The 2014 NBA playoffs are just underway, and while it may be unwise to jump to judgments after teams have played just one game apiece, those favored to reach the finals will inevitably be under the microscope.
That's especially true for the Indiana Pacers. The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference is already facing adversity after a loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of their opening-round series. It seemed as though Indiana would have a rematch with the Miami Heat in the conference finals almost by default, yet now the Pacers have driven some doubt into that presumption.
Miami took care of business against Charlotte on Monday, as did the West's best in the San Antonio Spurs, who are seeking a finals rematch in a bid to beat the Heat and prevent them from a three-peat.
The Oklahoma City Thunder dismantled Memphis, 100-86, in Game 1 at home, confirming their status as a big threat to capture the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Let's take a closer look at the four top seeds and how they project for the rest of the postseason.
There's a chance that Indiana doesn't even get out of the first round. After closing out the regular season by losing 13 of their final 23 games, the Pacers are looking shaky following a 101-93 defeat.
Stephen A. Smith of ESPN feels that head coach Frank Vogel's job is in jeopardy if his squad can't pick up the pieces and pull it together to advance:
If Pacers don't clean this Pathetic play up, they ate going home in the 1st Round and they're getting their coach FIRED— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) April 20, 2014
Diagnosing what is wrong with the Pacers is difficult, because they looked unstoppable before their late-season slump. Paul George's play has regressed, as has that of occasionally dominant but more often mysterious and mercurial center Roy Hibbert.
Between bad defense and a lack of assertiveness on offense in the post, Hibbert is making a minimal impact on the court. That's bad news for Indiana, because if Game 1 is any indication, Jeff Teague is going to continue crushing George Hill in the point guard matchup.
Teague led all scorers with 28 points and has the quickness to get to the bucket as well as the range to knock down shots from three-point range. Hibbert—or someone else, if he's benched—will be a big determining factor as to how effective the Hawks are in half-court sets based on how often Teague can penetrate the lane.
At this point, it's difficult to even endorse the Pacers enough to put them through to the semifinals. Although they will at least get that far and beat Atlanta in six tough games, either the Washington Wizards or the Chicago Bulls await in the second round.
Both of those prospective opponents are more than capable of playing enough defense to hang with Indiana and knock the Pacers out of the playoffs. Now that it's evident that Vogel's team wasn't holding back and resting for the postseason. Their lack of effort is shocking, and it won't get them much further.
Prediction: Pacers eliminated in conference semifinals
Oklahoma City Thunder
The big question mark is always Russell Westbrook and how many out-of-control plays he has in critical moments, or how many ill-advised shots he takes away from reigning NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant.
But now that Durant is playing the best basketball of his career and can impact the game far more as a passer and without even touching the ball, Oklahoma City should go deep regardless of what Westbrook does.
With 33 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in Game 1, Durant showed just how far he's come. Grizzlies defensive stopper Tony Allen couldn't account for him all evening, and Durant made Memphis pay, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Tony Allen held Kevin Durant to 13 pts on 5-of-14 shooting (36%), but Durant scored 20 pts on 8-of-11 shooting (73%) against all others— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 20, 2014
In contrast, Westbrook was 8-of-19 shooting and made none of his five attempts from three-point range. He is still too erratic to be trusted, especially as a floor general. He had five assists to just five turnovers but at least recognized his faults afterward, referencing a third quarter in which Oklahoma City was outscored 31-13, per the Associated Press (via USA Today):
"I just think as a point guard, my job is to set the tone, and I didn't do a great job of that in the third quarter, of coming out and setting the tone. I had a few bad turnovers and kind of let them get easy baskets. I've got to do a better job of that."
Westbrook's struggles don't translate well to a potential clash with the Spurs in the conference finals, who have one of the steadiest point guards in the game in Tony Parker.
That seems to be what awaits the Thunder, because they'll face either the Los Angeles Clippers or Golden State Warriors. Neither franchise is all too familiar with winning, nor are their biggest stars. Oklahoma City is too young of an organization to know anything different and made the finals just two years ago.
Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and the OKC bench give the Thunder the size to defend the likes of Tim Duncan down low for San Antonio, but they likely don't have a strong enough answer for Parker in Westbrook and Reggie Jackson.
It's still early, but nothing has changed in terms of who is going to represent the West in the finals. The Spurs are the clear front-runner.
Prediction: Thunder eliminated in conference finals
The two-time reigning NBA champions stumbled out of the gates, scoring just 19 points in the first 12 minutes of Game 1. As might be expected, Miami turned it on to coast to a 99-88 win.
Thankfully the gritty Bobcats don't have any other surefire scoring threats other than big man Al Jefferson. They are an explosive scorer away from being extremely dangerous, but alas, not this year. It's the Heat's time to reign, headlined by the brilliance of "The King" himself.
LeBron James finished Game 1 with 27 points and made some serious history in the process, per SportsCenter's official Twitter account:
LeBron James passed Larry Bird today into 8th on NBA's all-time playoff scoring list (3,898 postseason points). pic.twitter.com/Gi5Q82Cubc— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 20, 2014
The key to the Heat's success and pursuit of yet another title is not the expected excellence from James, but the health of Dwyane Wade. Miami was cautious with him all season long, and he answered the bell Monday by going 10-of-16 shooting for 23 points and dishing out five assists.
Dave Hyde of the Sun-Sentinel brought up another pertinent point that played into the narrative of Game 1's triumph over the Bobcats:
Besides Wade's health, the big worry for Heat is last year 5 players in rotation shot over 40% on 3's. This year? Chalmers is high at 38.6%,— Dave Hyde (@davehydesports) April 17, 2014
The Heat drained 11 out of 23 three-pointers and bolstered their gaudy record when they make at least 10 shots from beyond the arc, as Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press alluded to:
Heat about to improve to 61-8 in the last three seasons when making at least 10 3's.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) April 20, 2014
If Miami can continue to play elite-level defense and get consistent production out of James, Wade and Chris Bosh as it has since their arrival, there's no reason the Heat can't win another championship.
Prediction: NBA champions
San Antonio Spurs
No one expected an intrastate battle between the Spurs and Dallas Mavericks to be low on intensity. San Antonio played outstanding defense in the first and fourth quarters to pull out a tense 90-85 victory on Monday.
The Mavs' roster is just as veteran-laden as that of the Spurs, so it stands to reason that coach Gregg Popovich's superior team will ultimately find a way to get to the semis—even if it takes as many as six games. Game 1 seems to suggest it will, since the Spurs had to overcome a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter even in the friendly confines of AT&T Center.
Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com pointed out how gaudy Duncan's numbers were, and just how strong the Spurs were when he was on the court:
The Spurs fight back from 10 pts in the 4th Q to take Game 1, 90-85. Classic Tim Duncan with 27 pts, 7 reb and a +23— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) April 20, 2014
This apparently isn't the end of the line for Duncan despite the fact that he just played his 17th NBA season, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein:
Reassuring to hear Tim Duncan say he has only "a couple more" playoff runs in him. Would seemingly suggest this is not his last then. Right?— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) April 20, 2014
Duncan has the will to get the Spurs back to the finals, along with Parker and Manu Ginobili. However, their group of capable young core players in defensive specialist Kawhi Leonard and guards Danny Green and Patty Mills must play better than they did against Dallas.
Who will win the 2014 NBA Finals?
Otherwise, it could be an earlier exit than expected from San Antonio. Popovich probably wasn't trying to reveal much in Game 1, though, and allowed the experienced Duncan to dominate. Battling through adversity and bad play and having stars step up at pivotal times is key for championship-caliber squads, and it's the stuff the Spurs showed Monday.
It just won't be quite enough in the end to take down Miami.
Prediction: NBA finalists
Falling short to the Heat again would no doubt be heartbreaking for San Antonio, but the Spurs have an older team and will have already gone through the gauntlet of the Western Conference by the time they reach the finals. The East is considerably easier, which means Miami's march to the NBA's biggest stage figures to be less daunting and physically taxing.
Those who despise the Heat may argue there should be an asterisk next to their NBA championship if they do indeed pull off another one this postseason. Their conference is indeed weak, and what is perceived as their most formidable competition in the Pacers may not even get out of the first round against a Hawks team that went 38-44 in the 2013-14 campaign.