Holding Court - The Final Four: San Antonio, Miami favored
And so it’s come down to the Final Four, a reference to the pro league’s NCAA version of the semifinals. The No. 1 seed against the No. 2 seed in each conference, just as expected at the start but an expectation whose level of certainty shifted like a Russell Westbrook crossover, or a Tony Parker shake and bake, a few times along the way.
Who wouldn’t feel lost watching the Indiana Pacers, after all? Every time the Pacers would play since hanging that 46-13 record in early March, nobody could predict which team would show up. Would it be the Pacers that lost 102-79 at home to Washington, or would it be the version that shut down the Wizards 85-63 at the latter’s Verizon Center and thus seemed to regain its mojo after losing the homecourt advantage right in their opening contest, or twice earlier in the first round to the since-eliminated Atlanta Hawks?
And what could one make of the Oklahoma City Thunder? This ball club that boasts of the best one-two punch in the league in MVP Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had the tendency to turn it on and off – or maybe more accurately, play like a like well-oiled machine one moment or a sputtering engine the next – and do it regularly and get away with it.
But now they’re here. The Pacers against two-time defending champion Miami, like Indiana and the rest of hoopdom expected. The Thunder against defending West champion San Antonio, like most roundball cognoscenti hoped for.
Not for all the marbles just yet, but for the right for one of the slots to play for the big enchilada, the coveted bling-bling and everything else in between.
Who will emerge out of these matchups and square off in the NBA finals? Below is how we see things panning out, and the factors and figures most likely to decide the outcomes.
No. 1 Indiana (56-26) vs. No. 2 Miami (54-28)
Indiana leads series 1-0
Indiana – Paul George (21.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.31 spg), David West (14.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 4.4 apg), Roy Hibbert (8.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.69 bpg), George Hill (12.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.15 spg), Lance Stephenson (13.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 3.8 apg).
Miami – LeBron James (30.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1.67 spg), Shane Battier (2.5 ppg), Chris Bosh (14.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.56 bpg), Mario Chalmers (8.0 ppg, 4.1 apg, 1.11 spg), Dwyane Wade (17.9 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.33 spg).
Indiana – C.J. Watson (6.5 ppg, 1.08 spg), Luis Scola (6.5 ppg), Evan Turner (3.5 ppg), Ian Mahinmi (2.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.08 bpg), Chris Copeland (3.3 ppg).
Miami – Udonis Haslem (1.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg), Ray Allen (8.7 ppg), Chris Andersen (5.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.33 bpg), Norris Cole (5.2 ppg), James Jones (4.9 ppg).
In their last 14 face-offs dating back to last year’s regular season and the playoffs, the Pacers and the Heat have each won seven games and lost seven, with an average of not more than one and a half points separating the two teams. There couldn’t be a more definitive indication of how close this matchup is, could there?
Yet, there seems to be something hanging over this series to take away from making this a really close matchup and a true classic, something that most people expected it to be even before the season started, or, more accurately, before the Pacers started acting the role of a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona.
Are these Pacers’ hard-to-decipher character changes over for good? Is the coming of the much-awaited Heat matchup enough to cure this team of its consistency malaise?
Basketball-wise, these Pacers are a better version of last year’s squad that extended the eventual champion Heat to seven games before falling on the road. Or at least they should. The Heat, meanwhile, are conceivably worse with the departure of three-point gunner Mike Miller and, let’s face it, a year added to Shane Battier’s, Udonis Haslem’s and Ray Allen’s legs.
But basketball is not about what’s on paper. It’s what goes on inside the court, or, in this case, inside the heads of Indiana coach Fred Vogel’s players. The first order of the day, therefore, is to act the role of the team with the homecourt advantage, that is, a team that knows how and does protect its homecourt, not the club that gave it up in its very first playoff game against both Atlanta and Washington. The Pacers worked hard all season for this, and they can’t thus afford to give it up to the Heat the way they did to the Hawks and Wizards.
How to do it seems simple enough; it’s actually executing it that’s the harder and, in all honesty, infinitely more excruciating task in the face of the presence on the other side of LeBron James, arguably the best player of this generation with Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan both on the downside of their own great careers. (This is in terms of the intertwining of their careers though, not in terms of their totality which is a topic for another time.)
And believe it or not, the player that could have the greatest say in how this series is decided is not the great LeBron, nor even the best player on the Indiana side, Paul George, but George’s own teammate and sometime missing-in-action Roy Hibbert.
Just how the 7-foot-2, 290-pound Hibbert can impact this series can be seen in the two teams’ head-to-head matchup in the regular season. The Heat and Pacers split their four regular-season games, and in the Pacers’ two victories, Hibbert averaged 22.5 points on 56.7 floor shooting while drawing 12 total fouls and earning 15 free-throw tries. In the Heat’s two wins, meanwhile, Hibbert was held to just 5.5 points on 40 percent shooting, four total fouls drawn and four free throws attempted.
The contrasting numbers demonstrably represent the divergent styles employed by the two teams to highlight their strengths, with Hibbert in the middle of it. As demonstrated in the Atlanta and Washington series, the Pacers struggle whenever Hibbert isn’t able to get his touches at the low post, and this doesn’t only impact their offense but also their defense, which we’ll get into a little later. It’s simply obvious that a whole lot of advantages ensue for Indiana when his teammates are able to get the ball to Hibbert as this forces the defenders, who are often smaller, to foul him, getting the opposing team into foul trouble earlier and Indiana to the bonus faster.
In Miami’s case, coach Erik Spoelstra is then forced to divert from the small-ball style that the Heat’s offensive and defensive schemes are most at home with, taking away from their well-spaced, wing-oriented offense as well as their trapping, turnover-producing defense. This is because instead of going with James, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Chris Bosh and another wingman, Battier, just like he did in the Brooklyn series, Spoelstra now has to insert the traditional two bigs to counter the Pacers’ offense-efficient Hibbert and David West. It’s because of this size advantage that Miami will most likely go with Haslem in the starting lineup in this series, and more extensively if Hibbert starts to go crazy.
If this happens, however, the Heat are going to play into the Pacers’ hands, and veer them away from their most efficient, comfortable lineups. As proof of this, their lineups that featured Bosh and Chris Andersen scored 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than Miami’s full regular-season average, while those that included Bosh and Haslem were some 4.5 points-per-100 below that mark. The more the Pacers force the Heat to go with this traditional lineup, the less space there will be for the Heat’s wing slashers and creators like James and Wade to operate. This will in turn benefit the Indiana defense itself as George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill will now have a less difficult time containing Miami’s scorers.
NBA.com’s John Schuhmann himself noted that how Hibbert’s offense goes in this series will have a great impact on its outcome as most of the Pacers, including Hill and Stephenson, that are expected to generate offense for them have seen their productivity dip against Miami. James and George are going to cancel each other out, while West will get in his own licks to perhaps match whatever Wade gives the Heat. The biggest question now, of course, is, will Hibbert prove equal to the task and assert himself against Bosh such that the Heat are forced to bring in another big body?
The Heat had a relatively easier time with Brooklyn in the second round simply because the aging Nets could not match Miami in the wings with big man Brook Lopez out since December with foot problems. All the Heat needed to do was match the Nets straight up with their small-ball lineup.
The Pacers are hoping they have the potential to unseat the Heat with Hibbert’s shadow looming large, and though we’d like to think they can make it work to perhaps take it in seven games, they haven’t done enough lately to make us believe they will. Instead, the safer pick it seems is still Miami.
No. 1 San Antonio (62-20) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma City (59-23)
San Antonio – Kawhi Leonard (14.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.83 spg), Tim Duncan (15.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.67 bpg), Tiago Splitter (9.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.08 spg), Tony Parker (19.3 ppg, 4.9 apg), Danny Green (7.8 ppg).
Oklahoma City – Kevin Durant (31.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.38 bpg), Nick Collison (2.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg), Kendrick Perkins (3.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg), Russell Westbrook (26.6 ppg, 8.4 apg, 8.0 rpg, 1.69 spg), Thabo Sefolosha (4.9 ppg).
San Antonio – Manu Ginobili (13.9 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.83 spg), Boris Diaw (8.4 ppg), Patty Mills (8.0 ppg), Marco Belinelli (5.9 ppg), Aron Baynes (2.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg).
Oklahoma City – Reggie Jackson (10.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg), Caron Butler (6.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg), Steven Adams (3.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.42 bpg), Derek Fisher (3.0 ppg).
There’s no question that the most explosive duo in the entire league right now is the Thunder’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Ironically, however, the biggest shadow looming in this series is neither player’s. Nor is it Tony Parker’s nor the great Tim Duncan’s. Instead, it’s the player who has been declared out for the series and perhaps the rest of the playoffs, if the Thunder go farther enough at all, that is.
Serge Ibaka, the third spoke in the Thunder’s wheel all season, has been sidelined with a left calf injury at the worst possible time, depriving the Thunder of a major player for the second straight playoffs. It would be recalled that Westbrook was also lost for the rest of the playoffs last season when then-Houston rookie Patrick Beverly inadvertently caused a meniscus tear in his right knee after colliding with him while trying to make a steal. Oklahoma City eventually beat the Rockets in six games but lost in five to Memphis in the second round.
And now, it’s Ibaka’s turn to get sidelined, and with all due respect to Durant and Westbrook, who have carried OKC to victories in the first two rounds, it’s Ibaka whom the Thunder could least afford to lose against the Spurs. Consider: In the four regular-season games this year against the Spurs, all OKC victories, the 6-foot-10 Ibaka was the big difference maker on defense. His presence or absence on the floor impacted the Spurs like no other player did.
With him on the floor for 148 minutes, for example, San Antonio shot 42.3 percent from the floor as a team, including 48 percent from the shaded area and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. It also attempted 17.2 free throws per 48 minutes and had 8.1 shots blocked within that period while scoring 93 points per 100 possessions, which would have translated into dead last in the entire league!
Without Ibaka for 44 minutes, on the other hand, the Spurs shot at a 51.4 percent clip, including 61.9 percent in the paint and 54.2 percent from behind the three-point line. In addition, San Antonio also attempted 22.8 free throws per 48 minutes, had just 2.2 shots blocked over that time frame and scored at a scorching 120.8-per-100 clip, which was equivalent to more than the league-leading full-season average.
“In sum,” Dan Devine of Yahoo! Sports said, “When Ibaka was patrolling the paint, the Spurs operated like far and away the worst offense in the league. When he stopped, they started operating like far and away the best offense in the league.”
Of course, it’s not only the Spurs who have borne the brunt of Ibaka’s tough defensive presence. Marc Gasol of Memphis and Blake Griffin of the LA Clippers also suffered their share in OKC’s defeat of their teams in the first two rounds.
With Ibaka out, the Thunder have lost far and away their best defensive player, not to mention his postseason norms of 12.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Nick Collison will likely start in place of the five-year veteran forward, while centers Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams will assume a greater part of the defensive load.
There’s no question though that Durant and Westbrook will now have to make up for the loss of their third-best player even on offense, where Ibaka has turned into a reliable outside shooter.
And San Antonio has undoubtedly caught a break. The Spurs, on paper, are even better than the team that came to within 28 seconds of winning the NBA crown last year. Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter are without question better players, while Patty Mills has turned into a reliable reliever for Parker and Marco Belinelli has stepped up in place of the now-departed Gary Neal. They also brought in Boris Diaw from the waivers list and the 11-year veteran, a Most Improved Player awardee in 2006, has been a difference maker in these playoffs.
The Spurs ranked sixth in the league on offense (first in assists) and fourth on defense for a net rating of No. 1 in the league. Even without the Ibaka break, that ranking puts them alongside eight of the last 18 teams that have won the NBA championship, which cumulatively have averaged a net rating of 2.9 in these categories.
Historically, San Antonio has had a tough time attacking very athletic teams like OKC, depending to a large extent on Parker driving the lane and kicking it out or making multiple passes around the perimeter. Against athletic defenders, the edge they have in this regard becomes more narrow so they have to post Duncan to balance it out. With Ibaka unable to take on Timmy now, the Spurs’ 38-year-old franchise great would presumably have an easier time against Perkins or whoever the Thunder throws against him.
On defense, San Antonio can also throw its own athletic perimeter defenders like Leonard and Danny Green at Durant and Westbrook to try to contain their virulent shotmaking and offensive creativity. It’s some sort of a tit-for-tat, with the difference being that Ibaka is nowhere inside the court. On that basis, the Spurs should take this series in six games and go on to a second straight NBA finals. – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.