Thus far, the Miami-San Antonio rematch that many expected has taken shape. Both teams hold 2-1 leads at the moment and have opportunities to take command of their respective series in Game 4.
However, tough Game 3 performances should give hope to the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC won its first game of the series behind Serge Ibaka's unexpected return to the lineup, while the Pacers held a commanding lead before the Heat's bench turned in arguably their best half of the season.
The next game represents an important pendulum in each series, as we will either have a best-of-three or a likely conference champion on our hands. Here's when and where you can catch the remainder of each series, as well as a reminder of the current playoff bracket:
|Game||Eastern Conference Finals||Date||Time (ET)||TV|
|4||Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat||Monday, May 26||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|5||Miami Heat at Indiana Pacers||Wednesday, May 28||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|6||Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat||Friday, May 30||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|7||Miami Heat at Indiana Pacers||Sunday, June 1||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|Game||Western Conference Finals||Date||Time (ET)||TV|
|4||San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder||Tuesday, May 27||9 p.m.||TNT|
|5||Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs||Thursday, May 29||9 p.m.||TNT|
|6||San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder||Saturday, May 31||8:30 p.m.||TNT|
|7||Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs||Monday, June 2||9 p.m.||TNT|
What should fans expect from the remainder of each series? Let's examine one storyline for each that could decide who reaches the NBA Finals.
At their core, the Heat's championship hopes lie upon their ability to recapture the swarming hyper-aggressive defense that powered their previous playoff runs. Despite the Game 3 outburst from Ray Allen, Miami's secondary scoring depth has been lacking all season. However, if they can replicate their second-half defensive form, that deficiency might not matter in this series or the next:
When the Heat play pressure defense it leads to their fastbreak offense and nobody can beat them.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) May 25, 2014
After a poor first half in which full-court pressure did little to stymie Indiana, Miami subsequently put on a clinic reminiscent of the domination they inflicted on the Pacers in Game 7 of last year's conference finals.
As John Schumann of NBA.com relays, Erik Spoelstra believes the second half was the first time the Heat played the series on their terms:
For the most part...for the first two games and even for a large part of the first half of this game, it was played in their wheelhouse, on their terms.
We looked like we were stuck in mud in the first quarter. That’s a big credit to how they dictated the game. We can’t play this series on their terms. So that was just to get our energy going, to force us to make multiple efforts, and it activated our guys for this game.
While the Pacers actually scored more points in the second half, they also turned the ball over 17 times in total, helping propel the Heat to an uber-efficient 61-point half. When the Heat play that kind of complementary basketball, victory for the opposition is nearly impossible.
Fortunately, the brand of defense Miami plays is so energy-consuming that it is difficult to expect the veterans to bring the same form every game.
Bosh also says Heat's style of defense is exhausting, and that he already gives up 20-30 pounds to most bigs. Posting up saps 2 much energy.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 24, 2014
Who will win Game 4?
Hibbert and West combined for 29 points, but more importantly, just seven rebounds. The Heat actually tied the board battle in Game 3, 29-29, simply unacceptable for Indiana considering their size advantage. In their lone win of the series, the Pacers dominated the glass to the tune of a 38-29 edge.
If Indiana can play with poise and stretch Miami's aggressive rotations to the point of breaking, they could even this series and recapture home-court advantage. Otherwise, the Heat look destined for their fourth consecutive finals appearance.
Thunder Lineup Change
It may not have been Willis Reed, but Serge Ibaka's return from a severely strained left calf proved just the boost the reeling Thunder needed. Ibaka's final line consisted of 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, seven rebounds and three blocks in 30 gritty minutes that gained further respect from his teammates:
Durant on Ibaka: "I gained so much more respect for Serge, giving up his body for the team."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 26, 2014
However, despite the inspiring storyline, Ibaka was far from the only reason for the Thunder's revival. Scott Brooks made an important lineup decision in removing the punchless Thabo Sefolosha from the starting five in favor of Reggie Jackson. Additionally, Kendrick Perkins played just 13 minutes while Nick Collison was a healthy DNP, and rookie center Steven Adams played 28 minutes and posted an important line of seven points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
Athleticism and length are Oklahoma City's biggest advantages over the Spurs, one of which they unwisely minimized over the first two games.
In explaining the lineup switch for Jackson, Brooks suggested that he wanted to recapture the edge that helped the Thunder upset the Spurs in the same round two seasons ago, per SI.com's Ben Golliver:
[Jackson] gives us another guy that can attack. He gives us another guy that can play pick-and-roll offensively. He gives us another guy that can get opportunities on the weakside to attack their defense, and he’s done a great job of improving his three-point shot, and he’s shooting over 40 percent from the three.
San Antonio's relentless exploitation of the paint was the key storyline over the first two games, a trend OKC reversed in Game 3. In fact, with Ibaka, Jackson and Adams receiving heavy minutes, the game was eerily reminiscent of the four regular-season contests, all of which the Thunder won:
With Ibaka back in the lineup the Spurs shot 15-of-30 at the rim, the same 50% they shot against the Thunder in 4 regular season losses.— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) May 26, 2014
Who will win Game 4?
The onus is now on the Spurs to make the adjustments. San Antonio looked lifeless despite having an opportunity to seize the series, getting dominated on the glass, 52-36, and committing an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers.
San Antonio rarely lays two consecutive eggs, but now the question is whether its clockwork execution can overcome a suddenly revitalized Thunder lineup.