(Find past predictions here: Round 1 / Round 2)
Welcome to the real NBA Playoffs. In the first two rounds, all but the number 1 and 2 seeds were defeated, some in exciting fashion, others in series that weren't as captivating. Now, the real playoff intrigue begins. The Pacers were all along the Eastern team with the best shot of taking down the Heat; can they end the Heat dynasty or will Miami become the fourth team ever to make 4 or more consecutive NBA Finals after the '57-'66 Celtics (no, really- they won nine out of those ten years), '82-'85 Lakers, and '84-87 Celtics? Could losing Serge Ibaka actually help Oklahoma City be less hesitant to unleash the beast known as Power Forward Kevin Durant on San Antonio? Will we see a rematch of last year's legendary finals? Very soon, we'll have answers to these questions and more. The Basketball Society panel has once again gotten together to discuss the Conference Finals. Here are the panel members:
John Lava (Twitter: @JGBHoops)
BJ Boyer (Twitter: @wcboyer24)
Alex Fischbein (Twitter: @Sixers_RunWitUs)
Cyril Mpacko (Twitter: @Cee_Armel)
Martin Soaries (Twitter: @marley_mcfly)
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
(1) INDIANA PACERS vs. (2) MIAMI HEAT
Lava: Heat in 6
Analysis: One of my closest friends has been telling me for the past two years, over and over and over again, "The only team that can beat the Heat is the Pacers." Now I don't know if I believe that seeing as Miami was six seconds away from losing to the Spurs last year, but there is some truth to the idea that the Pacers have the Heat's number. Despite the Heat being the superior team in this matchup, they came one bad Game 1 coaching decision away from losing to the Pacers in six in last year's series between these two. Now, if this series has as much intrigue as that one we could be in for a surprisingly good Eastern Conference Finals. Roy Hibbert, the man who was subbed out in last year's Game 1 fiasco, looked at least close to his old self in the last series, proving that I prematurely wrote him off in the Round 2 preview. But although the Pacers are finally trending upward after this disastrous season, they've run into the brick wall known as the Miami Heat. According to a great Jalen Rose joke, Dwyane Wade's mid-2000s nickname "Flash" fits well now because he only shows flashes of his old self. But despite Wade playing like a shell of himself, Chris Bosh has stepped it up, the supporting hast has performed as well as ever and LeBron has a chip on his shoulder after losing the MVP, lust like Jordan did when he lost that award in 1992-'93 and 1997-'98, the last years of his respective threepeats. So if you see James playing for the Florida Marlins' minor league affiliate next year, don't be surprised.
X-Factor: Roy Hibbert. I know, I know, shocking choice. Really had to think out of the box on that one. But I honestly don't know who else it would be. The Pacers' upset chances come down to Hibbert being the difference maker and providing the interior defense Miami just can't match. In this way, Hibbert's defense is really the key to the series. If Hibbert isn't the defensive force of nature we've seen him be, or at least what he was for the last three Washington games, the Pacers will get swept, and you can quote me on that. But if Roy's on top of his game? Then, the sky's the limit for the Pacers.
Boyer: Heat in 7
Analysis: During certain junctures of the season, this Eastern Conference Finals matchup seemed to be highly unlikely, as both Indiana and Miami came across some unexpected challenges throughout the months. Indiana has been in a wild tailspin, somedays resembling a intimidating championship contender who's linchpin is stopping the opposition with suffocating defense, and other days mimicking a mediocre and woeful ball club that's clinging onto hope for dear life. Miami at times appeared lackadaisical, bored of the pedestrian task of winning regular season games. Miami's stupor has concluded, as they've dashed out to an 8-1 start this postseason. On the other hand, Indiana still appears to be wobbling on the road to success, being pushed to the brink by an under .500 Atlanta Hawks team, and a youthful Washington Wizards team. Since Indiana's funk, I've clung to the notion that a matchup with the Miami Heat would finally shake them forcefully, awakening the beast that many have assumed is Pacer basketball. Indiana has what they want in home court advantage, after getting ousted in last year's ECF Game 7 vs Miami. Now the real question is, can the overall balance and depth of the Pacers overcome the supreme championship talent Miami possesses? Can Indiana effectively utilize the home court advantage they've worked so hard for? Buckle up, this series is going to be a wild ride.
Fischbein: Heat in 7
Analysis: Indiana has finally started looking like the team we saw in the beginning of the season. Hibbert has actually started scoring and grabbing some rebounds. Paul George, with the exception of game 6 against Washington, has been having himself a solid postseason. However, the Heat are rolling through yet another postseason. Miami is looking like a well oiled machine right now and it doesn't look like they'll be stopped on their way to the finals. The Indiana defense might be a better matchup and be able to give the Heat a game, but in the end LeBron and company will be too much just like last year. Indiana may have been able to take a couple games in convincing fashion this regular season and last postseason, but the Heat are a completely different monster in the playoffs
X-Factor: Chris Bosh will be the x-factor for this series. Bosh has been quite lack luster during the regular season series against Indiana. It has seemed like he has been more concerned with trying to contain David West and Roy Hibbert. If the Heat want to win this series, Bosh is going to have to play defense and offense. Bosh needs to extend the floor and keep hitting that corner three that we've seen him hit time and time again. Then, if he can also limit West or Hibbert to just an ok game then they'll take this series easily.
Mpacko: Heat in 5
Mpacko: Heat in 5
Analysis: Indiana promised us all year that they would be in this very position come Playoff time. It might’ve been ugly at times, and seemingly impossible but all in all the Pacers have earned the right to be back in the Conference Finals with another crack at Miami. However, this is a different Heat team than the one we’ve seen all season as well as the ones we’ve seen in previous Playoff runs. The Heat haven’t looked stellar, yet they’ve dispatched the Bobcats and Nets without much help from Wade. We all know how much Indiana seems to get up for Miami; we know there’s bad blood etc. etc. But the Pacers post season struggles against inexperienced teams lead me to believe that this Pacer team will be no match for the Heat.
X-Factor: None other than Dwyane Wade. This is about the time of year that a healthier Wade comes alive. He showed flashes of his brilliance in the closer against Brooklyn, therefore I expect him to open up his whole catalog for the Pacers. Specifically for Lance Stephenson who has opened his mouth once again with his “I want to make his knees flare up” comments. Hasn’t he learned from the Lebron choking incident not to incite the Heat? Expect DWade and company to come out with an undeterred focus and earn themselves some rest before the Finals.
Soaries: Heat in 6
Analysis: I really hope we’re not in for any shocking turn of events in this series, because it almost feels like something strange is brewing with all the tension now massed up between these two teams. No one is even giving Indiana the slightest hope, except maybe Pacers fans, which makes the no. 1 seed the proverbial underdog in this match up. We know that Indiana has consistently struggled in these playoffs, losing four home games to the likes of Atlanta and Washington. We also know that Indiana has the formula to hurt Miami where they hurt most, inside. We know that Indiana has been the only real team in the Eastern Conference that at least knows from experience that they can compete with the defending champs. Ultimately this song ends the same way: simply too much talent and offense on one side and just not enough on the other.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
(1) SAN ANTONIO SPURS vs. (2) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Lava: Thunder in 7
Analysis: Serge is gone, and that could be the story of this series for Oklahoma City. But, as much as I like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and the Spurs, OK City has been my pick to lose to Miami in the finals this whole time. I didn't abandon them when they were headed to Memphis down 3-2, or when the Clippers seemed poised to take the pivotal Game 5 from them, and I'm not going to abandon them even with everyone counting them out. Like I said in the introduction, Kevin Durant as a PF could be deadly for OKC. And if Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have figured out their chemistry, Pop and Co. need to watch out.
X-Factor: Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi is going to be spending a lot of time guarding the MVP this series. He has to play the same caliber of defense he showed against LeBron in last year's finals if the Spurs want to take the series. Leonard has already been having a great season, leading the Spurs defensively and generally making the leap to become one of the league's premier defenders. If he can stop Durant in this series and help the Spurs advance, he should gain national recognition for the level he's been at this year.
Boyer: Spurs in 6
Analysis: Serge Ibaka may be shelved for the remainder of the postseason, but Oklahoma City still possesses an abundance of talent, including the MVP Kevin Durant and a top ten player in Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are determined to return the NBA Finals, as are the Spurs, who suffered their first Finals defeat in the Tim Duncan era last year against Miami. Oklahoma City will have to find a way to effectively replace Ibaka. Will that include KD at the 4? More Adams? More Collison? I am truly interested to see their solution to this issue, as is the rest of the basketball world.
X-Factor: Kawhi Leonard. Throughout the season thus far, Kawhi Leonard has shown a perfect blend of confidence, aggression and smarts that only the league's biggest superstars are endowed with. These qualities must be on full display, as Leonard attempts to slow the deadliest offensive force in the game today; Kevin Durant. For the opposition, attempting to stop the league's MVP has been futile, as he's wowed millions of fans on a consistent basis with his diverse and dominant offensive repertoire. If Leonard's impressive growth isn't stunted by Durant's brilliance this series, Leonard will be in the advanced stages of becoming a household name, as last year's NBA Finals served as the introductory phase.
Fischbein: Spurs in 7
Analysis: The Western Conference final matchup that everyone was waiting for is finally here. The news about Serge Ibaka is upsetting because it would be a lot better of a game with him in the lineup. That being said, not having Ibaka is a big deal for the Thunder. Now, they have to rely on Perkins, Collison and Steven Adams to cover Duncan, Splitter, and company. Throw in the fact that San Antonio has one of the best bench squads in the league and it spells trouble for Oklahoma City. The Westbrook and Parker matchup will be a fun one to watch. This will be another series where the technique and fundamentals of the Spurs will prove to be better than the Thunder's youth and athleticism. It's been proven throughout history that team basketball trumps a one or two man game. In the end, the Spurs cohesion and old school style of play will triumph in this one.
X-Factor: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has been picking his game up recently. He has stepped up when called upon by the Spurs. Being a great two way player is going to help San Antonio greatly. The matchup between him and Durant is going to be the predictor for the outcome of this series. If Leonard can at least just limit KD to less than his MVP-like numbers like Tony Allen and put up the offensive numbers that he has been lately, then that will be worlds of help for the Spurs. If Leonard can play the type of defense he played on LeBron last year in the finals, then the Spurs will be looking at another trip to the finals in back-to-back years.
Mpacko: Spurs in 7
Analysis: A rematch of that classic conference finals in 2012. This time around however there is no James Harden, no Serge Ibaka for Oklahoma City; no Gary Neal, no Dejuan Blair and no Stephen Jackson for San Antonio. Oklahoma City’s absences hurt them more obviously, but there is something about this new crop of Thunder that speaks volumes. No matter the storm, Scott Brooks and his troops have rallied in resilient fashion. Down 3-2 against Memphis, they turned it around. After a Game 1 Blowout and several double digit deficits late in Game’s 5 and 6 against the Clippers, the switched was flipped and here they are now before us with a chance to return to the NBA’s promised land. On the other side awaits a more focused, serious San Antonio Spurs team who feels that it should be they sitting atop the summit of NBA lore. A heartbreaking 7-game loss to the Heat has the Spurs accepting of nothing less but a return trip to avenge their loss. A matchup with the Thunder is added fuel to avenge another loss as the Thunder were the last team before Miami to end San Antonio’s season on a sour note. The MVP and his right-hand assassin have been nothing short of amazing this post season. Those wily old Spurs have been nothing short of supremely efficient. How much will Okc’s losses affect them in the long run? And is Tony Parker’s hamstring something to be worried about? Game on…
X-Factor: None other than Russell Westbrook. Earlier this post season he seemed to have turned the corner for better. The result, his Thunder are back where they felt they belonged after his injury at the knees of Patrick Beverley cost them chance to dispatch Memphis and set up a date with San Antonio at this stage last year. Westbrook has been a Point Assassin these playoffs; racking up triple doubles and leading his team with a very steady hand. No test will be bigger than the one that looms in the horizon. San Antonio is a model of efficiency and near perfect play. Westbrook and Durant can’t afford any of those double digit deficits because the Spurs will punish them in ways neither Memphis nor LAC could. I believe Westbrook understands the magnitude of the moment and I am a firm believer he will seize it. But he alone isn’t enough to beat the Spurs. No Harden, No Ibaka… Ouch
Soaries: Thunder in 7
Analysis: There’s plenty of ways to look at this match up and how it could pan out. Without Serge Ibaka the Thunder are vulnerably faced with the challenge of compensating for Ibaka’s 12+ points per game in the playoffs and the presence he brings defensively. We’ll see more of Kevin Durant at the 4, which will make San Antonio have to adjust to them and will have to be a major factor in this series for Oklahoma City to advance. The individual match ups still heavily favor the Thunder, except now at the power forward position. I think the rest of the OKC bigs can still be physical and frustrating for Duncan and Splitter, their biggest challenge will be defending the pick-and-roll and limiting foul trouble. Nevertheless, I’m sticking with my endurance theme with this Oklahoma City Thunder team.
X-factors: Russell Westbrook/Thabo Sefolosha/OKC bench and Kawhi Leonard/Manu Ginobili/Marco Belinelli – Westbrook has the best advantage individually in this series and is still the almighty be-all-end-all for Oklahoma City. When he plays with pace and poise the Thunder are unstoppable, even against the Spurs and even without Serge Ibaka. Thabo Sefolosha is especially crucial for containing the Spurs’ bench leader Manu Ginobili and making the few shots he needs to make. The Thunder bench is competing against the best bench in the NBA (this means you, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler). Kawhi Leonard has to guard Kevin Durant, Manu Ginobili will have to be dominant at times, and Belinelli has to be a shot maker.