what they had to do to quickly move on. And when I say ‘they,’ I mean LeBron. This is no longer the so-called “Big 3,” and really never was. Miami is LeBron’s world and I don’t think he has any desire to give the ball up late with the game on the line, as he has done in the past. I’m not going to go as far to say he doesn’t trust Wade of any other teammates, but he certainly doesn’t have nearly as much faith in any of them to make a shot as he does in himself. His playoff numbers have been pretty ridiculous, just like his regular-season numbers. In nine games he’s averaging 30.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.4 blocks, 1.7 3-pointers and just 2.4 turnovers per game. While none of those offensive numbers are career playoff highs for him, the turnovers would be if he can keep them down against the Pacers.
This could be a series for the ages if all five Pacers’ starters show up and LeBron stays hot. And after picking against the Pacers in Rounds 1 and 2, I can’t really change it up and take them now. Which is probably music to the ears of their fans.
Prediction: Heat in 6
No. 1 Spurs vs. No. 2 Thunder
I don’t really know what to say about the Thunders-Clippers series, as Game 5 featured one of the most insane endings to a playoff game we’ve ever seen, while the Clippers then blew a big lead in Game 6 that sent them fishing. As I mentioned above, the easy answer is that Durant outplayed CP3, but another way to look at it is that Scott Brooks outcoached Doc Rivers. And finally, the Thunder’s combo of Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka may simply be better than Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
The Thunder will now face the Spurs again in what should be a great series. Durant is averaging 31.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.4 blocks, 2.5 3-pointers and 4.0 turnovers in these playoffs. The Thunder get a bulk of their production from Durant and Westbrook, but the loss of Ibaka (Grade 2 calf strain) for the remainder of the playoffs is going to leave a big mark. Reggie Jackson will have to step up on offense, while Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins are going to have to do the dirty work that Ibaka would normally be taking care of.
The Spurs seemingly get major contributions from different guys every night. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker (more on his hamstring injury in a minute) are usually in the mix, but Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and Marco Belinelli are always capable of a big game out of the blue at any time.
The Thunder are going to be trying to run at full speed, while the Spurs will try to slow things down and play great defense. These two met in the Conference Finals two years ago and the Thunder won in six games. The Spurs are still stinging from last year’s Finals loss to the Heat thanks to Ray Allen’s 3-pointer, but this is a better Thunder team than they’ve seen in previous years.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this series is the health of Parker for the Spurs, and the loss of Ibaka for the Thunder. Parker suffered a Grade 1 strain of his left hamstring in Game 5 against the Blazers on Wednesday. While most teams would be freaking out about potentially losing a player of Parker’s caliber, Gregg Popovich which simply plug in Mills and watch him go if Parker is going to miss time. Luckily, a Grade 1 strain is manageable and Parker’s played through a Grade 2 in the past. All signs point to Parker playing in Monday’s Game 1, but don’t be surprised if Mills doesn’t play heavy minutes.
As for my prediction, it really comes down to Pop and the old guard vs. Durant and the young guns. And given how well the Spurs managed minutes, playing time, roles and wins all season long, I’m going with Pop and company. And the fact that Ibaka is done makes it an easier decision.
Prediction: Spurs in 7