The NBA playoffs are all about the unknown. The intangibles — chemistry and basketball IQ — often act as the determining factor in sifting through the unknown. As the great Michael Jordan once said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” Playoff basketball is unpredictable and will test a team’s character, resulting in a constant need for reevaluation and evolution.
While it is unsurprising the top two seeds are featured in the Conference Finals, there are big questions lingering around these teams. What five questions need to be answered, which will decide the Conference Finals?
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1. Which Pacers Team Will Show Up?
This question has been a reoccurring throughout the playoffs. With all the criticism and moments that had every basketball fan scratching their heads, the Pacers still found a way to land in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat for the second year in a row.
In a Game 2 loss, the Pacers offense was stagnate, shooting 32-of-80 (40 percent) from the field, as opposed to the Pacers shooting 35-of-68 (51.5 percent) from the field in the series opener. In a Game 1 win, all of the Pacers starters scored in double figures, while Paul George and David West combined for 43 points on 15-of-24 (62.5 percent) shooting. Meanwhile in Game 2, no Pacer besides Lance Stephenson scored over 14 points, while George and West combined for 24 points on 9-of-32 (28.1 percent) shooting.
Despite Indiana’s struggles offensively in Game 2, they did have a great opportunity to leave for Miami with a 2-0 series lead. However, thanks to a LeBron James and Dwyane Wade takeover in the fourth quarter, the Heat stole home-court advantage and evened up the series. Lance Stephenson did not get the necessary help to protect home court, as Indiana’s bench continued to perform below par. Aside from Indy’s starting lineup, who is outscoring the Heat by 30.2 points per 100 possessions, any combination involving someone from their bench gives up 23.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s a serious inversion when Indiana’s starting five gets a breather.
Now, the Pacers will look to regain home-court advantage in Miami, where the Heat are a perfect 5-0 in the playoffs. Paul George’s status remains up in the air for Game 3 on Saturday, as he deals with the process of a concussion diagnosis. On top of that, that reoccurring theme of not knowing which Pacers team will show up on a given night continues to linger for a team that was considered favorites to dethrone the team they now face earlier in the season.
2. Will Serge Ibaka’s Absence Mean To OKC?
The San Antonio Spurs are rolling right now, and appear poised for a second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. This is something Oklahoma City does not want to hear. After another winning season and their superstar earning the MVP throne earlier this month, the Thunder find themselves with their backs against the wall in the Conference Finals. A major reason for this adversity is due to the absence of the team’s third best player and best defender, Serge Ibaka.
For those unaware, Ibaka went down with a calf injury late in Game 6 of OKC’s Conference Semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. There have been rumors that were initially denied that Ibaka had been aiming to return to the court once the series shifted back to Oklahoma this weekend. Today, it was reported that Ibaka’s status has been upgraded to day-to-day, with a possible return as soon as Game 3. What is a definite is that OKC’s vulnerability to defend the paint without Ibaka’s presence is at its highest point. And coach Popovich and the Spurs took full advantage of this open target in the first two meetings.
In Game 1 last Monday, the Spurs made a point to get into the paint and score, posting an incredible 66 points. San Antonio shot 31-of-43 (72.1 percent) from the restricted area, as they were unafraid to drive into the lane with a missing Ibaka. Take a look at these stats from ESPN regarding Game 1:
“The Spurs averaged 41.3 points in paint against the Thunder in their past 12 meetings, 10 of which were OKC wins. The Spurs had 40 in the first half. The Spurs posted an absurd 126.5 points per 100 possessions, which is right on track for the 120.3 they had in the four regular-season games with Ibaka off the floor.”
In Game 2 the Spurs continued their dominance in the paint, as they put on an overall clinic against the Thunder in a blowout win. They scored 54 points in the paint, and in both games they hold a 46-point advantage over the Thunder in the first two games of the Conference Finals. If OKC wants to compete in this series, Scott Brooks must find a way to force the Spurs out of the paint, and playing Kevin Durant at center is not the answer (will discuss later). OKC is hoping Ibaka is cleared to return as soon as possible in the meantime.
3. Will Dwyane Wade’s Health Hold Up?
This time last year, NBA fans saw a Dwyane Wade who was battling through injuries many felt were a sign of impending doom. His knee problems turned for the worse in the Finals, and he was finally forced to have his knee drained just to see playing time in Game 7. To try and prevent any flare-ups with his health, the Heat decided to take the cautious approach regarding D-Wade, resting him a total of 28 games during the regular season. So far, everything has gone to plan.
Wade has had some spring to his step in the playoffs. Of course he doesn’t operate with the same explosiveness as yesteryear, but he is aggressively driving to the basket, getting good elevation on his jumpers, and running the floor well in transition. Wade has simply been the best offensive player in the Eastern Conference Finals after two games. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the stats.
Wade is averaging a team-high 25 points on 64.7 percent shooting. He is playing to his strengths by using his fluidity (something his injuries limited last year) to attack the basket. In fact, he has only attempted two shots from beyond the arc, of which he was successful on one attempt. In Miami’s fourth quarter rally in Game 2, D-Wade scored on each of his five attempts while adding two boards and two dimes.
Playing with aggressiveness allows Wade to hold the advantage over the Pacers defense. Since he is scoring with efficiently at the rim and his jumper is working, Indiana is left scrambling, not knowing where Wade’s point of attack will originate on the court. Look at his shot chart through two games:
Heat fans got a scare when Wade’s knee connected with the back of Paul George’s head, which was later diagnosed with a concussion. No word of damage to Wade’s knee, and the three days rest between Game 2 and Game 3 will only benefit the three-time champ. While LeBron James remains the best player on the team and in the league, the Heat’s chances of a three-peat rely on Dwyane Wade’s knees. Lance Stephenson knows.
4. How Will Scott Brooks Respond To A 0-2 Series Deficit?
Scott Brooks has come under some heat this postseason. Coming off a 59-win season, OKC was prepared to reach the Finals for the second time in three years. After all, they did sweep their regular season series against the Spurs. However, the playoffs reveal your greatest strengths and your biggest weaknesses. Unfortunately for Brooks, his faults are surfacing on basketball’s biggest stage at a crucial time.
While Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to shine in Oklahoma City, their young teammates have yet to develop. Reggie Jackson has had his bright moments in the Conference Finals, but players like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Thabo Sefolosha, and Hasheem Thabeet have seen little if any progression. Therefore, the Thunder live or die by the performances of Durant and Westbrook. You can get away with that in the regular season, but not in the playoffs and definitely not against San Antonio.
This leads to the problem of Brooks’ rotations. Since little has been done to develop and improve the majority of the Thunder’s bench, Durant and Westbrook are seeing a massive amount of time on the floor. So far in the playoffs, Westbrook has averaged 38.6 minutes per game while Durant is averaging 43.3. It’s an odd sight to see Westbrook and Durant exhausted when they are the fuel that ignites OKC’s fire.
Brooks is also scrambling to figure out the right rotation that will deter the Spurs’ domination in the paint with the massive void left by the injured Ibaka. While Steven Adams can add some muscle to aid this goal, Brooks has yet to mix in the 7-3 Thabeet, who has seen no playing time in this series. Crazy as it sounds, his presence could be the stopgap for the Spurs’ excellence in the paint.
Speaking of adjustments, one of the harshest criticisms Brooks has received recently has been his lack of adjustment in OKC’s offense. Remember when Chris Paul basically shut down Kevin Durant for an entire quarter in the second round? Brooks relies on too many isolations and one-on-one sets featuring Durant and Westbrook. Teams can break them up, especially over a best-of-seven game series. If Westbrook and Durant aren’t “on,” like in Game 2, the Thunder are quite vulnerable.
The series is not over, and few teams in the league have the type of home-court advantage OKC has, but Brooks must prove his critics wrong for the Thunder to dig themselves out of an 0-2 series hole.
5.Can The Spurs Be Stopped?
This may seem like a silly question, but considering the early domination of the San Antonio Spurs in the Conference Finals, it needs to be answered. It seems like Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have an answer for every plan of attack Oklahoma City executes. San Antonio’s depth allows any player — whether a starter or a reserve — to lead the balanced effort on any given night. Game 1 saw Kawhi Leonard look unstoppable. Game 2 saw Danny Green explode from the three-point line, tying a playoff career-high with seven treys. Additionally, the Spurs’ “Big Three” have played as strong as ever in the Conference Finals so far, continuing to lay the foundation for the team’s effort on the court. San Antonio is simply playing beautiful fundamental basketball.
After their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks went seven games, the Spurs seem to have woken up and shifted into another gear. Since their Game 7 against Dallas, the Spurs have looked sharp, focused and determined to find redemption in the Finals. They have protected their home court, going 8-1 since defeating Dallas in Game 7 and winning the last seven consecutive games at AT&T Center.
The Spurs have added their name to the historical basketball books in these Conference Finals in a couple of ways. First, the Spurs’ trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili became the winningest trio in playoff history with 111 postseason wins, passing the Lakers’ trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Michael Cooper. Second, the Spurs have recorded the most point differential from an opponent in the first two games of a Conference Finals by outscoring OKC by 52 points.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, “Teams that take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-7 series with double-digit wins in each game go on to win the series 95 percent of the time (77-4).” Furthermore, San Antonio is 18-2 in best-of-seven series when up 2-0 under the helm of coach Popovich. One of those two series losses came from the Lakers in 2004. The other came in the 2012 Conference Finals against the Thunder. Oklahoma City will be looking to repeat some history, while San Antonio will be hoping for a return to the Finals after last year’s crushing seven-game loss.
What do you think?
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