The Conference Finals started this week, with Miami and Indiana squaring off in the east and Oklahoma City and San Antonio duking it out in the west. Currently, they’re both two games into their respective series. All four teams are currently enjoying a three-day break in the action, before the matchups get back underway this weekend.
In the Eastern Conference, the Pacers tore up the form book in Game 1, defeating the Heat comfortably and looking a lot like the Pacers we saw prior to the All-Star break. Indiana got great production out of every one of its starters—no player in the starting lineup scored less than 15 points—and they shot 50 per cent from the field for the game. However, in Game 2 the Heat, who haven’t lost back-to-back games in the playoffs since the 2011 NBA Finals, made a return. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James took over in the fourth quarter. The Heat’s defence, sluggish in Game 1, was back to its brilliant, ball-hounding best.
In the Western Conference, the Spurs bulldozer continues to flatten everything in its path—and right now the Thunder are on the receiving end. After the Thunder briefly led in the third quarter of Game 1, the Spurs pulled away to win by 17—scoring an incredible 66 points in the paint. Game 2 was even more of a shellacking, and the result was never in doubt. Danny Green, so good in the playoffs last season, dropped seven three-pointers on the way to a 112-77 victory for the Spurs.
As the Conference Finals switch venues for Games 3 and 4, here are some burning questions that we should see answered over the next few days.
Will Lance Stephenson continue to play at a high level?
Lance Stephenson, an unrestricted free agent in the summer, looked to be on his way to a big payday halfway through the season. But, like so many of his teammates, his play fell off alarmingly from February onwards. But after a hot and cold opening two rounds of the playoffs, Stephenson has returned to form in the Conference Finals. He put up 17 points in the Game 1 victory, and was the one Pacer who, pardon the pun, kept pace with LeBron and Wade in Game 2.
If the Pacers are to steal a game on the road, Stephenson is going to have to continue to play at a high level in this series—he’s the Pacers’ big X-factor. Stephenson is the only Indiana player who can create off the dribble, and if he can stay aggressive, without being reckless (always a fine balance with Lance) he’ll put a lot of pressure on Wade defensively, which could wear out the future Hall-of-Famer and hurt him at the offensive end.
Can the Oklahoma City Thunder stop San Antonio from scoring in the paint?
This was the million-dollar question heading into this series, and after the Spurs scored a combined 120 points in the paint in Games 1 and 2, it remains a point of emphasis for the Thunder heading home for Games 3 and 4. Without Serge Ibaka protecting the rim the Spurs have destroyed the Thunder inside. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli have waltzed through the lane without a care in the world, and Tim Duncan has had his way in the low post.
To be fair to Scott Brooks, he’s mixed up his lineups in an attempt to fill the void left by Ibaka’s absence. He’s played small with Durant at the four, and briefly at the five, and even gave the little-used Perry Jones some burn in Game 2. But nothing’s worked. Brooks may have to bite the bullet and stay big, with Kendrick Perkins or Steven Adams at the centre spot, and Nick Collison playing the four. It’s a lineup that hurts the Thunder offensively, but right now they don’t have many better options.
Will Chris Bosh get it going in this series?
The Heat got the split they wanted in Indiana, and will head back to Miami confident that they can take a stranglehold on this series. But much of the pressure, as it has been all season, is resting squarely on the shoulders of LeBron James. James has been great in both games of this series, and while Wade has contributed at the offensive end, he doesn’t have anywhere near the defensive responsibilities of LeBron. If the Heat want to avoid LeBron James-burnout (he may not seem human at times, but he is), Chris Bosh needs to contribute.
Bosh was awful against the Pacers in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, and is putting up a similar performance this time around. Bosh is averaging just nine points and two rebounds in this series, and for a man with his many talents, that’s simply not good enough. Granted, the Pacers with their bulk down low are a bad matchup for the slender Bosh, but the Heat power forward needs to be better offensively. He needs to look for his shot more and move around the perimeter with a greater urgency in order to shake off his defender.
Will the Spurs’ shooters cool down?
The Spurs have shot well over 50 per cent from the field in this series so far, and while that percentage has been buttressed to a large extent because the Spurs are getting so many open looks at the rim, the threes have been falling as well. So far in the series the Spurs have nailed 18 of their 40 attempts from downtown, scorching the Thunder from beyond the arc.
For the Thunder, it might be pick-your-poison time. Brooks may have to concede certain shots to the Spurs in order to take away others. It might be worthwhile for the Thunder to play some zone defence, packing the paint and ceding looks to San Antonio at the perimeter. The Spurs, as mentioned above, have shot the ball really well. But they are also killing the Thunder in the paint, so it might be worth trying to shut down that scoring avenue and hope the Spurs go cold from beyond the arc. “Hope” being the key word here.
Will Paul George be ready for Game 3?
At the time of this writing, Paul George is questionable for Saturday’s Game 3 in Miami. In the fourth quarter of Game 2, George was accidentally hit in the head by Dwyane Wade’s knee and suffered a concussion. Somewhat alarmingly, George, who later claimed that he blacked out after the collision, was cleared to go back into the game. In hindsight, that was a mistake. George repeatedly lost LeBron on cuts to the basket, and looked in a daze down the stretch—you know, sort of like a guy who had just sustained a concussion.
George skipped contact drills during practice on Thursday, but the timing of his injury is good in the sense that it happened just before a three-day break in the series. The Pacers desperately need a healthy Paul George in this series for his offence, but more importantly, for his extremely versatile and irreplaceable defensive skills.
Can Kevin Durant get some easy points?
During the regular season Kevin Durant averaged 9.9 free-throw attempts per game, making close to 90 per cent of them. In the Western Conference Finals, however, Durant is averaging just 3.5 attempts at the charity stripe. The Spurs defense has done an excellent job of keeping Durant off the line, but the lack of spacing in the Thunder’s offense (no one on the Spurs bothers to guard Sefolosha, Perkins, and Collison) really hurts Durant’s ability to maneuver.
The Spurs are able to double-team Durant without worrying about getting burned by Thunder shooters because, well, they don’t have many. So much pressure is on Durant and Russell Westbrook to score in this series—both players really need to average 30 points per game in this series—and unless a third Thunder player steps up and is able to knock some shots down (like Ibaka did so well in 2012) the Spurs are going to be able to harass OKC’s stars without fear of being burned by the open man.