Can the Heat be denied the three-peat?
The NBA Conference finals 2014 begin on Sunday as the two-time defending champions Miami Heat face the Indiana Pacers while the San Antonio Spurs take on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West.
Fanatix NBA experts Sumeet Paul and Scott Hazlewood give their thoughts on who will prevail in the two respective series to advance to the NBA Finals…
Eastern Conference Finals – Miami Heat vs Indiana Pacers
Sumeet Paul: Despite their struggles to end the regular season, the Indiana Pacers have found a way to progress against both the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards in the playoffs.
While I still don’t think they are back to their best on a consistent level, they appear to have rediscovered elements of their identity, with their physical defense a catalyst for all the other positive aspects to fall into place.
Given the tension and growing rivalry between the two teams, it will ultimately come down to who is able to make key stops and execute on the offensive end. Led by LeBron James, the Heat will advance but the series will go the distance and I think Ray Allen’s three-point shooting will be key in a tightly contested fight inside the paint.
Prediction: Miami Heat to win 4-3.
Key Player: LeBron James
Unsung hero: Ray Allen
Scott Hazlewood: I agree with you that the Pacers are starting to look like the Pacers that Larry Bird would want around this time of year, although they still have some gaps in their game. For me, Paul George’s level of improvement has somewhat plateaued this season when compared to last, and in this playoff run, he has not had the number of ‘outstanding’ games he had to this point last year which helped him to become a labelled superstar by the media. But another heads up battle against LeBron should get him fired up, but of course the Miami leader will get the better in this heads up individual match-up.
Another question that has to be asked is which Dwayne Wade will turn up this series? Unlike in the last two championship runs by the Heat, Wade is now clearly starting to show his age and is more of a foil to James than a partner. Does this mean Wade will not be of any consequence? No of course not. Form is temporary class is permanent.
Quickly on the unsung hero of this series. I think it could be Roy Hibbert. To say he has a bad playoffs to date would be fair given the number of nights where he has not produced anything. But looking at the Heat roster and the only player who physically can start to match up with the Pacers centre is a guy on less than one knee, in Greg Oden, if Hibbert can get on a roll he will be hard to stop.
Prediction: Miami win 4-2
Key Player: LeBron James
Unsung hero: Roy Hibbert
Western Conference finals – San Antonio Spurs vs Oklahoma City Thunder
SH: Fittingly in the West we have the other one and two seeds going at it, and if this was a boxing main event, it would be fitting to label the Spurs v Thunder series with the moniker that “styles make fights.”
San Antonio’s greatest strengths are their composure under pressure, their depth and the knowledge that only comes playing together for years.
The hamstring injury to Tony Parker is of a massive concern, as I rate him in my top three point guards in the league in terms of the difference he can make to a side. He was listed as day-to-day after their last win over Portland, but it remains to be seen if he has limited minutes or plays 35-40 minutes and is not as affective as he can be.
Standing opposite Parker is a player that the Spurs cannot contain, Russell Westbrook. The mercurial Thunder point guard has been at his best this playoff run for OKC, and his strengths of size, strength and speed mean there is nobody on the Spurs roster in their backcourt who can effectively cover him if he is on.
I won’t go on about Kevin Durant, because it has all been fittingly been said before this entire season but if he can summon the Slim Reaper again, watch out Spurs.
Finally the news that no doubt will have rocked the Thunder camp, that Serge Ibaka will most likely not play for the rest of the playoffs has to be mentioned. Not only was he the Thunder’s defensive anchor but his pick and pop jumpers and second-chance points are crucial to the side, especially as they come up against the likes of Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw.
Which brings me to the unsung hero of the series, and while the Spurs are set to have some players step up big when they are called off their very deep bench, for me a player who could make all of the difference is a Thunder rookie – Steve Adams. The 7’0″ Kiwi showed in his last game out what he can do if he stays out of foul trouble, and his physical style of play will be needed against the Spurs.
Prediction: Thunder win 4-3
Key player: Kevin Durant
Unsung hero: Steve Adams
SP: Couldn’t agree more on Parker’s fitness, as I think the Frenchman will be absolutely vital to the Spurs if they are to take down the Thunder.
Oklahoma City’s athleticism, speed and offensive threat are all big concerns for Gregg Popovich, and as they showed in the regular season series sweep of their Western Conference rivals, they know how to exploit their weaknesses.
Nevertheless, I think depth becomes a significant part of this contest and the Spurs have it in abundance. Westbrook and Durant will get theirs and essentially I think Popovich won’t worry too much about them as he will look to ensure they don’t have a third-scoring option which influences the outcome.
Losing Ibaka is massive on both ends for the Thunder, as he emerged as a real offensive threat this season to go with his block parties.
Duncan, Splitter and Diaw should be able to exploit that, and when you consider the three-point shooting in Mills, Green, Leonard and Belinelli, the Spurs must look after the ball and get their movement going.
At the start of the season I predicted that if this was the finals contest in the West, the Thunder would prevail. However, this is the time of year that Parker, Duncan, Ginobili and Popovich thrive upon, and with the heartbreak of last year still in their minds, I think the Spurs will come through.
Prediction: San Antonio Spurs to win 4-2.
Key player: Tim Duncan
Unsung hero: Kawhi Leonard