2012 NBA Playoffs: Conference Final Predictions

Eddie PryceCorrespondent IMay 28, 2012

2012 NBA Playoffs: Conference Final Predictions

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    The 2012 NBA playoffs have had some interesting twists that have made for another exciting NBA run. If you are a diehard NBA fan, this playoff has been as exciting and satisfying as any other year. If you are a casual fan, it’s debatable on how you feel because defensive teams like Philadelphia and Boston have yielded low scoring slug-fests and there have been some ugly shooting performances along the way.  Great players for the most part have been great, and there have been some surprises starting with the injury-aided Sixers-Bulls 8/1 upset.

    In the end, however, especially after Derrick Rose went down, most have gotten the matchups that they predicted in the conference finals. The two best teams in the West and, according to many, the two title favorites square off in the West, and the prohibitive favorites in the East play their nemesis and longtime rivals that they cannot seem to avoid and often lose to.

    Who is going to come out victorious in what looks to be two hotly contested contests this year? Here is what I think:

Thunder vs. Spurs

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder are probably the sexiest team in the NBA and a favorite by many to win the NBA championship this year. There is good reasoning behind this prediction because they are no longer a fad; they are serious. The Thunder feature arguably the best 1-2 punch in basketball, which is definitely debatable as far as the Miami Heat are concerned, because they are matchup nightmares to put it simply. 

    Due to Russell Westbrook’s next level development over the past 12 months or so, the Thunder’s high scoring duo of players that can each easily eclipse 25-plus any given night and also make plays on the defensive end as well. They combined to average a league-leading 51.6 points per game during the regular season and have just tipped over 50 PPG game in the postseason as well. They are explosive offensive players that really cannot be answered offensively.

    Durant is a lights-out shooter that has a true scorer’s mentality and freakish height and length that make it difficult to really bother any of his shots, given he can put the ball on the ground and beat you just as easily. This makes it hard to really stick as close to him as you would with a shooter. He is a 6’10" shooting guard for all intents and purposes, and the league has simply not seen anyone like him before. He also has shown a killer instinct in the clutch on both ends at several points during his career, but his clutch play against the Lakers' last series really made the difference and put them over the top. 

    Durant is a top-three player in this league at the very least, and it does not hurt to have a superstar like this on your squad. 

    Russell Westbrook on most teams would be a Derrick Rose-like scoring point guard that would be the main feature for his team and carry his team with no questioning from anyone. However, being on a team with a guy like Durant, Westbrook has to balance his insane athletic talent and scoring ability with his main responsibilities as a point guard to make sure that his teammates are fed and kept involved. He has struggled with this a lot over the years, but I will say that despite my criticisms in the past of him, he has done very well with this balance thus far in the playoffs.

    It will be interesting to see if he can maintain this balance as the Thunder finally face a team that is better than them and liable to out-execute them down the stretch in games during this series. 

    Combine this type of one-two punch with the best sixth man in the league, James Harden, who does not slack at all with his 17 points per game average in both the regular and postseasons, the Thunder have a big three that can compete with any of the other team’s Big Threes. They are a major problem offensively, given the fact that all three players are difficult, if not impossible, matchups for opponents, and all three are willing to make plays on defense and unfazed by the big stage as well.

    They have a solid supporting cast of players that perform their roles well and solidify a very underrated defense (led by Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, and Nick Collison), and they seem to be much more poised in games in which they have to play in the half court and execute. 

    There is so much about this team that screams of a championship team. They are the most explosive team, arguably the most talented team, they play well on both ends and they have the star power needed for deep playoff runs. Why won’t this team go all the way like many think they will? 

    There are a few reasons why they will not win this series. 

    1. The Thunder still are a threat to be usurped by Russell Westbrook’s poor shot selection and tendency to ignore Durant for long stretches while trying to “get his." He has been better about this during the playoffs thus far, which is definitely a good thing, but given the Thunder have just been “better” than their last two opponents and been able to obliterate their one on one matchups, I still can foresee Russell countering the Spurs' sophisticated and effective defensive coverages by simply “trying harder” to beat them by himself. 

    He has the green light from Coach Scott Brooks and has the offensive talent to get his shot whenever he wants, so who’s to say, as a budding superstar with outstanding confidence and swagger, that he will not go off on his own and neglect his point guard responsibilities. This alone has been one of the major reasons I have doubted the Thunder’s championship hopes all year. 

    2. The Thunder’s inability to consistently execute efficiently in the half court. Because the Thunder have Durant and Westbrook and a budding star/scorer in James Harden who can get his shot pretty easily as well with his crafty drives and very good outside shot, the Thunder often rely solely on one-on-one play and jump shots to score. Ideally, they get out in the fast break and are deadly when that occurs, but if that is not happening, they often rely on jump shots only, given lay-ups are at a premium in the playoffs.

    When they are hot, they are virtually unbeatable. When they are cold, it forces them to shut down the opposition to compensate. One cannot predict when this will happen either because their philosophy is not sustainable. If they were better at getting shots out of sets and off of ball and player movement, not to mention having a reliable low-post threat to commit to, this team would be a MAJOR problem. Instead, the Thunder are going to be forced in this series to find a way to beat a team that executes better than anyone else in the league and has the offensive talent and firepower to keep up offensively, and more importantly, the defensive capabilities to take advantage of the Thunder’s inefficiency on offense.

    3. The San Antonio Spurs have been nothing short of spectacular this postseason. This has been on the heels of an amazing run to end the season as well. They have won 19 straight games and 30 out of 32 overall, including all of their postseason games to this point. Some have made the argument that they have not played anyone, but it can be argued that if the Jazz played anyone else this year as an 8-seed, they would have been just as capable of upset as the Sixers were. They were a pretty good team that brought it on both ends of the floor and are very hard to beat at home. 

    Secondly, the Clippers, despite the loss of Chauncey Billups, were one game away from winning a division title, were rarely dominated or beaten by any team this season consistently and had players step up and fill Billups' role collectively much better than most expected. In addition to Chris Paul’s brilliance and Blake Griffin’s ability, the Clippers would have been hell for any other team to put out of this year’s playoffs, including the East Coast teams. The problem is that the Spurs have been SO good that they have made good opponents look unworthy. 

    There is nothing you can knock the Spurs about. In the past, they were aging and unable to really match up with teams like the Thunder that were fast, physical or both. This year, however, some of their main rotation guys are 25 and under!  Kawhi Leonard has stepped up to be a more than worthy non-lottery first-round draft pick and provided the youth and athleticism that the Spurs needed while being polished and mature enough to play for such an experienced and seasoned team. Leonard stayed in school for three years, and that cannot be ignored. 

    Danny Green, also a player who stayed in school (three years), has revived his career after being cut and sitting at the end of benches thus far in his career. He has found his way in the starting lineup and provided timely clutch three-point shooting and good defense on the other end as well. 

    Gary Neal has been an important piece off the bench and shown the tendency to hit big shots, and, although not as young, foreigner Tiago Splitter and the youthful but experienced legs of Stephen Jackson have added an injection of energy and potency to the Spurs existing unit.

    Make no mistake about it, if this series is to be won by the Spurs, it will be because of the performances of the old guard (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan). The supporting cast is what is going to take this team over the top, but that is given the Spurs get solid consistency from future statue Tim Duncan, MVP-type play from Parker and greatness off of the bench by Ginobili that must at a minimum cancel out any contributions that Harden has for the Thunder.

    Ginobili is more than capable of doing this, and based on what he has does thus far in Game 1, it’s clear that all of the pace and preservation of their aging vet from Argentina by the Spurs this year has paid off. He has the capability of being the best player on the floor in any game this series, and if he can obliterate pick-and-roll coverages and help defense like he did in Game 1, it is going to be hard to beat the Spurs. 

    Parker is engaged with a matchup against the only other point guard in this league that has played near his level this year from a scoring standpoint outside of Chris Paul. He must be good, but to expect him to be great while battling with Westbrook may be too much to ask. Expect guys like Captain Jack, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw and others to step up and pick up any slack that Parker cannot carry in the midst of this outstanding matchup. 

    In the end, despite the Thunder having a championship-caliber club that would probably swarm the Eastern Conference champion and certainly is good enough to win this series, the Spurs will win this series in six games. It will not be easy, just like it wasn’t easy for the Thunder to beat the Lakers last series, and there may even be a blowout in OKC in front of their home crowd, but in the end, the Spurs are just too good and too experienced. 

Heat vs. Celtics

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    In some ways, it’s a letdown to many that the Bulls did not make it back to the East Finals to make a push at their nemesis and test the theory that they had improved enough to beat the Heat this year. The Bulls added Rip Hamilton and just were a year more experienced this year. They endured injuries and managed to tie for the best record in basketball and secure the No. 1 seed again.

    Even more impressive, they won two games against the Miami Heat essentially without Derrick Rose because the one game he played in, he was still hampered by injuries and played limited minutes due to his ineffectiveness.

    Given that the Bulls hopes were more or less dashed when D-Rose crumpled to the ground in Game 1 of the Sixers series, it quickly became apparent that the Heat and Celtics were really the only realistic way that the East could play out. Both teams have experienced injury, and both teams at times have looked VERY beatable, but at the end of the day, these two teams have become regulars in the Eastern Conference championship picture. 

    In the past, the Celtics have owned the Heat. Take it a step further, and the Celtics owned LeBron James in Cleveland as well. James had an outstanding series when they pushed the Celts seven games in the East semifinals on the Celtics 2008 title run and has had great success in the regular season against them, but in the playoffs (namely the 2010 series that ended his career in Cleveland), he has struggled and not been able to come up victorious. 

    Dwyane Wade has usually played pretty well against Boston, but he had never beaten them in a series until last year. Combine their past troubles with the fact that the Heat had been flustered and manhandled during the regular season during the first three games of the last season’s series, and it’s very easy to explain why the Heat were so jubilant when they won their East semifinal game against the Celtics last year. It was almost as if they had won the NBA championship, because in their minds, the Celtics were the one team that psychologically troubled them, and in some ways, they feared.

    Their arrogance and confidence got them through the Bulls series, but as you know, the Mavericks surprised the Heat with just how good they were and sealed their fate in rather embarrassing fashion.

    This year, despite the fact that the Heat won last year’s series, it seems that the Celtics are still that team that the Heat respect the most even more so than a healthy Bulls squad. The Celtics not only took apart the Heat in three of four games this year, but they frustrated them and made them look bad at times. Not counting the last game in which both teams essentially sat their starters, the Heat were held to 72 points in Boston on April 1 and got beat at home in a shootout which would seem to favor the Heat (115-107). 

    In that April 1 game, LeBron James was held to three rebounds and did not record an assist for the second time in his career. Doing that to the Heat pretty much limits any chances of them winning, because even if James does not score by the dozens, you can always count on him for his ancillary stats. 

    Bottom line is that the Heat really struggled in these two games. For them to shoot 34 percent in one game and then give up 115 points to the aging Celtics in the other one is a concern.

    More importantly is the psychological advantage. Even though the Heat took care of the Celtics rather convincingly last year in the playoffs thanks to LeBron James' legendary heroics, especially down the stretch, the Celtics still have a championship ring and have had no problem consistently putting together championship runs and playing championship level play.

    It is no secret that although the Heat think and know they are more talented, they envy and look up to the Celtics for their success, and some can argue that they are the reason that the “superfriends” joined forces. It was in a sense a surrender. Both Wade and especially James could not crack the code on the Celtics no matter how good their teams were and felt it necessary to stack talent together in order to “have enough” to beat the Celtics.  They in a sense joined forces to be beat evil.

    Also, the Celtics are mentally tougher and seem to be more consistently clutch as a team. They have a winning pedigree, and they have never been doubted for not coming up big when it counts. Outside of them suffering injuries of Kendrick Perkins in the 2010 Finals that limited them against the Lakers in Game 7, Kevin Garnett in 2009 and Rajon Rondo’s injury last year against the Heat, they have always gone as far as they should go and positioned themselves to win championships.

    Rondo has no fear of the big moment, Garnett relishes the big moment, Ray Allen has hit dozens of huge shots in his long playoff career and Paul Pierce may be one of the most clutch playoff performers of all time.

    Meanwhile, while Wade is generally highly regarded as a clutch player, Chris Bosh stepped up big last year in his first meaningful playoff run, and Mario Chalmers is very underrated for his clutch play. LeBron James continues to get questioned and tortured for some of his struggles in the past in the clutch. It is somewhat overplayed, but James has struggled to perform on a level that you would expect a three-time MVP and a guy with his talent and ability to play when all the chips are down. He was phenomenal against Boston and Chicago last year, was outstanding in the Indiana series this year both during the first three quarters and in clutch time, but he will always be remembered for 2010 Boston and 2011 Dallas. 

    The Celtics play off of this more than anyone and will be sure to force them to make enough plays to beat them, as they are very confident that they have enough to win.

    This year, Paul Pierce has been himself in the playoffs, and he will need to keep up that pace in order for Boston to be competitive. Kevin Garnett was at times forced to carry the Boston offense with his jump shots and post play in the Philly series. He must continue to dominate the center matchup in this series, especially given the Heat’s glaring weakness is with their big-man play, and that is not helped by their best big Chris Bosh being questionable for this series.

    Ray Allen has been hampered by injury, but he has played and hit big shots. He will certainly need him to work Wade on the offensive end and make him legitimately guard him, which should take some away from his offense as it has in the past. The important thing about that point is that the Heat need both James AND Wade to be great every night that Bosh does not run out on the floor with them. If Wade struggles with his shooting, as he did early in the Indiana series, that will be huge for the Celtics. Throw in the fact that Allen has a tendency to hit big shots and backbreaking threes off of screens; he may be as pivotal a figure as anyone in this series.

    Last, but not least, Rajon Rondo must be great in this series. He is the best player on the Celtics, or at least the most important, and he must rack up the assists and control the game, as he has been known to do. He must win the point guard matchup significantly to make up for the Heat’s athletic and offensive firepower advantage. If he can play a great floor game and be willing to attack the basket with intent to score, instead of always driving to pass, while knocking down a few timely shots like he did in Game 7 against the Sixers, I think the Celtics have a good shot in this series.

    Really, no matter what the Celtics do, it’s going to come down to what the Heat do. The Celtics have a great coach, great philosophies and they have the psychological advantage still; however, if the Heat can man up and play like a team that is more talented and has more star power than any team in the league, they should be able to beat whatever the Celtics have to throw at them in this series. 

    LeBron and Wade have averaged 50-plus points a game in the playoffs and really turned it up in the Pacers series when they had their back to the wall. The 70-point performance they had in Game 4 against the Pacers sent a message to the league of what they are capable of when they get pissed off and play dominant but efficient ball. The question is, can they keep this up against a “tougher” more experienced team?

    If Bosh is able to come back and play like he normally does, that will help a lot. He helps spread the floor for Wade and James and makes the defense more accountable to his ability to score from the outside and rebound.

    Unfortunately, however, Bosh has struggled against KG since coming to Miami. It’s as if Garnett is in his head or something and until his masculinity was challenged last year in the playoff series last year, he seemed to want no part of playing him. Add an injury to the mix, and it may be tough for Bosh to give them the extra boost they will need to win this series. 

    As a result, others must step up to pick up his slack. The supporting cast was good in the Heat’s wins, especially in the Pacers series. Chalmers had a big game in Game 3, Shane Battier stepped up and set the tone in Game 5 with some huge threes to kick-start that win and Udonis Haslem was key to the Game 4 win. Mike Miller was good late in the series and will need to be again in this series. It would be unrealistic to expect all of these players to step up and play well at the same time, but if they can get at least 1-2 of these guys to show out every game, the Heat should have a solid chance to advance to the finals.

    In the end, the Heat are the better team and should win this series. The Celtics are good enough to win, and when they play at their best, they can beat anyone, but I am concerned by the injuries and their inability of late to bring their “A” game each night. I am also concerned that the Celtics have been forced to settle for jump shots way too much in the Sixers series against a VERY good defensive team.

    Can Rondo re-establish himself as the table setter that will create easy plays for himself and the rest of his teammates? Can KG and Bass continue to step up and knock down those long jumpers that the Celts have relied heavily upon? Will Pierce have the energy to battle with LeBron again and provide the necessary offense from start to finish that the Celtics need? Can the Celtics endure the loss of their new-found gem, Avery Bradley, who is fearless on offense and provides spectacular defense and energy in the open court? 

    And most importantly, will Ray Allen be able to get going with his shot and catch fire in this series?

    These are all questions that I think must be answered, and for the most part be answered by a yes. If not, I believe that the Heat will win this series. The pressure is on the Heat to step up and get over this big hurdle for sure, but I think that based on the groove that they have right now, they can do it. The Heat’s time to fail has not come quite yet; Heat in seven.

    It could go either way, but given the Celtics are not at full strength and there is a chance that Bosh will be back, the Heat should have enough (just barely) to get through this series.