The NBA playoffs have been whittled down to the four teams expected to fight for the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.
After months of assuming the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers would meet with the Eastern Conference hanging in the balance, the Pacers provided some moments of doubt, ending the season on a rough note before nearly falling to the Atlanta Hawks in Round 1.
Yet here we are with the battle everyone expected, and Indiana has awoken just in time to deliver an intriguing matchup.
The Western Conference offered more wiggle room for interpretation, but the two top seeds ultimately survived the grueling conference to survive past two rounds. The Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, the West's past two Finals representatives, will joust for the right to come away with a title this time.
Before diving into each exciting matchup, here's a full look at the Conference Finals schedule on both sides.
|Eastern Conference Schedule: Pacers vs. Heat|
|1||Pacers 107, Heat 96 (May 18)||3:30 p.m.||ABC|
|2||Tues., May 20||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|3||Sat., May 24||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4||Mon., May 26||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|5*||Wed., May 28||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|6*||Fri., May 30||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|7*||Sun., June 1||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|Western Conference: Spurs vs. Thunder|
|1||Mon., May 19||9 p.m.||TNT|
|2||Wed., May 21||9 p.m.||TNT|
|3||Sun., May 25||8:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4||Tues., May 27||9 p.m.||TNT|
|5*||Thurs., May 29||9 p.m.||TNT|
|6*||Sat., May 31||8:30 p.m.||TNT|
|7*||Mon., June 2||9 p.m.||TNT|
East: Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat
Well, look at that: We actually have a series here.
When the Pacers limped into the third round virtually by default, they seemed like no match for the Heat, who won eight of their nine playoff contests with a plus-55 point differential.
The most predictable of the major sports, even basketball is weird sometimes. An Indiana offense that averaged 96.7 points per game this season exploded for a playoff-high 107 points, only the second time Frank Vogel's squad broke the triple-digit barrier this postseason.
But a colossal difference in free-throw attempts also sparked Indiana's success. While the Pacers visited the foul line 37 times, the Heat generated just 15 attempts. As noted by ESPN Stats & Info, Indiana topped that tally in the third quarter alone:
All five starters scored at least 15 points in the Game 1 victory, with C.J. Watson recording 11 of their 13 bench points. While Vogel has to be relieved to see Paul George and Roy Hibbert shine, it's just as critical to get steady production from Lance Stephenson, the team's energizer on both sides. The erratic guard posted 17 points and eight rebounds through 41 minutes.
While Stephenson is prone to making overaggressive plays, George endorsed that passion to the Sun Sentinel's Shandel Richardson:
"He's learned to be a professional," George said. "He's just an emotional person. That's what we need, though. We need a guy with that energy, that toughness. He gets out of hand sometimes but we can live with most of it."
Not only should the foul attempts even up, especially when the series shifts to Miami, but the Pacers can't count on their starters doing all the heavy lifting for nearly 40 minutes a night.
Everything went right for Indiana in Game 1, but their past few weeks don't suggest that level of play is maintainable throughout the series. Since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined the Heat, they've made the NBA Finals every year. That won't change in their fourth playoff appearance.
Prediction: Heat in six
West: San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
For the second straight year, a major injury blow has dampened Oklahoma City's playoff aspirations. Last year, Russell Westbrook was out of commission, which contrary to popular belief did not make the Thunder better.
This time around, they'll have to upend the Spurs without big man Serge Ibaka, who will miss the rest of the postseason due to a calf injury. The team's Twitter account broke the gloomy news:
Ibaka swatted a league-high 219 blocks during the regular season while scoring a career-best 15.1 points per game. According to 82Games.com, opponents' effective field-goal percentage rises from 48.4 to 49.6 percent with him off the court.
Grantland Zach Lowe discussed Ibaka's absence, which takes away a major component in OKC winning 10 of its last 12 games against San Antonio:
If the Thunder had a matchup edge, Serge Ibaka personified it. The dude is everywhere at once, and he has gotten steadier and smarter over the last two seasons. He unnerves anyone who approaches the rim, zooming from the foul line to challenge what appeared a half-second earlier to be an uncontested layup. He can switch out on Parker, contain a drive, and challenge Parker’s midrange shot. He barrels down on outside shooters, erases Russell Westbrook’s mistakes, and bothers San Antonio’s big men at the basket.
The Spurs also received an injury scare when Tony Parker left Game 5 of the second round with a hamstring injury. There's better news on their end, however, as ESPN's Marc Stein reported that the star point guard is good to go for Game 1:
After nearly suffering an upset to the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio rebooted its basketball machine to make quick work of the young Portland Trail Blazers. The Spurs attained their four wins by an average margin of 19.5 points to clinch their third consecutive Western Conference Finals appearance.
Prediction: Spurs in five