The first two slots in the Conference Finals have been filled by the usual suspects — the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, who each dispatched their semifinals opponents, Brooklyn and Portland, respectively, in five games. Neither series was particularly close, a frustrating viewing experience after an epic first round, but it did serve as a reminder that these two teams are still the teams to beat in their respective conferences. While Miami has been very lucky in regards to injury, and San Antonio lost Tony Parker for a series deciding game without missing a beat, the other four teams still battling for a spot in the Final Four (Indiana, Washington, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City) each look like they’re cut from more mortal cloth than last year’s two Finalists.
Are we destined for a second showdown between South Beach and River City? Is anyone going to be upset about it, really? Who wouldn’t want to see Tim Duncan get an opportunity for revenge and redemption — he admitted that his missed layup, this missed layup, was haunting as soon as the game was over — against a Heat team looking for its third consecutive championship? Of course, the alternatives are equally compelling: Chris Paul and the Clippers making it to the Finals against the horrid backdrop of the Sterling scandal, the Indiana Pacers rediscovering the groove that made them one of the best teams in the league, John Wall’s Wizards completing their transformation from laughingstock to legitimate contenders, and the Oklahoma City Thunder riding the positive vibes from Kevin Durant’s MVP speech straight back to fighting for a title.
All six teams are by any measure or metric the six best teams in the league, and there’s definitely some fun basketball to be had regardless of who makes it and who gets sent fishing, in the parlance of TNT’s Inside the NBA. We’re going to examine each conference’s contenders to the throne and see how they stand up to the Spurs or the Heat, depending on the conference.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Assuming that they rally enough to send Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and company home at the end of their intense semifinal series, the Clips will have their work cut out for them. While they boast the best point guard in the NBA, even including his singlehanded botching of the last minute of game 5, the Clips have never really been able to muster any kind of real threat to San Antonio — since trading for Paul (which gave us the fantastic ‘basketball reasons’ soundbite from former commish David Stern), the Clippers have compiled a 4-10 record against the Pounders of the Rock, not exactly the most reassuring record, especially considering it includes the most ignoble of playoff records, a sweep, the last time the two teams met in the postseason.
There are a few differences between now and then, though. For one thing, the Clippers are now coached by Doc Rivers, who is a significant upgrade over former coach Vinny Del Negro, not least in his abilities to design an offense that goes beyond “Chris, bail us out now, please.” Of course, the most disconcerting thing about the Doc-era has been the final scores between the LA team and the Spurs. A small sample size is just that, but this year, each Clippers/Spurs meeting has been an unabashed blowout. Twice that’s gone in San Antonio’s favor.
The numbers back that up, too. Between the wins and the losses, LA has posted Offensive and Defensive Ratings of 111.1 and 99.2 (very, very good) and 99.2 and 108.2 (very, very bad). That’s not a whole lot to go on, especially with the noise that accompanies the fact that this is almost the definition of a small sample size, but whatever we can glean from it is not all that friendly to the Clips.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
The other prospective Western Conference Finals team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, has fared much better against Popovich, Duncan, Ginobili, and company. Since making it to the Finals in 2012, the Thunder have gone 6-2 against the Spurs — a much nicer record than their semifinal opponents in Los Angeles. Not only that, this year the Thunder swept the season series, a nice feather in the cap for Durant and his friends. Posting an average Offensive Rating of 110.2 against San Antonio (right about their average for the regular season, which was good for top five in the NBA) and an average DRtg of 99.1 — just a shade better than the Pacers, who had the best defense in the regular season — the Thunder seem to have the Spurs’ number.
A lot of that comes down to athleticism. The Spurs play a brand of heady, intelligent basketball that everyone who enjoys team play can get behind, but their three best players are all on the wrong side of 30, and when the Thunder are rolling they can simply run San Antonio out of the gym. An exciting consequence of this potential matchup: Russell Westbrook, who is criminally underrated by people who can’t get past his shot selection, often seems like the anti-Spur in his play style. It would be really, really fun to see him light the Spurs up one night, build a brick house the next night, then team up with Durant to take down the house that Pop built. You can check out the highlights of the two teams’ last regular season meeting below. It’s fun:
3. Indiana Pacers
This one hinges on which version of the Pacers show up. Will it be the team that dominated the first half of the regular season, winning fifty-six games and securing the best record in the East, or will it be the team that was headed toward a historically catastrophic collapse for the second half? Either option doesn’t seem that farfetched for a team that took Miami to seven games last year and boasted at least three players who were worthy of All-Star consideration, which says more about how uneven their play has been in the postseason than anything else. This is still the same team that almost lost the opening round to the perpetually middling Atlanta Hawks, after all.
The franchise’s season splits against Miami illustrate the differences better than anything else. Over four matchups with the Heat, the Pacers ended up with a pair of wins and a pair of losses, and the stark contrast is staggering. When they won, the Pacers played the kind of defense they can hang their hats (and their shiny green pants) on, posting a DRtg of 93.0. That’s really, really, good. In fact, it would rank as the best defense of the three point era if they could play like that for an entire season. The losses paint a portrait of an entirely different crew — one with an abysmal DRtg of 108.9 — pro-rating that out over the same era, the Pacers would have had something like the 732nd-best defense in the league.
Back when the Pacers were taking the league by storm in January, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, and Shaquille O’Neal broke down exactly what made the Pacers’ defensive effort so awesome, and what a good defense can do to the opposing team. Even though the Pacers have lost a step or two, it remains really informative.
4. Washington Wizards
Last but not least, the most unlikely of the last teams standing, the Washington Wizards. That’s what happens when your team hasn’t won a second round playoff game since 1982, more than eight years before your best player was even born. But here they are, and while they’re still underdogs, the Wizards no longer feel like they’re not supposed to be there. “Our goal from the beginning of training camp was just to make the playoffs, but after a while, you kind of build a little confidence and feel like you belong,” John Wall told The Washington Post. They’re a long way from guns in the locker room, that’s for sure.
But do the Wizards have any chance at all against the Heat if they can upset the Pacers? The answer is “definitely, maybe.” The numbers tell a story that’s about as ridiculous as Gilbert Arenas’s social media presence. The Wizards did split their season series with the Heat, but there’s no way they can really replicate the results from those two W’s. You can see it for yourself — in their two victories, the Wizards posted an ORtg of 123.2. That is beyond absurd. As a team, they had an Effective Field Goal percentage of 64.7 percent. That’s probably not going to happen again against a Heat team that’s held teams to 45 percent shooting in the postseason. But who knows? No one seriously thought the Wizards would even be in contention for a Conference Finals berth when the season started, after all.