Remember the thrilling 2013 NBA Finals that went the full seven games and featured one of the more improbable comebacks in the history of the sport in Game 6?
We may be well on our way to a rematch.
All that stands in the way of a San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat showdown are the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Indiana Pacers. While the injury of Serge Ibaka and the inconsistency of the Pacers make it tempting to overlook the respective challengers, it would be wise of Miami and San Antonio to focus on the task at hand.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a couple of the bigger X-factors en route to the title showdown.
Eastern Conference: Lance Stephenson
Lance Stephenson is averaging 13.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game in the postseason thus far, and his matchup with Dwyane Wade will go a long way toward determining the series' outcome.
Things have already gotten testy between the two this year. Both Wade and Stephenson received technical fouls during a regular season matchup in March, and Stephenson was later ejected for taunting Wade after a basket.
It’s safe to say Stephenson’s most recent comments won’t do anything to quell the tension, via Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post: “D. Wade — I think his knee is messed up, so I’ve got to be extra aggressive and make him run and have him running around and make his knee flare up or something. I’ll do anything as much as possible.”
It’s much easier said than done against a champion like Wade, but if Stephenson can distract the Miami Heat shooting guard from the larger task at hand by getting in his head, it could help Indiana shock the world.
Who gets the better of the matchup?
While Stephenson is certainly capable of putting the offense on his back when he is playing well, he needs to avoid the poor shot selection and crippling turnovers that have limited his game in the past if he hopes to win this series. He is probably best as Indiana’s third option behind Paul George and David West, but sometimes he simply seems to forget that and asserts his will a bit too much.
If nothing else, Stephenson should have the athleticism advantage over Wade, but the Indiana guard needs to make an impact without trying to do too much.
Western Conference: Tony Parker’s Hamstring
Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News did his best to assure worried San Antonio Spurs fans that the most important hamstring in the Western Conference is going to be alright:
For those of you asking about Tony Parker: I'd say it's a mortal lock he plays Game 1. How effective he can be TBD.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) May 17, 2014
As scheduled, Tony Parker sat out today's practice. Expected to do a little more SUN. Signs point to him playing G1, but nothing official.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) May 17, 2014
Remember, Parker probably would have played Game 6 vs Portland. Assuming he'd be in better shape for Game 1 vs OKC.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) May 17, 2014
Still, whether Tony Parker’s health lasts during a seven-game showdown with the explosive Russell Westbrook remains to be seen. This isn’t only the biggest X-factor in the West, it is the biggest one in the entire NBA because it’s difficult to envision the Spurs beating both the Thunder and the Heat (if Miami knocks out Indiana) without a healthy floor general.
Parker is averaging just less than 20 points and five assists a night in the postseason in what has been somewhat limited playing time (about 31 minutes a game). He will need to be on the floor much more often against the speed and athleticism of Westbrook for San Antonio to have a chance.
The Spurs' best opportunity of winning this series is if Parker controls the pace on both ends of the floor.
The main reason the Oklahoma City Thunder swept the regular season matchups with San Antonio and won 10 of the past 12 head-to-head showdowns is the athletic advantage they enjoy.
Who gets the better of the matchup?
It’s almost lazy to say the Spurs are too old. That’s been the refrain for years, and yet they were still a missed free throw or two away from winning the title last year, and they steamrolled through the regular season this year. However, it seems to be an issue against the Thunder.
Parker will need to slow the pace on offense at times, pick his spots when attacking the lane and make sure he is back on defense to prevent transition chances for the opportunistic Thunder.
That will allow the Spurs to turn this into a half-court series, which would work in their favor without the shot-blocking presence of Ibaka.
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