NBA: And then there were four
It’s old hat for the San Antonio Spurs to get to the Western Conference Finals, but it’s been a while since they’ve been here.
The last time the Spurs even won a title was in 2007 and it’s been a long five years since then. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are clearly older, nursing one injury or another for the past few seasons and it’s clear the Gregg Popovich has passed the mantle of Spurs leadership over to Tony Parker.
But thanks to some crafty trades and free agent moves, the boring old Spurs have gotten younger, faster, and more offensive-minded. They swept through the Jazz and Clippers and were waiting to start the Western Conference Finals for over a week.
In contrast, the Oklahoma City Thunder has been a team on the rise for the past few seasons. The former Seattle Supersonics built around Kevin Durant and surrounded him with jumpshooters and strong low post defenders.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti used to be a Spurs intern and clearly learned from Popovich and Spurs boss RC Buford in how to build a contender. With Russell Westbrook and James Harden on the parameter and bangers like Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder have quickly risen to the top of the West. All they have to do now is to dispose of the Spurs to get to the NBA Finals. That’s easier said than done.
In Game One of the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder displayed the firepower and defense that helped them dispose of the 2011 Champion Dallas Mavericks via sweep and the 2009-1010 Champion Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
Scott Brooks’ crew forced 14 first half turnovers from the Spurs and looked on their way to stealing the homecourt advantage as they led by nine points heading into the fourth quarter. That’s when the Spurs turned to Ginobili to lead them. The former Sixth Man of the Year burned this year’s edition, Harden, and presided over a decisive San Antonio run that left the Thunder in foul trouble and shaking their heads.
Showing that there’s still some fight left in him, veteran Spurs-killer Derek Fisher went five-of-six field goals and showing no fear in the SBC Center.
Still, Popovich’s adjustments led to just three second-half turnovers as the Spurs won Game One 101-98 despite Durant’s 27 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks -- their 19th straight win.
Familiar foes renew acquaintances in the Eastern Conference Finals as Miami hosts Boston with injuries on both sides. These are two teams that plain and simple hate each other.
LeBron James has been haunted by the Celtics since he was in Cleveland, finally beating them last year but still falling short in the Finals.
Dwyane Wade has had similar history with Boston so don’t expect him to feel sorry for them and the assortment of injuries on Doc Rivers’ squad.
It took the Miami Heat six games to dispose of the Indiana Pacers in a series that got very physical and resulted in lots of trash talk and some suspensions. Coach Erik Spoelstra himself was fined by the NBA for complaining about the officiating, even as Udonis Haslem and Dexter Pittman got themselves suspended for cheap shots thrown the Pacers’ way.
Yet the Heat still survived, bucking the absence of the injured Chris Bosh. The reasons? James and Wade combining to put the entire team on their backs. Both superstars admitted that this was what they envisioned when they teamed up last summer, and now the hated Celtics have to deal with this two-headed monster from Miami.
The Philadelphia 76ers were supposed to be an easy out for Boston since they were the lowly No. 8 seed in the East. However, these Sixers showed a lot more fight due in no small part to the coaching of Doug Collins. They pushed the Celtics to a deciding seventh game and if not for Rajon Rondo’s 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, we might be seeing Philly going to Miami instead.
Clearly, this is a beat-up and old Celtics squad. Ray Allen is basically playing on one leg since he’s going to need offseason surgery. Young Avery Bradley, who famously had a big block on Wade in the regular season, is out for the playoffs after shoulder surgery. Kevin Garnett has been forced to play center due to a dearth of big men. Even Paul Pierce is showing signs of slowing down as he fouled out with a lot of time remaining in Game Seven versus the 76ers.
Yet here they stand, back in the Eastern Conference Finals and with a chance to add to the misery of the Heat.
Expect no mercy from either side and don’t be surprised if a fight or two breaks out between these two squads as they battle for Eastern supremacy.