Ugh. While only one game has actually been played between the final four teams in the NBA Playoffs, things aren’t looking too good from my vantage point.
Of course if you like the Miami Heat or San Antonio Spurs you’re probably thrilled right now. The Heat clobbered Boston 93-79 tonight, while San Antonio took care of OKC 101-98 to seize an early series lead.
What I noticed from both games was the way the winning team eventually took control in the second half. The Thunder jumped out to a nine point lead in the third quarter before the Spurs “got nasty” (in the words of ornery Coach G-Pop) and Manu Ginobili went off for 16 second half points (en route to a 26-point game, his highest scoring game of the year).
I liked what OKC brought defensively. They more or less held Parker to a sub-par game (although he still managed 18 points and six assists), and did a bang up job keeping the Spurs off the 3-point line in the first three quarters. I thought they kept Duncan in check to, and forced the “other” Spurs to beat them down the stretch. After the game Charles Barkley said he felt OKC should be worried because San Antonio really didn’t have that good of a game. Well, since I’m cheering ofr OKC I think I’ll turn the tables and say I think OKC should feel confident going into Game 2 knowing they almost stole Game 1 despite a lackluster performance from their Big Three.
Look, it took a tremendous Manu Ginobili effort for San Antonio to win Sunday night’s game. Stephen Jackson also performed way out of his arse and kept Durantula in check. That won’t happen every night. Ginobili, while still a great player, will not go off for 26 points throughout this series. And Jackson, well, let’s just say we saw his best performance (yes, I’m biased … but I gotta defend my boys). He won’t hold Kevin Durant to “just” 27 points each and every night (just like Westbrook and Harden wont combine to shoot 14-for-38).
That being said, I think OKC needs to come into Game 2 with the same defensive attack they did in Game 1: Stop Parker (well, slow him down), keep Duncan at bay, and force one of the other guys to beat you. The Spurs go about 10 deep, and they’re a helluva team, but I still think the Thunder carry three exceptional players – while the Spurs have an abundance of good athletes – that can capably take over when necessary. Westbrook needs to play like he did against LA and choose better shots (I thought he forced quite a few layups in the second half), and the refs need to do a better job at keeping the foul calling consistent. There were some bogus calls down the stretch (for example: Westbrook went up for a layup and got cut in half by two Spurs players that resulted in an offensive foul … really), and a lot of “cheap” shots taken by San Antonio.
I expect a bit more ferocity from OKC in Game 2, and some more imaginative play calling from Scott Brooks (who seriously left Perkins in the game far too long when he probably should’ve dropped in Ibaka for a couple of rotations). The Thunder did a bang up job keeping the pace of the game in their favor, something they need to carry on for four quarters instead of just three.
Miami, meanwhile, likewise decimated their opponent with a second-half splurge that saw them outscore Boston 47-33. The Celtics got out of control their in the third quarter and had difficulty executing their offense. That’s nothing new as they demonstrated their lackluster offense numerous times against Philly in Round 2. More problematic is their defense. Rivers effectively stopped the high pick and roll in the second quarter, forced Miami to make ill-advised jumpers, but then couldn’t stop even the most basic layup in the second half. Dwayne Wade (22 points) flopped, er, excuse me, got the free throw line six times mainly off isolation plays against Boston’s BIGs. The Heat continuallythrew multiple screens at Boston and forced KG into a one-on-one with Wade, who would blow right by him for an easy layup.
(On a side note: LeBron James is a tremendous player so long as his team carries a 5+ point lead. He excels at blowing teams out of the water, but when a team gets close he has a tendency to disappear. Nothing new, obviously, but I thought it was kind of interesting.)
Rivers threw out a zone in the second part of the fourth quarter, forcing the Heat into more jump shots, and made some good stops, but no one could hit a shot on the other end. Pierce was 5-for-18, Bass was 4-f0r-11, Rajon Rondo was 8-for-20, and Ray Allen was 1-for-7. Their offense looked sluggish, and very off-kilter in the third and fourth quarters. At times the Celtics looked (gasp) panicked! Which is something you don’t usually see in a Doc Rivers squad.
The officiating started off horrendously with Dan Crawford and Ed Malloy calling some bogus technical fouls against the Celtics in the first half (Rivers got one for apparently saying, “Come on, man!”), but evened out in the end. I thought Boston had numerous opportunities, thanks to the officiating, to get back in the game, but Pierce and co. just couldn’t hit shots (losing Avery Bradley obviously hurts the Celtics more than Bosh’s absence hurts the Heat).
I still think this series is just getting started. Rivers is too smart a coach to allow Miami to get the better of him, but judging by the first games of the Conference Finals, it looks like we might get that dreaded San Antonio/Miami NBA Finals match-up that no one asked for. (Hopefully Rivers can figure out how to stop Wade’s dribble-drive penetration, and Durant can go off for 50 against the Spurs … come on guys, at least make it interesting!)