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.