With each conference finals series winding down, the NBA Finals matchup is now in sight. Despite scares from second-level contenders, the four preseason favorites have risen to the top and now stand a handful of wins away from hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy.
As the playoff field narrows, the championship odds tend to swing significantly. Looking at the odds via OddsShark.com, we can see a distinct division between the four remaining squads:
|San Antonio Spurs||+205|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||+440|
via OddsShark as of 9 a.m., May 30
So which two teams offer the best odds? Here's a look at the Finals matchup bettors should be hedging upon.
Even after their Game 5 loss, the Heat remain in firm control of their Eastern Conference Finals matchup against Indiana. The loss really represented the perfect storm of events against Miami, as LeBron James' foul trouble coupled with Paul George's 31-point outburst allowed the Pacers to squeak by and prolong the series.
James finished with a playoff career-low seven points in 24 relatively inconspicuous minutes. After George's complaints about "home cooking" during Indiana's two losses in Miami, the Heat were the ones unable to catch a break from the officials during Game 5:
The Heat attempted 8 free throws tonight, the lowest total by a team in the last 1,447 NBA Playoff games. (via @ByTimReynolds)— NBA Legion (@MySportsLegion) May 29, 2014
Thus, it appears highly improbable that the Pacers will win in such a manner once again. James has dominated the vast majority of this series, as he and Dwyane Wade have shot well from the field and created easy baskets out in transition. Perhaps for that reason, James appeared calm despite the blown opportunity to close out the Eastern crown:
LeBron's demeanor at the podium last night reminded me of his demeanor after Game 6 here last year. No excuses or panic.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 29, 2014
For Indiana, the more bankable trend involves George continuing his assertive offensive impact and Roy Hibbert continuing to dominate on the glass. Hibbert pulled down 13 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass, after grabbing just seven rebounds combined in the two games at Miami.
Should the Heat be considered championship favorites?
However, the Heat should be secure not only because of their stars, but because of a supporting cast that has suddenly come alive. Whether it was Norris Cole's 11 points off the bench in Game 2, Ray Allen's beyond-the-arc barrage in Game 3 or Rashard Lewis' six three-pointers in Game 5, the Miami bench has provided timely shooting to work off the penetration from their stars.
That should make the other three teams wary. Miami's three previous Finals runs have all seen important bench contributions from the likes of Allen, Mike Miller and Shane Battier. While it appeared that those secondary ingredients would be missing this season, their 11th-hour reappearance should once again make the Heat the clear favorites.
Oklahoma City Thunder
This series remains a toss-up headed back to Oklahoma City, but the Thunder have clearly been revitalized by Serge Ibaka's sudden return to the lineup. After being shredded by San Antonio in the paint during the first two meetings, Ibaka's length and athleticism has totally stymied the Spurs' uber-efficient offensive machine:
Thunder: 6-0 vs Spurs with Serge Ibaka in the lineup this season (4 wins in reg season), limiting San Antonio to 21.0 fewer PPG with Ibaka.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 28, 2014
This isn't a new development, as Oklahoma City's system-busting athleticism is the ultimate kryptonite to San Antonio's ball movement and Tony Parker's slashing creative ability. Parker scored just 25 points combined in both games at Chesapeake Energy Arena, highlighting how the Thunder have become an extraordinarily mobile defense.
However, despite being the inspiring storyline, Ibaka is far from the only reason for the Thunder's resurgence and championship aspirations. Russell Westbrook's monster Game 4 belied a much more aggressive approach. After attempting just eight total free throws in the first two contests, Westbrook subsequently attempted 22 in the two home games. In Game 4, he was truly the primary reason why Oklahoma City was able to run away so quickly:
Still stunned by this stat: Russell Westbrook had more points, assists, steals and FT attempts than the entire Spurs starting five in Gm 4.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 28, 2014
Who will win the Western finals?
Kevin Durant will always be the Thunder's alpha dog, but an assertive yet controlled Westbrook is the elusive ingredient that gives OKC a chance against any opponent. The Thunder are arguably the only team in the league who can match Miami's athleticism, which would give them a fighting chance in a 2012 Finals rematch.
Of course, that's contingent on Oklahoma City getting past the Spurs first. San Antonio's steadiness stems from years of refinement and chemistry, a level the Thunder have not yet reached. But Oklahoma City's ceiling is higher, and if they reach the same levels they demonstrated in Games 3 and 4, then the Thunder are as solid a championship favorite as either the Spurs or Heat.