No one choked early in the 2014 NBA playoffs.
The best teams remain alive.
The Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder finished off the Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively, on Thursday night. Indiana will get a shot at revenge against the Miami Heat, who defeated the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Oklahoma City, the 2012 West champs, will get a shot to take its title back from the 2013 West champs, the San Antonio Spurs.
Here are predictions for which teams will advance to the 2014 NBA Finals.
Eastern Conference Finals: Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat
For a moment, Indiana looked worthy of being favored over Miami to win the East. This moment was brief.
The Heat enter the conference finals having lost only once in the postseason. The Pacers have lost a total of five times against teams that combined for a .500 record in the regular season.
In order for Indiana to upset Miami, its defense must overwhelm LeBron James and company. The Pacers haven't shown enough offense, scoring 100 points in the 2014 playoffs just once, to make anyone think they could keep pace with the Heat in a shootout. And the way James, and most recently, Dwyane Wade are playing, them being overwhelmed is unlikely.
Through the first eight games of the playoffs, James had a player efficiency rating (PER) of 33.4, according to ESPN. If he maintains it throughout, it would be the third-highest PER ever in a single postseason.
Wade, averaging 19.0 points per game in the regular season, is having his worst scoring campaign since his rookie year. He's struggled against Indiana, too, shooting 8-of-26 from the field in Miami's last two losses against the Pacers in the 2013 Eastern Finals. But he showed no signs of decline in Game 5 against the Brooklyn Nets, scoring his 2014 playoff-high 28 points.
The Heat and Pacers split their season series. Neither team lost on its home floor. Indiana has home-court advantage and hasn't lost back-to-back games this postseason.
However, it needs a major awakening to beat Miami in a seven-game series.
Prediction: Miami in six
Western Conference Finals: San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
This series could be swung by how well each team rebounds from injury. Serge Ibaka sat out the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Clippers with a calf injury. And a hamstring injury sidelined Tony Parker on Wednesday against the Portland Trail Blazers.
According to Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News, Parker is day-to-day.
Each team is prepared to play without its stars, though. Parker only played 68 games in the regular season, and the Spurs still finished with the best record in the West. According to ESPN, the Clippers actually shot less efficiently when Nick Collison replaced Ibaka as the primary defender on Thursday.
San Antonio is deeper than Oklahoma City, though. But while depth is the Spurs' strength, the Thunder have the best two players on the floor, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They're averaging a combined 58.1 points, 17.4 rebounds and 12.4 assists per game this postseason.
Oklahoma City's strength overpowered San Antonio's in the regular season. The Thunder swept the Spurs, 4-0.
Of course, Brooklyn was 4-0 against Miami in the regular season too and that meant nothing, but this Thunder-Spurs series is much more evenly matched. According to ESPN, each team in NBA history that has swept its conference finals opponent 4-0 in the regular season has advanced to the finals.
Expect Oklahoma City to do the same, not because of history, but because of Durant and Westbrook's dominance.
Prediction: Thunder in seven
David Daniels is a columnist at Bleacher Report and editor at Wade-O Radio.
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