2014 NBA Playoff Predictions: Complete Predictions Through the Finals

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2014

2014 NBA Playoff Predictions: Complete Predictions Through the Finals

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    The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder appear primed for long playoff runs.
    The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder appear primed for long playoff runs.USA TODAY Sports

    Which team will survive the 2014 NBA playoffs and emerge as champion? It's anyone's guess at this point.

    What once appeared to be a foregone conclusion in the East—a conference-finals matchup between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers—is now no sure thing. The Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats all loom as plucky underdogs, unwilling to go home for the summer without waging one final war first.

    The West, meanwhile, is even more wide open than usual. Though the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers enter the playoffs as the conference's presumptive favorites, it's relatively easy to envision any of the eight teams scraping their way to the NBA Finals.

    In other words: March Madness appears primed to carry on through April, May and June this year.

    With the help of regular-season matchup data and each team's respective strengths and weaknesses, here's one man's best guess at how the 2014 NBA playoffs will unfold, from the first round through the finals.

First Round: No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Had the Miami Heat finished out the season with the No. 1 seed, this matchup wouldn't be close. They'd make mincemeat of the Atlanta Hawks in no more than five games, setting themselves up for a few days of rest before the conference semifinals commenced.

    However, much to Atlanta's delight, the struggling Indiana Pacers backed their way into the East's top overall seed. The two split their regular-season series, with the Hawks holding a plus-3.8 point differential in those four games.

    As NBA.com's John Schuhmann tweeted, Atlanta was the most efficient offense in the East against Indiana, scoring 104.6 points per 100 possessions. The Hawks also conceded only 97.3 points per 100 possessions (fifth-best in the East), good for a conference-leading net rating of 7.3 points per 100 possessions.

    What makes Atlanta such a difficult matchup for Indiana? All five of the Hawks' starters drilled at least 55 three-pointers this season, which, as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted on Twitter, presents problems for the Pacers.

    Indiana relies upon Roy Hibbert, its behemoth 7'2" center, to loom in the paint and shut down drives to the basket. Rookie center Pero Antic's long-range shooting ability—he drained 33 percent of his three-point attempts this season—might require Hibbert to drift to the perimeter and open space down low.

    As CBS Sports' Matt Moore notes, however, the Hawks' likely death knell in this series will be their inability to shut down Paul George. Though he only shot 40.8 percent against Atlanta during the regular season, he averaged 22.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.3 steals and 2.5 assists per game.

    Indiana won't breeze past the Hawks like Miami would have, but the Pacers will ride George and move on to the conference semifinals for the third straight season.

    Prediction: 4-2 Indiana Pacers

First Round: No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Eastern Conference playoff bracket couldn't have broken much better for the Miami Heat.

    To kick things off, they draw the Charlotte Bobcats in the opening round, a team that they're 15-0 against in the Big Three era, per ESPN Stats & Info. As The Associated Press' Tim Reynolds noted, the last time the Heat and Bobcats clashed, LeBron James went off for a career-high 61 points.

    Making matters worse for Charlotte: Al Jefferson suffered a left knee contusion in the regular-season finale against Chicago. He returned to the game and played the entire fourth quarter but finished with only 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting (and 18 rebounds, because of course).

    If Big Al is anything less than 100 percent against Miami, the Bobcats' already distant upset chances take a massive hit. Kemba Walker, Josh McRoberts and Gerald Henderson aren't taking down LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh by themselves, to say the least.

    Jefferson will bully Miami's front line, but the Bobcats won't be able to stop the Heat's "Flying Death Machine" offense from kicking into overdrive. Over four games this season, Miami averaged a league-high 116.6 points per 100 possessions against Charlotte, with the second-best net rating (plus-14.8) in the league.

    So...there's that.

    Prediction: 4-1 Miami Heat

First Round: No. 3 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets

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    Kathy Willens

    Toronto Raptors guard Terrence Ross got his wish.

    During a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" in March, Ross said he wanted a first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets "for development," as he wanted to work on his pick-and-rolls. That comment rubbed Nets big man Andray Blatche the wrong way, causing him to tell Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, "S--t, you better be careful what tree you bark up."

    With the No. 5 seed within reach, the Nets intentionally lost their final two regular-season games to earn a potential second-round date with the Miami Heat. Before they get there, however, the Atlantic Division-champion Raptors stand in their way.

    The two teams split the season series, 2-2, with three of those four games decided by four points or less. As Eric Koreen of the National Post noted, the combined score of the four games was 397-386 in favor of Toronto.

    In other words: This series will not be over quickly.

    The key for the Raptors will be whether they're able to keep their offense from growing stagnant. On the season, they recorded an assist on 58.1 percent of their made baskets and had a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, but against Brooklyn, those figures fell to 53.6 percent and 1.19, respectively.

    The Nets, meanwhile, have the clear edge in terms of playoff experience, which could help negate Toronto's home-court advantage. As NBA.com's John Schuhmann tweeted, the Nets' rotation boasts approximately 17,000 career playoff minutes, compared to only 1,600 for the Raptors. With each possession taking upon heightened importance in the postseason, even a one- or two-game acclimation period could prove to be Toronto's undoing.

    Of any first-round series, this is the hardest to predict, as either team has a more-than-reasonable chance of advancing to the conference semifinals. Ultimately, expect Brooklyn's vast playoff experience advantage to slightly edge the Raptors' younger legs in a closely contested seven-game series.

    Prediction: 4-3 Brooklyn Nets

First Round: No. 4 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards

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    USA TODAY Sports

    On the final night of the regular season, the Chicago Bulls fell into a dream scenario, as K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune noted on Twitter.

    Instead of drawing the Brooklyn Nets' bevy of All-Stars in the opening round of the playoffs, the Bulls will face off against the younger, more inexperienced Washington Wizards. The winner figures to advance to a second-round matchup with the floundering Indiana Pacers, with either Chicago or Washington standing a legitimate chance of an upset.

    The Wizards won the season series over Chicago, 2-1, and their one loss came without Nene, as Michael Lee of The Washington Post tweeted. Washington is also more well balanced than Chicago; the Wiz tied for ninth this season in points allowed per possession and tied for 16th in points scored per possession, while the Bulls finished second and tied for 27th, respectively.

    Since the All-Star break, however, Chicago has vastly improved on the offensive side of the ball, jumping from 97.7 points per 100 possessions to 103.3 points per 100 possessions. The Bulls also rank third in opponents' three-point percentage and first in points allowed per 100 possessions since the All-Star break, making Tom Thibodeau's unit one that no team wants to face in the postseason.

    During a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" on Wednesday, SB Nation's Mike Prada, a known Wizards fan, said he feared drawing Toronto or Chicago because "(John) Wall and (Bradley) Beal will be baited into too many mid-range shots." Thibodeau should be able to limit Wall's effectiveness throughout the series by throwing an endless array of different defensive looks his way.

    As the Bulls are wont to do, this series should quickly devolve into a defensive slugfest. However, Chicago's defense should have an easier time stopping the Wizards' backcourt than Washington's frontcourt will against point-center Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, giving the Bulls the edge in the series.

    Prediction: 4-3 Chicago Bulls

First Round: No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Dallas Mavericks

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    Matt Strasen

    The Dallas Mavericks drew the short end of the stick in their final game of the regular season, falling to the Memphis Grizzlies, 106-105, to earn a first-round execution at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.

    San Antonio swept the season series against Dallas, with only one game decided by fewer than nine points. That one semi-close matchup, a 112-106 Spurs victory back on March 2, was point guard Tony Parker's first game back after missing six contests due to a host of lower-body ailments.

    With the Spurs heading into the postseason fully healthy, Dallas won't have the opportunity to catch a rusty San Antonio squad off-guard. In fact, Gregg Popovich trotted out his starters in the second-to-last game of the regular season to ensure his main guys stayed sharp.

    Dallas' offense, which tied Miami for second-best in the league, would pose more of a problem for San Antonio if its defense could keep up. However, the Mavericks finished the regular season ranked 22nd in terms of points allowed per possession, all but ensuring a swift demise against the Spurs.

    "They have a lot of options out there," Dirk Nowitzki told reporters after that March 2 loss. "They play well together. Whatever pick-and-roll coverage you decide to do, they have a million counters to it, and they've been together forever. You've got to give them credit."

    San Antonio enters the playoffs riding a nine-game winning streak against Dallas, per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. The odds of the Mavericks suddenly reeling off four wins in seven games against their in-state rivals appear infinitesimal.

    Prediction: 4-0 San Antonio Spurs

First Round: No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    The Oklahoma City Thunder can't be pleased with drawing the Memphis Grizzlies in their opening-round playoff series.

    OKC won three of its four regular-season contests against Memphis, but the Grizzlies are a slow-it-down-and-pound-the-paint nightmare for any playoff squad. If Marc Gasol hadn't missed 24 games with a sprained knee early in the season, the Grizzlies likely would have been in the mix for one of the West's top four seeds.

    Memphis thrives when getting the ball to Gasol or Zach Randolph in the low blocks, but OKC's frontcourt combination of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins should help negate that style of play. The Thunder finished the regular season with the league's fifth-best defense, which should cause all sorts of problems for the Grizzlies' 16th-ranked offense.

    The physicality of Gasol and Z-Bo paired with the oft-underrated play of point guard Mike Conley won't make the Grizzlies an easy out by any means. However, OKC will be intent on avenging its conference-semifinals loss to Memphis last season, which came without Russell Westbrook.

    With Westbrook in tow this time around, the Grizzlies won't be able to key in on Kevin Durant with nearly as many double- and triple-teams as they threw at him last year. That experience in the 2013 playoffs caused Durant to add additional layers to his game this season, especially in terms of facilitating the offense for his teammates, which will come back to haunt Memphis this time around.

    Prediction: 4-2 Oklahoma City Thunder

First Round: No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors

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    Danny Moloshok

    The Golden State Warriors' chances of pulling off an upset took a grave blow on Monday, as the team announced center Andrew Bogut is sidelined indefinitely with a fractured right rib.

    "I've got to be careful, because if it cracks I'm looking at a punctured lung," Bogut told reporters. "You'll see me in the hospital with a tube coming out of me."

    The Australian center told reporters that he will not return until the rib fully heals, which typically takes six weeks or more. Therefore, with Bogut almost assuredly sidelined for the entire first round, point guard Stephen Curry will need to go supernova to help the Warriors advance past the Los Angeles Clippers.

    The Clippers might be the worst possible opponent for the depleted Dubs, as their beastly frontcourt of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan should now be able to feast down low. Backup center Jermaine O'Neal and power forwards David Lee and Marreese Speights will be powerless to stop "Lob City" from running wild.

    With small forward Andre Iguodala battling through right knee tendinitis and Lee playing with a nerve injury in his right hamstring, the Clippers' deep arsenal of offensive weapons will prove too much to overcome for Golden State. "Point God" Chris Paul will run the show, Griffin and Jordan will dunk over anyone who gets in their way and L.A. will advance to the conference semifinals with relative ease.

    Prediction: 4-1 Los Angeles Clippers

First Round: No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Enjoy high-scoring basketball? The opening-round series between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers will be tailor-made for you.

    Both teams finished the year with top-five offenses, with Houston averaging 108.6 points per 100 possessions (fourth in the league) and Portland scoring 108.3 points per 100 possessions (fifth). Each team also fell outside the top 10 in terms of defensive rating—Houston ranked 12th while Portland finished 16th.

    Thus, expect each game in this series to be a race to 120 points. As CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted on Twitter, James Harden and Dwight Howard of the Rockets averaged a whopping 56 combined points in their four games against the Blazers this year, and Chandler Parsons chipped in an additional 17.5 points per game.

    The Blazers won't be without their own offensive firepower against Houston, though. LaMarcus Aldridge averaged a team-high 26.8 points against the Rockets this season, with shooting guard Wesley Matthews adding 20.3 points and sophomore point guard Damian Lillard averaging 18.8.

    The Rockets won the season series, 3-1, finishing with a plus-6.5 point differential. Houston averaged 114.6 points per 100 possessions against Portland, the best of any West team, and its net rating of plus-9.6 ranked second in the conference.

    Since the All-Star break, the Blazers have tightened up somewhat defensively, ranking 10th in the league in that span. However, with home-court advantage in hand, the Rockets appear slightly better equipped to outlast Portland on both ends of the court in a hard-fought series that should go the distance.

    Prediction: 4-3 Houston Rockets

Eastern Conference Semifinals: No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 4 Chicago Bulls

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    USA TODAY Sports

    You know how the Rockets-Blazers first-round series will be a display of impressive offense with lackluster defense sprinkled throughout? The conference semifinals matchup between Indiana and Chicago will be the exact opposite of that.

    The Pacers and Bulls finished the regular season first and second, respectively, in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions. Both also ended the year with offenses ranked in the bottom 10 and averaged 92.5 possessions per 48 minutes or fewer.

    If either team cracks 100 points in any game this series, it will qualify as a minor miracle. The squads split the season series, but only once in eight tries did one of the teams exceed the 100-point threshold (in Chicago's 110-94 home victory back on Nov. 16).

    Each team defended its home court twice, which, in theory, gives the Pacers a significant advantage in this series. However, as ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh notes (subscription required), no player has experienced a bigger drop-off in player efficiency rating since the All-Star break than Roy Hibbert, who plummeted from a 16.1 PER before the break to just 8.9 after.

    If Hibbert and the Pacers can't overcome their recent malaise—after starting off the season 40-12, they went 16-14 over their final 30 games—the Bulls certainly won't enter this matchup without the requisite confidence needed for the upset.

    "We feel like we can go at anybody, we can beat anybody, when we're hungry," Chicago center Joakim Noah told reporters after his team's 89-77 victory over Indiana on March 24. "Stay humble and keep grinding. I said right after the game, 'I'm excited about having an opportunity to play these guys again.'"

    Since the All-Star break, the Bulls have a net rating of plus-5.3 (tied with Houston for fifth-best in the league), while the Pacers finished with a minus-2.1 (19th-best). Given Chicago's demonstrated advantage on both ends of the court over the past two months, don't be surprised if the Bulls thwart the once-predestined Eastern Conference Finals matchup between Indiana and Miami.

    Prediction: 4-2 Chicago Bulls

Eastern Conference Semifinals: No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    LeBron James and Dwyane Wade just can't seem to avoid matching up against Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the playoffs.

    The Nets rather blatantly threw in the towel during their final two regular-season games, seemingly to draw a shot at Miami in the conference semifinals. Brooklyn swept all four games against the Heat during the regular season, becoming the first squad to ever accomplish that feat during the Big Three era.

    Before crowning Brooklyn as the winner in this matchup, however, note that three of those victories came by one point each and the fourth went to double-overtime. The Nets were the first team since the 1979-80 Phoenix Suns to beat an opponent three times by a single point in one season, per the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN.com).

    What made Jason Kidd's squad so effective against the Heat? As noted by ESPN Stats & Info, Brooklyn forced Miami to play a much slower pace, with LeBron James and Co. averaging nearly six fewer possessions per game than they did against any other team. The Nets also limited the Heat's fast-break and second-chance opportunities, which are two areas where Miami tends to thrive.

    If Dwyane Wade enters this matchup at anything less than near-optimal health, the Nets will have a real chance to pull off the upset. However, Miami's first-round schedule, which features only three games over the first seven days of the playoffs, is "extremely conducive to Wade's continued progress," as B/R's Ethan Skolnick noted on Twitter.

    Unless Kevin Garnett can turn back the clock a la Tim Duncan during the 2013 playoffs, Miami ultimately has too much firepower for Brooklyn's mediocre defense to rein in over a seven-game series. Look for the Heat to survive in what should be an all-out war between multiple future Hall of Famers.

    Prediction: 4-3 Miami Heat

Western Conference Semifinals: No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 4 Houston Rockets

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    USA TODAY Sports

    What's San Antonio's reward for ending the season with the league's best record? A conference-semifinals date with James Harden, Dwight Howard and the offensively potent Houston Rockets.

    Houston finished the regular season with the league's fourth-best offense, but San Antonio wasn't far behind (only 0.4 points per 100 possessions, to be exact). The Spurs also touted the NBA's fourth-best defense, while the Rockets ranked 12th in that regard.

    Houston swept San Antonio in the season series, but that regular-season record is largely fool's gold. Two of those games came before New Year's Day, while the other two came with the Spurs "severely short-handed," as Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News noted.

    The Rockets' most recent victory over San Antonio, for instance, shouldn't exactly be a point of pride for Houstonians. Despite sitting Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills for the entire game, the Spurs took a five-point fourth-quarter lead before Houston rallied back to win by six.

    Assuming San Antonio can avoid any significant injuries in its first-round tune-up against Dallas, the Spurs will be well equipped to counter the Rockets' arsenal of offensive weaponry. Expect Gregg Popovich to sic Leonard on Harden, while Tim Duncan should be largely capable of handling Howard one-on-one.

    If Patrick Beverley's torn meniscus reduces his defensive impact in any significant way, the Rockets will have little chance of stopping the Spurs behemoth. Even if Beverley retains his bulldoggish nature on D, however, a full-strength San Antonio squad should be able to out-execute the Rockets more often than not in late-game situations, which will prove the difference in this series.

    Prediction: 4-2 San Antonio Spurs

Western Conference Semifinals: No. 2 OKC Thunder vs. No. 3 LA Clippers

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Assuming the Thunder and Clippers both survive their opening-round matchups, this series should be one of the highlights of the 2014 playoffs.

    Both teams tout two top-15 players—Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for OKC, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul for L.A.—and a third banana (Serge Ibaka and DeAndre Jordan, respectively) capable of dominating on defense. Each squad also finished with top-seven-ranked offenses and defenses, so nothing will come easy on either end of the court in this series.

    On the surface, the Clippers appear to have a major advantage when it comes to three-point shooting. Since the All-Star break, the Thunder have the NBA's third-worst three-point defense, with opponents drilling 39.2 percent of their threes, while the Clippers have shot 36.8 percent from three, which ranked 13th in the league. L.A. also finished the season with the league's best three-point defense, allowing opponents to knock home only 33.2 percent of their attempts from deep.

    Injuries to Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha undoubtedly contributed to the Thunder's perimeter-D malaise, as Grantland's Zach Lowe suggested. Last week against the Clippers, however, the fearsome Thunder D made its return, using its size, length and tight, attentive rotations to stifle the Clippers' often-dominant offense.

    However, as SB Nation's Mike Prada noted, OKC did struggle in late-game situations against L.A. last week. In short, the Thunder's clutch offense often boils down to "Bail us out, Kevin!"—not exactly a Gregg Popovich-esque coaching clinic, to say the least.

    The Clippers are deeper than OKC, but the Thunder have one significant advantage: this year's likely Most Valuable Player. Durant averaged 32.5 points, 8.0 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals against L.A. this year, and unless Matt Barnes can slow him down, he'll be the deciding factor in a series that could easily go all seven games.

    Prediction: 4-2 Oklahoma City Thunder

Eastern Conference Finals: No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 4 Chicago Bulls

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Despite upsetting the top-seeded Pacers in the conference semifinals, hardly anyone will give Chicago a chance in the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami.

    That shouldn't come as a huge surprise, even though the Bulls and Heat split the season series, with each team defending its home court twice. Chicago's offensive anemia won't cut it against a Heat team that finished the season just outside the top 10 in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions.

    The Bulls do have the ingredients to make things slightly interesting, with Joakim Noah averaging a preposterous 13.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game since the All-Star break. Greg Oden and Chris "Birdman" Andersen will need to hold their own defensively and play significant minutes to prevent the Heat from getting sucked into a drawn-out defensive battle with Chicago.

    After the obstacles they've overcome this year—namely Derrick Rose's torn meniscus and Luol Deng being traded—it's impossible to count out the Bulls entirely.

    "They're going to believe when no one else believes," coach Tom Thibodeau recently told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck. "You have to make a decision: Are you going to accept the fate that others are trying to tell you you have? Or are you going to have a will and determination to overcome whatever circumstances you're facing? And these guys have chosen to fight."

    The Bulls are a rough-and-tumble, highly physical squad that won't concede ground to Miami without battling every inch of the way. However, provided Dwyane Wade stays healthy through the conference finals, the Heat's talent will ultimately outgun the vaunted Chicago defense.

    Prediction: 4-1 Miami Heat

Western Conference Finals: No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 2 OKC Thunder

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Two years ago, the Spurs and Thunder met in the Western Conference Finals, with San Antonio riding an 18-game winning streak. After the Spurs took the first two from OKC, the Thunder stunned the world and swept the next four, leaving Tim Duncan looking permanently shell-shocked.

    This year, we could be in for a shockingly similar scenario.

    Four of the Spurs' 20 losses this season came at the hands of the Thunder, which, as Jeff McDaniels of the San Antonio Express-News noted on Twitter, is part of a wider trend. The Thunder have taken 10 of the past 12 games against San Antonio, as "OKC's length and athleticism gives Spurs fits," McDaniels tweeted.

    No team scored more efficiently against San Antonio this season than the Thunder, who averaged 110.2 points per 100 possessions. Their net rating of plus-11.1 against the Spurs also led the league, while the Spurs' minus-11.1 against OKC fell in the bottom half of the league.

    San Antonio did lose Kawhi Leonard to a fractured right hand during the second Spurs-Thunder game of the season, which caused him to miss the third matchup as well. Without Leonard, the Spurs had little chance of stopping Kevin Durant, who averaged 26.3 points on 45.9 percent shooting against San Antonio.

    Assuming the Spurs don't lose any major contributors to injury in the first two rounds of the playoffs, they have the talent, system and discipline to take down OKC, especially with home-court advantage in their back pocket. However, with Russell Westbrook catching fire down the stretch—his player efficiency rating jumped 8.5 points since the All-Star break, as ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh notes—the Thunder's one-two punch of KD and Westbrook appears too potent for San Antonio to overcome.

    Prediction: 4-2 Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA Finals: No. 2 OKC Thunder vs. No. 2 Miami Heat

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Remember when the Thunder and Heat clashed in the somewhat anticlimactic 2012 NBA Finals, with Miami pulling off the gentleman's sweep after OKC took Game 1?

    Now that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have two more years of experience under their belts, Miami should not expect a repeat of that scenario during this year's finals.

    Once more, the Thunder will enter the finals with home-court advantage over the Heat. This time, however, it will likely be Kevin Durant, not LeBron James, who comes into the matchup touting a brand-new Most Valuable Player award.

    That's not the only difference this time around. Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks discovered the secret to thrashing Miami's small-ball scheme earlier this season: parking Kendrick Perkins on the bench and throwing out KD at the 4 full-time.

    After Miami got off to a 15-2 start at home against OKC on Jan. 29, Brooks pulled Perkins from the game and never reinserted him. The Thunder finished the game on a 110-80 run, with sophomore Perry Jones starting the second half in Perk's place.

    This season, in the 6.1 minutes per game that Perkins played against Miami, the Heat were a plus-12.5. In the other 41.9 minutes per game sans Perk, the Heat were a minus-10.0. A similar trend unfolded back in 2012-13 and 2011-12.

    "Remember, this isn't just a blip," ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh wrote after the Thunder's 112-97 win on Jan. 29. "The Thunder have found success against the Heat when they go away from Perkins, who should only be a spot starter at this point. If the two juggernaut teams meet again in the Finals, maybe it’ll be (Erik) Spoelstra who will have to find a counter."

    With Durant now capable of dueling James to a standstill, the Thunder's defense showing occasional signs of being more stifling than ever and the pull-Perkins move in Brooks' back pocket, Miami's three-peat aspirations will be in grave danger against OKC. The Thunder's improved adaptability will help them counteract the Heat's various looks, which could force Miami into a fatal number of turnovers.

    This series is all but certain to go seven games, as both teams possess too many weapons to go down with a whimper and not a bang. If Brooks can commit to being flexible with Perkins' minutes, the regular-season MVP won't be the only trophy Durant needs to add to his mantelpiece this summer.

    Prediction: 4-3 Oklahoma City Thunder

    Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference and are current through games played on Wednesday, April 16.