The NBA Playoffs are in full swing and as each day goes by the games get more competitive and there is more on the line. The two finalists in the Western Conference have been decided (Spurs and Thunder) while the Eastern Conference series are both destined to go at least six games. These playoffs have been very fun to watch throughout and it seems as though a new player steps up every night. As a fan there is not much more you could ask for. Here are some of my thoughts on the Western and Eastern Conference Semi-Finals as they have played out so far and what to look for as the Eastern Conference semi’s wind down.
Spurs sweep Clippers: The San Antonio Spurs are the team playing the best basketball at exactly the right time. They have won 18 straight games (including playoff sweeps over the Jazz and Clippers) and 29 of their last 31 overall including the regular season. They are not playing like their core players are all over 30 (point guard Tony Parker just turned 30 last Thursday), and if anything they are only getting better. Tim Duncan has been unstoppable in the postseason, averaging just under 18 points per game with 9 rebounds and 3 assists. Tony Parker is the Spurs leading scorer in the playoffs, averaging 19 points and 7 assists per game and playing the point guard position in a way that only Rajon Rondo can rival of players still in the postseason. Manu Ginobili has been his typical self, scoring over 11 points per game with 4.5 assists and over three rebounds a game, so you can see why these guys have won 3 NBA Championships together and have to be the favorites to pick up their fourth this season (Duncan also won the 1999 Finals in his second season).
Being swept in the second round may seem like a disappointing ending for the Clippers, but all in all they had a very successful season. The Clippers went 40-26 in the regular season and then won a hard-fought first round playoff series in seven games over the Memphis Grizzlies. Losing to the Spurs is nothing to be ashamed of and even though the average margin of victory for their second round series was 11.5 points they showed that they could play with the Spurs as they lost game four by only 3 points. Perhaps more importantly the Clippers gave fans hope for the future, especially with the addition of Chris Paul and the rise to stardom of Blake Griffin. Center DeAndre Jordan continues to improve each year and backup point guard Eric Bledsoe emerged in the playoffs, so the future is bright for Clipper Nation and I expect them to make tweaks to their bench that will further improve the team over the off-season. There are now legitimate expectations on the Clippers, which is a major step forward for that franchise.
Thunder Take Down Lakers in Five: For the second straight season the Lakers have made a second round exit, this time at the hands of Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. For the first time that I can remember watching Lakers Basketball, they looked lost in this series, especially in two of their losses where they unraveled in the final minutes (games 2 and 4). In the other two losses the team just looked totally disinterested and lost by double digits in each (119-90 in Game 1, 106-90 last night). For all the talk about “clutch” circling around the media at the moment, the Lakers key player Kobe Bryant just didn’t have “it”, and even in last night’s game where he put up 42 points on 33 shots he did not have a single assist or set up many baskets for his teammates. The Lakers also needed more of an effort from their big men, specifically Pau Gasol (who got called out by Kobe for his lack of aggressive prior to game 5) and Andrew Bynum (who at 24 years old could become a monster in this league and average even more than his 17 points and 11 boards this playoffs, scary I know). Moves will be made by Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, and I’m interested to see how that roster will look for the 2012-2013 season.
This series belonged to the Thunder from the beginning. They set the tone with the blowout win in game one and never looked back. Their younger legs and unreal athleticism helped them take control over the Lakers and they will need to continue playing at such an amazing level if they want to knock off the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. For all the talk about “Big Three’s”, the Thunder actually have two different groups of them, led by the offensive minded players Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden and then countering that with some defensive minded big men in Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, as well as Nick Collison coming off the bench. This might be the Thunder’s year and their series against the Spurs will be must-watch television, and I will preview that series before it gets started on Sunday.
Heat and Pacers Tied Heading to Game Five: This Heat-Pacers series has been incredible to watch. It is the prototype for the new-age “hero-ball” and “Big Three” (well, Big Two without Bosh) versus good ole fashioned team basketball. As a pure basketball fan you should be rooting for the Pacers and that’s without even taking into account the egos and personalities that the Heat bring to the court every night. I mentioned last week that the Heat may be in trouble, and then in game four LeBron James and Dwyane Wade responded exactly how they needed to, combining for 70 points, 27 rebounds, and 15 assists in an 8 point win in Indiana. If those two guys can repeat that effort again tonight (8PM, TNT) then they will probably take control of this series, but I honestly can’t see LeBron James playing back –to-back games in the same stratosphere as he was in on Sunday with his 40 point, 18 rebound, 9 assist ballgame that ranks among the top individual performances in basketball history.
For the Pacers, they will need another monster game from center Roy Hibbert. Without Bosh healthy the Heat have no answer down low for Hibbert and if he can stay out of foul trouble he is a key player to the Pacers chances of advancing. In game three, Hibbert put up an incredible 19 point, 18 rebound performance, but in game four he got himself into foul trouble early and finished with 10 points and 9 rebounds (almost half his production from the previous game). The Pacers need Hibbert to be able to stay aggressive and if he can this game tonight should be one that goes down to the wire. Power forward David West was also in foul trouble for much of game four and finished with 8 points and 6 boards, so the Pacers are hoping that he can bounce back well in game five also.
Celtics Roll in Game Five, Hope to finish off 76ers Wednesday: The Celtics-Sixers series has been extremely competitive throughout and will probably give me a heart attack if the Celtics do not close it out in convincing fashion tomorrow night in Philadelphia. One of the things that have made this series so entertaining is that in first four games the team that jumped out to a big early lead in the first quarter has gone on to lose the game (game five’s first quarter was closely contested). Also of note in this series is that the team who was won (and with the exception of game one, has dominated) the third quarter has gone on to win that game, so if you decide to watch only a piece of tomorrow’s game six I recommend you make it the third quarter. In this series Kevin Garnett has been the best player for either team, and I don’t think it’s really even that close. “Big Ticket” is averaging 19 points and 10.5 rebounds a game so far in this postseason and is looking a lot more like his 24 year old self instead of the 36 year old man that he really is. Rajon Rondo has also played some incredible basketball in this round and that has made up for the injury suffered by his backcourt mate Avery Bradley who will be a game-time decision for game six after suffering a shoulder injury. Brandon Bass was the hero in game five for the Celtics, as he played the game of his life with 27 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks and outscoring the entire 76ers team on his own in the decisive third quarter. If the Celtics go on to win the NBA Finals (no jinx), the “Bass Game” will forever be remembered much like the “Dave Roberts Steal” for the Red Sox in 2004.
For the Sixers, they need Andre Iguodala to play more like he did in game four than he did in game five if they want to extend this series. The Sixers 6’6” swingman scored 16 points (including 3-3 from 3 point land) in game four, but followed that up with only 8 points in game five. Power forward Elton Brand picked up the slack, scoring 19 points to lead the Sixers in game five, so they have to be hoping for a repeat performance from the former Duke star also. Third year point guard Jrue Holiday from UCLA has been steadily improving throughout these playoffs and is averaging 15 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds per game in the postseason, so he is another player to keep an eye on in game six and game seven if this series goes that far.