When Wednesday's playoff games tip off, both of last year's NBA Finals competitors will have a chance to move a step closer to a potential championship in 2014.
Five games into the second round, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs have pushed the Brooklyn Nets and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively, to the brink. The favorites have been generally dominant in the conference semis to force these elimination games, but neither Brooklyn nor Portland is going to roll over, and both have already taken a game apiece to avoid sweeps.
Down 3-1 already, comebacks won't be easy for the underdogs. Miami is blitzing the Nets with some peak LeBron James performances and impeccable floor spacing, while the Spurs were toying with the Blazers before a double-digit defeat in Game 4.
The Heat and Spurs don't take their opposition lightly at all, and they can put it away Wednesday night. If that happens, a potential NBA Finals rematch will be that much more likely a reality.
|Updated 2014 NBA Championship Odds—May 13|
|San Antonio Spurs||227-100|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||113-20|
|Los Angeles Clippers||109-10|
|Portland Trail Blazers||255-1|
|2014 NBA Schedule—Wednesday, May 14|
|Game||Time (ET)||TV Info||Projected Winner|
|(6) Brooklyn Nets at (2) Miami Heat||7:00 p.m.||TNT||Heat|
|(5) Portland Trail Blazers at (1) San Antonio Spurs||9:30 p.m.||TNT||Spurs|
(6) Brooklyn Nets at (2) Miami Heat
Clearly Brooklyn's 60 percent shooting from beyond the arc wouldn't be maintained past the Game 3 win. The Nets hit only 5-of-22 from deep in Game 4, playing Miami close only because 11 of 12 players came out cold as well.
None of that mattered, because LeBron James was in the exact opposite of a funk. He was on fire from the opening minutes, and Brooklyn was powerless to stop him.
James put up 49 points on 16-of-24 shooting from the field, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, and hit 14-of-19 from the line. He got to the rim at will, either converting or drawing fouls, allowing him to put up such astronomical numbers even when his mid-range J was merely good, not great.
When a defense has to overcommit to LeBron, the Heat have them beat before they even initiate the offense.
James forces defenders to take a step back toward the paint to cut off penetration, but Chris Bosh joins the perimeter threats beyond the three-point line to give James maximum kick-out options. That's how LeBron started the ball moving with just under a minute left in Game 3, with Mario Chalmers eventually finding Bosh for a trey that gave Miami the lead for good.
Brooklyn had Miami tied through 47 minutes because James' teammates were all off; Dwyane Wade was the second-leading scorer with 15, but he looked slow throughout the game and couldn't help with the offensive-creation duties.
As a whole, the Heat will be better in Game 5. The entire team tried to lay an egg in Game 4, but LeBron wouldn't let them. Even with Wade creaky, Miami will get plenty of looks off the sheer terror of James, and that's more than Brooklyn can handle.
Heat 103, Nets 94
(5) Portland Trail Blazers at (1) San Antonio Spurs
You know what they say about the Blazers when Will Barton goes off.
Actually, we haven't really ever had to account for that scenario, but it turns out it means negative things for the Spurs.
Coming out of nowhere to play 30 non-garbage minutes in Game 4, Barton—who averaged 4.0 points per game in the regular season—dropped 17 and six rebounds to help Portland come away with a 103-92 victory.
It's not a stretch to say Portland can't count on Barton to do that again, but the weirdness of that win runs even deeper.
Portland is eager to fire the three ball early and often, but it hit just 7-of-21 in Game 4. The team offset that poor outside shooting with a high level of success inside the arc, even though LaMarcus Aldridge finished with just 19.
That's not ordinary for the Blazers. Yes, Damian Lillard is a terror when he drives, Wesley Matthews posts up guards often and Nicolas Batum has a crafty off-the-bounce game, but their three-point shooting powers it all. If they're not raining and Aldridge isn't leading the offense, San Antonio's rim protectors can usually limit the drivers enough to neutralize the offense.
San Antonio suffered shooting woes similar to the Blazers', which also will not likely happen again. The Spurs machine blitzed a bad defensive team for at least 114 points in the first three games of the series; Portland had no major epiphany in Game 4 to stop them, and 92 is not the new normal.
No one covers up their flaws as well as the Spurs. Game 4 was an aberration, and they will make sure it does not happen again.
Spurs 115, Blazers 102