The 2014 NBA playoffs have moved into their final stages. The conference finals are set, and they feature two teams looking to return to the NBA Finals against two challengers ready to upset the old guard and usher in a new era of championship contenders.
In the Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers once again square off against the Miami Heat. The Pacers will be looking to avoid a repeat of last season, when they were finished off in seven games.
Out in the West, its a battle of small-market Midwestern teams in the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. They may not play in the biggest cities, but they feature some of the biggest names in the NBA like Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan and Russell Westbrook.
The updated bracket for the NBA playoffs can be found here.
Here is the full list of TV information for the NBA conference finals, followed by a preview of each matchup.
|1||Oklahoma City Thunder||San Antonio Spurs||May 19||9 p.m.||TNT|
|2||Oklahoma City Thunder||San Antonio Spurs||May 21||9 p.m.||TNT|
|3||San Antonio Spurs||Oklahoma City Thunder||May 25||8:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4||San Antonio Spurs||Oklahoma City Thunder||May 27||9 p.m.||TNT|
|5||Oklahoma City Thunder||San Antonio Spurs||May 29||9 p.m.||TNT|
|6||San Antonio Spurs||Oklahoma City Thunder||May 31||8:30 p.m.||TNT|
|7||Oklahoma City Thunder||San Antonio Spurs||June 2||9 p.m.||TNT|
NBA.com, *if necessary
|1||Miami Heat||Indiana Pacers||May 18||3:30 p.m.||ABC|
|2||Miami Heat||Indiana Pacers||May 20||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|3||Indiana Pacers||Miami Heat||May 24||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4||Indiana Pacers||Miami Heat||May 26||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|5*||Miami Heat||Indiana Pacers||May 28||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|6*||Indiana Pacers||Miami Heat||May 30||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|7*||Miami Heat||Indiana Pacers||June 1||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
NBA.com, *if necessary
San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Spurs are back in the Western Conference Finals again. They display all the familiar traits of a dynasty despite having not won a championship since 2007. They resist decay better than any other franchise in recent memory.
The Portland Trail Blazers couldn't have come into the series against San Antonio on a higher note. Damian Lillard's all-time buzzer-beater vanquished the Houston Rockets, and spirits were riding high in Rip City.
The Spurs weren't interested in any Cinderella stories. Their average margin of victory was 19.5 points in the five-game series. They ran coach Gregg Popovich's offense to near perfection in some contests.
The health of point guard Tony Parker will be a key concern for the Spurs. He suffered a hamstring strain in Game 5 but is considered day-to-day, according to the team's official Twitter account:
Injury report: Tony Parker underwent an MRI today in San Antonio which revealed a Grade 1 left hamstring strain. He is listed as day-to-day.— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) May 15, 2014
Patty Mills played well in Parker's absence during Game 5, picking up 18 points, three rebounds and two assists in 26 minutes of play. However, he's not good enough to take on the superior athleticism of Westbrook over the course of an entire game. Mills also shared primary ball-handling duties with Manu Ginobli for the majority of that game.
Oklahoma City better hope that its Spurs kryptonite hasn't worn off since the regular season ended. ESPN Stats & Info provided this crucial bit of information.
Thunder-Spurs is 4th time a team went 4-0 or better in reg season vs Conf Finals opp. Not looking good for Spurs pic.twitter.com/YHPF5NIXbD— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 16, 2014
Of course, if there is any team to shrug off trends and just play winning basketball, it is the Spurs. Their team-oriented style is pretty much the antithesis to the Thunder's strategy of feeding Westbrook and Durant until the lights go out.
The Thunder are unlikely to move away from that strategy, as the Spurs don't have anyone athletically gifted enough outside of perhaps Kawhi Leonard to guard either one of those players effectively.
Which team will win the Western Conference Finals?
The Thunder will be missing their own resident defensive expert. Serge Ibaka is expected to miss the rest of the playoffs with a calf injury, as per James Herbert of CBSSports.com. For the second year in a row, the Thunder lose a key player in the playoffs. Last year, it was Westbrook's knee injury that eventually required surgery. This year, they will be forced to soldier on without their best interior defender.
Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers
ESPN's Tom Haberstroh is excited for this classic matchup between a top-tier offense and shutdown defense.
Heat rank on offense in regular season: 2nd. Pacers rank on D: 1st. Heat offense in playoffs: 1st. Pacers D? 1st. *grabs popcorn*— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 16, 2014
Despite the Indiana Pacers' uneven play, this is the best possible matchup for those interested in a Heat debacle. The Pacers are the only team capable of grinding down Miami's offense and forcing it to win ugly.
LeBron James' basketball mastery is a given once again this year. He's averaging 30 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game so far in the postseason. The Pacers will have to manage him as best they can and focus on his teammates.
Forcing Chris Bosh away from the paint will be crucial to disrupting the Heat offense. Miami should expect an aging Dwyane Wade to have difficulties getting to the rim with Roy Hibbert's long appendages looming.
A key to the frontcourt defensive strategy is David West. In fact, he's the key to them even being in this round of the playoffs. The Pacers really need to find a way to properly thank him for continually bailing them out in tough games.
Which team will win the Eastern Conference Finals?
With the Pacers facing elimination in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks, West came through with 24 points and 11 rebounds, his only double-double of the series. His performance spurred the team to a 95-88 victory in that crucial Game 6, and the Pacers were able to close out the series back home in Game 7.
He showed up big-time in Game 6 against the Washington Wizards, scoring a playoff-high 29 points en route the series-clinching 93-80 victory. Head coach Frank Vogel also credited West's leadership and veteran presence as a key to their success, via SLAM Magazine's Twitter account:
However reliable West is, Hibbert is on the opposite end of that spectrum. ESPN Stats & Info pointed out how crucial he is to the Pacers' success against the Heat.
Roy Hibbert averaged 22.5 PPG in Indiana's 2 wins vs Heat this season and 5.5 PPG in their two losses. Pacers. Need. Hibbert.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 16, 2014
If the Pacers want to stand a chance at preventing the Heat from making their fourth straight NBA Finals, they will need consistently strong performances out of both players in their starting frontcourt.
The Pacers are lucky to have the home-court advantage considering their disjointed play over the last few months. They will need to find continuity on offense if they are to keep up with the Heat. The Pacers have a strong, young core of players, but they may find it difficult to overcome the seasoned Heat roster.