Bold Predictions for 2013 NBA Playoffs Eastern and Western Conference Finals
And then there were four.
The Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies are the only NBA teams left standing in the 2013 NBA playoffs.
Miami and San Antonio feature some of the most seasoned (and dominant) veterans in the Association, while Indiana and Memphis' components are relatively new to the bright lights of being four victories away from an NBA Finals berth.
But will that matter?
We know so much about how the Grizzlies match up against the Spurs, and how the Pacers stack up against the Heat, but it's what we don't know or don't see coming that could determine the outcome of these series.
What is it that we might not see coming? The conference finals are a time to be bold, so let's be bold.
East: Miami's 3-Point Struggles Continue
This is only "bold" because of how lethal a deep-ball-shooting team Miami was during the regular season.
The Heat hit on 39.6 percent of their treys during the regular season, the second-best clip in the NBA. Since the playoffs began, they've hit on just 34 percent of three-point attempts. And it's only going to get worse.
Indiana held opponents to just 32.7 percent shooting from downtown during the regular season; the Pacers were the best in the league at defending the three-ball.
Life will be rough for Miami's group of already struggling shooters. Shane Battier (26.1 percent), Mario Chalmers (23.8 percent), LeBron James (32.1 percent) and even Ray Allen (37.8 percent) haven't been able to find the bottom of the net consistently from downtown.
Against the self-destructive Milwaukee Bucks and depleted Chicago Bulls, the Heat's shortcomings from distance weren't a big deal, or even a big storyline.
As they prepare to face a more perimeter-conscious Pacers squad, those struggles finally will be.
East: Lance Stephenson Shuts Down Dwyane Wade
Lance Stephenson will be a problem for Dwyane Wade.
I don't anticipate a physical altercation between the two, but this will get feisty.
Stephenson has great length and doesn't shy away from contact on either end of the floor. He's what you would consider an inconsistent scorer, but his defense on Wade is what we'll really want to watch.
Wade is already averaging a career low in playoff points per game (13.0), and his field-goal percentage (45.3) is significantly lower than where it was during the regular season (52.1). To make matters worse, he's visibly impeded by a bum knee.
In the closing minutes of Miami's series-clinching win over the Bulls, Wade was able to get to the rim, but those explosive showcases have become a luxury, not a given. His drives aren't as deliberate or prolific. When the baseline isn't open, he seems to be reduced to shooting jumpers.
You never want to count Wade out (especially as a playmaker), but matching up against the athletic and swift Stephenson won't allow him to improve upon his performance.
If anything, it'll only get worse.
East: We're in for a 7-Game Series
This one isn't as absurd as you would think.
Indiana pushed Miami to six games just last season and is in a much better situation now, even without Danny Granger.
Miami's 8-1 postseason record isn't something to be ignored, but the Heat are not completely healthy (Dwyane Wade), aren't shooting the three-ball particularly well (34 percent) and don't always respond well to playing against bigger, more physical factions.
The Pacers won two of three games against the Heat during the regular season, allowing more than 90 points in just one of those matchups. They're also 6-0 at home during the postseason, as Bankers Life Fieldhouse has emerged as one of the most difficult places to procure a visiting victory. Toss in Wade's murky bill of health and the brute-force-inclined Pacers have the potential to do something special here.
Is that "something special" pulling off the upset?
Possibly, but they're at least equipped enough to push this series to seven games. Offenses tend to play down to their level, and the Heat have submitted to their will before.
They'll do so again at least three more times this series.
West: Tim Duncan's Offensive Struggles Get Worse
No disrespect to the Big Fundamental, but he's had a difficult time on the offensive end as of late.
Tim Duncan is shooting over 45 percent from the field for the playoffs, which while not horrid, is the third-lowest postseason clip of his career. He's also shot under 40 percent in three of his last four games and was just 3-of-9 from the floor in Game 1 against the Grizzlies.
He hasn't been relegated to an offensive afterthought, but he is a long way off from his regular-season form, when he shot 50.2 percent from the field.
Game 1 cannot be used as an end-all, be-all source of conclusions, but it's a good barometer for how Duncan has fared during the playoffs. He was held to nine shots in his 27 minutes and wasn't able to find his touch around the basket.
Duncan has been forced to bang down low with formidable low-post talents all postseason. In Round 1, the Spurs dismantled the Lakers, but Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard were hardly defensive pushovers (save for Game 3). And Andrew Bogut did a fantastic job pitching in against Duncan in Round 2.
Now, Timmy is being forced to match up against Zach Randolph, a mediocre defender who won't hesitate to barrel into his man, and Marc Gasol, the Defensive Player of the Year and general hindrance around the rim.
There will be games where Duncan gets his. He's Tim Duncan, after all. That's what he does. And he'll still impact the game with his rebounding, shot-blocking and passing. He will, however, be unable to put points on the board in a Duncan-like fashion.
When the series is over, win or lose don't be surprised if Duncan fails to average 15 points a night.
West: The World Realizes Kawhi Leonard's Star Potential
Some laughed when Gregg Popovich referred to Kawhi Leonard as the future face of the organization. By the end of the series, though, there will be nothing to laugh about.
Aside from a still-existing knee issue, Leonard has been one of the team's most reliable members all year, (playoffs included). He's stepped up amid offensive struggles from Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and also emerged as the team's second-best rebounder.
Leonard averaged 13.7 points and 8.4 rebounds on 55.6 percent shooting going into the series, and he dropped 18 points in just 30 minutes against the Grizzlies in Game 1.
Should Leonard's averages hold, he'll become just the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 13 points and eight rebounds on 55 percent or better shooting from the floor for the playoffs (minimum 10 games) before his 22nd birthday.
The names of the other four? Charles Barkley, Dwight Howard, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal. Or, for effect, two Hall of Famers (Kareem and Sir Charles), an inevitable Hall of Famer (Shaq), and the best center currently in the NBA (Dwight).
There's no guarantee Leonard continues to produce at his current rate, but just entertaining the notion of him joining such an elite group is incredibly unexpected.
Upon series end, however, it will become known as just Kawhi being Kawhi.
West: Memphis Reaches the NBA Finals
Memphis is good. Really good. Like NBA Finals-good.
After shipping Rudy Gay off to the Toronto Raptors, there were some doubts as to how far these Grizzlies could go. Those doubts exist no more. At least not here. The Grizzlies have already knocked off two of the Western Conference's top four teams and are poised to upset yet another.
San Antonio presents a greater challenge than the inconsistent Los Angeles Clippers and Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Spurs are still a team the Grizzlies can beat. And they will.
Memphis' ability to win in San Antonio, where the Grizzlies were 0-2 during the regular season, is of concern. Their Game 1 performance did nothing to quell such anxieties, either. Yet the Grizzlies have been here before.
They dropped Game 1 in Oklahoma City before going on to win four straight, securing a series-clinching victory in Oklahoma City. Round 2 didn't begin pretty, but by the end, we had further evidence of Memphis' potential to win any kind of game, anywhere.
Will the Grizzlies win in five like they did against the Thunder? Absolutely not. Gregg Popovich and crew won't go down quietly (again, Game 1).
Facing a defensively suffocating and incredibly hungry Grizzlies outfit, however, they will go down.
Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat
This will be a long series.
Indiana posed somewhat of a threat to Miami last postseason, but the Heat still managed to advance with little resistance after falling behind 2-1. It'll be a different story this year.
The Pacers will find a way to take the Heat's three-point shot further out of their offensive equation and force them to rely on LeBron James' dribble penetration more than usual.
They'll also be able to match up extremely well against an ailing Dwyane Wade. His attack to the rim has already been limited, and his opportunities at the basket will be fewer and further between as long as Roy Hibbert manages to stay out of foul trouble.
Still, the Heat are too resourceful on the offensive side of the ball, and the Pacers are much too inconsistent when it comes to scoring. Paul George may limit LeBron for stretches at a time like Jimmy Butler did, but no one in the league is equipped to restrict James for a full seven games.
LeBron will carry his Heat past a younger Pacers team and into the NBA Finals for a third consecutive season.
Prediction: Heat in seven
Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs jumped out to an early lead in the series, but we have a long ways to go.
Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan have disappeared on offense for stretches at times through the first two rounds, and Tony Parker proved to be an efficiency wild card against the Warriors. Now facing the best defensive team in the Western Conference (and perhaps the league), San Antonio is in for a rude awakening.
Unlike most teams in the NBA (the Grizzlies included), the Spurs do have plenty of scorers that can come off the bench and wreak havoc from the perimeter, so the struggles of their Big Three aren't as crippling. But the Grizzlies defense isn't to be trifled with, and neither are the offensive stylings of Marc Gasol.
Prior to Game 1, Memphis was playing on a whole other level and has shown it can manhandle the West's best teams. Even after San Antonio's convincing victory Sunday afternoon, I see the Grizzlies being far too physical and pace-controlling for the Spurs to become four-victories-worth of an exception.
Prediction: Grizzlies in six