The 2014 NBA playoffs are starting to reach the end, but there are four teams remaining that need to execute the right strategies in order to reach the promised land.
The return of Serge Ibaka sparked the Oklahoma City Thunder to a victory in Game 3 over the San Antonio Spurs, who still maintain a 2-1 lead in the series. That said, the Thunder are a far more dangerous team with Ibaka now on the court.
Over in the East, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers both need to play more consistent basketball in order to advance. As it stands right now, it doesn't seem like either team will be able to defeat the winner of the Western Conference Finals.
All four remaining teams need to fine-tune their strategies moving forward.
OKC Must Continue to Create Space on Offense
Creating space on offense was crucial in OKC's Game 3 win. While it wasn't a must-win situation, losing the game would have put them in a 3-0 hole against a Spurs team that doesn't often choke.
Ben Golliver of SI.com highlighted just how important space was on offense (and defense) for the Thunder:
Offensively, Ibaka's ability to hit six of his seven shots, including both mid-range and closer-range jumpers, created space in San Antonio's interior defense, allowing Durant, Westbrook and Reggie Jackson the ability to drive without facing the wall of defenders they saw earlier in the series. Jackson thrived after being shifted into a starting role for the first time during the playoffs, scoring 15 points and dishing five assists and getting to the hoop in opportunistic fashion.
The Thunder's spaced attack produced 46 points in the paint (a plus-six advantage) and 31 free throw attempts (a plus-15 advantage). Forcing the Spurs to account for Ibaka helped produce a plus-16 rebounding edge, the first time the Thunder won the boards in the series, and 15 second-chance points.
Ibaka's presence on the court will inevitably create space given his skills and size, but head coach Scott Brooks needs to emphasize this strategy heavily before Game 4.
It's hard to argue with the results. Ibaka's ability to hit mid-range jumpers unclogs the lanes and leaves room for Durant, Westbrook and Jackson to operate to their strengths, as Golliver noted. The Spurs had previously killed the Thunder in the paint, but OKC's ability to get to the rack in Game 3 left the Spurs without an answer.
Evening up the series after being down 2-0 would be quite the accomplishment for a Thunder team that was really struggling without Ibaka. Now that he's back, this series is much more interesting.
Spurs Must Keep Finding Shooters
Both the Thunder and the Spurs have shooters, but San Antonio has the advantage in that its shooters are generally pretty efficient from beyond the arc. Westbrook and Durant take a lot of shots and miss a lot of shots. Danny Green takes a lot of shots and makes most of them.
J.A. Adande of ESPN.com noted how important Green has been to the Spurs in this series:
In their stellar Game 1 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, he quietly had a plus/minus of plus-30 -- 30! -- in 27 minutes. And in Game 2, he did the bulk of the long-distance damage for the Spurs, hitting seven 3-pointers to account for all of his 21 points as San Antonio cruised to a 112-77 win and a 2-0 series lead.
Green made just 2-of-6 from three and totaled eight points in Game 3, but overall, he has been an essential contributor for San Antonio.
He is a professional shooter that doesn't need wide-open looks to convert the triple. That said, being wide-open obviously helps. This is what the Spurs will need to focus on getting him for Game 4.
To do so, Tim Duncan will need to draw attention to himself down low. After multiple defenders swarm him down low, he needs to find Green in the corner. The same goes for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. They are effective at driving to the basket, but instead of drawing the foul or attempting a contested layup or runner, either player can look beyond the arc for Green.
Heat Must Ignore the Trash Talk
If we've learned anything off the court this season, it's that Lance Stephenson of the Pacers loves to talk. There's nothing wrong with being passionate and attempting to get into the heads of the opposition, but the Heat will need to focus on ignoring him moving forward.
First, Stephenson wanted Dwyane Wade's knees to "flare up":
Then, he claimed that LeBron James was showing "a sign of weakness":
Oh yeah, this series is about to get even better.
James and the Heat are two-time defending champs for a reason. Small controversies like these won't impact their title defense, but it's still important to make sure emotions don't get the best of them. This series can't turn into Wade against Stephenson or James against Stephenson. It needs to stay Heat against Pacers.
Pacers Must Let Chris Bosh Play Beyond the Arc
Chris Bosh suddenly thinks he's a sharpshooter, and the Pacers should let him keep thinking that for the remainder of the series. Bosh is a serious threat in the paint and with his mid-range game, but if he wants to keep shooting from deep, then Indiana should thank him on his way out there.
He shot a respectable 33.9 percent from three this season, but he never averaged more than 28.6 percent in any of the past three years. This series, Bosh has just 27 total points in three games—mostly because he is 2-of-12 from deep and 12-of-33 from everywhere else.
When on the court, Bosh has proven detrimental to the overall success of the Heat. Per Basketball-Reference.com, Bosh has a plus/minus of minus-28 in the series.
Bosh is an athletic big man that creates matchup problems for the Pacers. But, if he wants to shoot, Indiana should let him do it. It negates the mismatches down low and in the mid-range game because athleticism doesn't really come into play when he's a spot-up shooter.
Indiana can win this series if Bosh keeps jacking up threes with reckless abandon.