2014 NBA Conference Finals Preview

The 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs were one of the best in the league’s history, especially the final two games. Both teams have made it back to the NBA conference finals, and if the oddsmakers are to be believed, a rematch looks in order.

Miami is a heavy (-440) favorite to beat the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals that begin on Sunday (3:30 PM ET, ABC). San Antonio isn’t quite as strong, posted at (-215) against the Oklahoma City Thunder, as the Western Conference Finals get set to tip on Monday (9 PM ET, TNT), although with word that OkC forward Serge Ibaka is out, that may change.

Is there any way that Indiana or Oklahoma City—the preseason NBA Finals picks here at TheSportsNotebook can pull off series upsets? Here’s few brief thoughts on each series in the 2014 NBA conference finals

Indiana Pacers-Miami Heat

Both of these teams struggled down the stretch. Indiana’s fade was widely chronicled in the media, but what was overlooked is that the Heat still failed to catch them for the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. There was a belief that Miami was just holding something in reserve for the playoffs. Early returns through the first two rounds suggest that belief was accurate.

Miami has rolled through Charlotte and Brooklyn with an 8-1 record. While that’s nothing compared to what Western Conference teams endure in the playoffs, it’s at least as difficult as Indiana’s slate of Atlanta and Washington. The Pacers have lost five games in these playoffs and been pushed to the brink by a Hawks team that went 39-43 in the regular season.

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Yet the flip side to this is that Indiana stepped up its game against Washington, a series where a lot of people—including yours truly, who picked them to win it all in October and stood by it through much of the slump—finally threw in the towel and said the Pacers were finito. Roy Hibbert bounced back and had some good games. David West stepped it up and showed leadership off the court, and some big-time scoring on it, including 29 points in a Game 6 road win to ice the series.

All of that’s nice, it speaks well to Indiana’s ability to turn themselves around. But is it enough against the Heat? Frankly, it might be.

LeBron James has had to carry this Miami team like no other. I won’t go so far as to say it’s reminiscent of the Cleveland days, when he dragged four guys from my Wednesday night men’s league into the 2007 NBA Finals with him, but it’s close to it. If Indiana could play like the Pacers of old (and by “old”, I mean January), they can win the series, particularly with homecourt advantage.

Miami has no answer for Hibbert and West down low. Indiana is the ideally constructed team to beat the Heat. But that presumes that Indiana is all the way back, and while there are some positive signs, I think everyone is right to be gunshy about this team.

I’m going to pick the Pacers to win this series in seven games, but honestly, that’s more out of deference to my preseason prediction. In reality, I just want to see what Indiana can show the first two games on this home floor, to see if this is still the Pacer team I once believed in.

San Antonio Spurs-Oklahoma City Thunder

The league’s MVP goes up against the league’s best team, as Kevin Durant faces the 62-win Spurs. Sitting here on Saturday morning as I write this, the injury to Ibaka has taken a lot of the steam out of this series. The OkC power forward is the only player who can match up with Tim Duncan down low. Without him, San Antonio can feel free to extend their defense without consequence.

But the flip side is that Tony Parker only played ten minutes in the close-out game of San Antonio’s series win over Portland. Recall that Parker tweaked a hamstring in Game 3 of last year’s Finals, and while he continued to play, was never the same. That injury cost San Antonio the championship last season. If he plays at something less than full health this year, it could deny the Spurs a repeat trip to the Finals.

Duncan is still a solid player, but with a watered-down Parker, Oklahoma City would have not just the best player on the floor, but the best two players on the floor in Durant and Russell Westbrook. San Antonio is a wonderful team, brilliantly coached, with solid depth and everyone understands their roles. But the NBA playoffs are about stars, and having the two best guys on the court is a pretty big edge in a best-of-seven series.

I’m picking the Thunder, again in deference to my preseason pick, and again, I want to watch the opening of this series to get a read on how much Parker will be able to give. But I’m picking Oklahoma City with more conviction that I am with Indiana, and I’d actually step up and bet the Thunder at underdog prices.