Repeat offenders in NBA Conference Finals
After all the drama of the first round and Conference Semifinals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs, perhaps the biggest surprise is to find the same four teams from last year picking up where they left off. The Western Conference Finals features the Oklahoma City Thunder in a rematch with the San Antonio Spurs while the Eastern Conference Finals has a grudge match between the Indiana Pacers and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
When the current NBA season started, the Indiana Pacers loudly proclaimed that their goal was to get the best record in the league and secure homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Coach Frank Vogel’s team started the season with a chip on their collective shoulders, convinced that if they had that homecourt edge last year, they would have beaten the Heat for a place in the Finals. Starting the season 9-0 andf ending 2013 with a 25-5 mark, the Pacers looked like the team to beat.
With Paul George and Roy Hibbert emerging as All-Stars, and a solid starting five comprised of those two in addition to George Hill, Lance Stephenson, and David West, it was tough to not like the Pacers. But as the season wound down, cracks started to show. After trading away the oft-injured Danny Granger and nabbing Evan Turner from Philadelphia, Indiana practically limped to the finish line. Barely finishing above the Heat, belief in this team as a true contender started to wane.
A scare from the Atlanta Hawks saw this team built by Larry Bird pushed to seven games as Hibbert seemed to vanish like a ghost. It took a huge collective effort from the team, and for Hibbert to rediscover his post presence, before the Pacers could dispose of Atlanta. Waiting in the Conference Semifinals was the Washington Wizards, who upset the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls in their own series. It would be the youth and inexperience of John Wall and Bradley Beal, as well as the inside dominance that Indiana showed early in the season, that would eventually dispatch of the Wizards in six games.
For their part LeBron James, Coach Erik Spoelstra and the rest of the Heat were on cruise control for much of the season. Perhaps taking a page from the book of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Spoelstra often rested Dwyane Wade as he tried to save the aging guard for the playoff run. Of course, Heat fans would have rather had their team rampaging through the schedule and securing homecourt advantage, but a team that just won two straight titles and been to the Finals three straight years often believes that they can turn on the proverbial “on switch” any time they want.
With Wade either injured or resting for 28 games, more pressure was placed on four-time Most Valuable Player James to deliver for Miami. He did so for the most part, even as the championship core of Mario Chalmers, Shane Battir, Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen, Norris Cole, and Ray Allen were supplemented by the addition of former overall number one pick Greg Oden.
Nobody really believed the Heat would be challenged in the early playoff rounds though, and their series against the Charlotte Bobcats proved to be relatively easy. The Michael Jordan-owned franchise was overwhelmed by the champions and sent packing via a 4-0 sweep even as they now revert back to being the Charlotte Hornets beginning 2014-2015.
A showdown with the Brooklyn Nets was supposed to prove more of a challenge since Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, two longtime Heat tormentors from their days as Boston Celtics, now teamed up with Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. But aside from a 104-90 loss in Game 3, Miami was having none of what Brooklyn was offering. A 4-1 series win sent Jason Kidd packing in his first season as an NBA head coach and people finally got the rematch that was building from last season.
Over in the Western Conference, nobody was really surprised that San Antonio would once again prove to be the best of the best. Every year, so many have closed the Spurs’ championship window and every year, they’ve shut those same people up. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, together with Popovich and the rest of the Spurs, could easily have stewed in the memory of losing the chance to win a championship in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals against Miami (and subsequently the title to boot).
But Popovich and Company haven’t won four championships by moping and dwelling on the past. Instead, they’ve retooled once again and given more playing time to guys like Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Patty Mills, and Boris Diaw. Their 62-20 record earned them the best win-loss record for the entire league and a showdown versus the overachieving Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
Surprisingly, Coach Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki, and the proud Mavericks pushed the Spurs to a Game 7, but that same game would prove to be anti-climactic. A second round match-up against the Portland Trailblazers was supposed to show a contrast between the past and future of the West, but the lack of Portland bench depth was fully exploited by Popovich. Not even the combined brilliance of Damien Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and the rest of the Blazers could avert the Spurs’ triumph in five games.
The main concern for the Oklahoma City Thunder entering this season was if Russell Westbrook’s surgically-repaired right knee would be strong enough for the NBA grind. After that same knee ended his 2013 Playoff campaign and effectively ended the Thunder’s chances of returning to the Finals, Westbrook underwent two right knee surgeries before a surprise comeback in December. Coach Scott Brooks was just starting to get Westbrook back in the groove of things when he suffered another injury to the same knee in March. Luckily for Oklahoma City, this would not require surgery.
As Westbrook rested, rehabbed, and recovered, Kevin Durant took on more responsibility than ever in his seventh NBA season. Recognizing the need to step up even more, “the Slim Reaper” went on a scoring tear to the tune of 40 consecutive games with at least 25 points in each. Durant always deflected attention from himself, focusing on the team instead, something that was echoed when he earned his first Most Valuable Player trophy at the end of the season.
A first round clash with the Memphis Grizzlies was as brutal and physical as previous series between these two Western powers, and the Thunder were very fortunate that Zach Randolph was suspended headed into Game Seven. The long series over Memphis was followed by a highly-anticipated match-up with the Los Angeles Clippers. The athletic Clippers, now coached by Doc Rivers, was supposed to be the coming out party for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin as this franchise aimed to finally play in a Western Conference Finals. But Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka would not let Donald Sterling’s franchise take their spot, and the Clippers were done in six games.
Contrasting Conference Finals
It is unfortunate, however, that the deciding game in the Thunder-Clippers series resulted in Ibaka suffering a calf strain that will now sideline him for the remainder of the playoffs. OKC is clearly missing their best shot blocker in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, as the Spurs have proven to be smooth and dominant in erecting a quick 2-0 lead. Thunder fans hope to repeat what they did two postseasons ago when these same Spurs took a similar 2-0 lead before the Thunder rattled off four straight wins to close the series.
Back East, it’s been a case of a Jekyll and Hyde performance by the Pacers again. They proved monstrous in a 107-96 Game One win, but were silenced by Miami to close out Game Two and tie the Eastern Conference Finals, 87-83. If the concussion that Paul George suffered in the fourth quarter of that game sidelines the Indiana star, then Vogel is going to need Hibbert, West, and Stephenson to pick up the slack even more.