The play of Rajon Rondo in the last three games has been the catalyst behind Boston’s revival (Image | SI.com)

Eight days into the NBA Conference Finals, every team left standing has two wins to their name. No-one saw that coming.

Full credit to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Boston Celtics for achieving what most had assumed was beyond them in making their respective series competitive. The Celtics, in particular, shouldn’t be 2-2 with the Miami Heat after four games if you’d listened to the rumblings during the regular season about how the Big Three were fading lights, and seen their bench crumbling one game at a time as Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, Jermaine O’Neal and then Avery Bradley were lost for the season.

The Thunder, too, are over-achieving to be level after four. Sure, OKC are full of talent, but the Spurs were on a record-breaking 20-game winning streak spanning the end of the regular season and the playoffs, and boast one of the deepest rosters in recent NBA history.

The result is going to be two compelling three-game mini-series to determine the conference champions. Can the Spurs and Heat rebound and finish the job, or will one – or both – succumb to the underdogs with the momentum? By this time next week, the NBA Finals themselves will be set, and right now all four contenders will be feeling their own chances of being there.

West – old versus new

Oklahoma City are the NBA’s unstoppable force. From that 3-29 start just four years ago, to last year’s Conference Finals tussle with the Dallas Mavericks, the Thunder’s meteoric ascension will soon have them perched atop the League; that much seems inevitable. But is this their year?

Serge Ibaka was perfect from the field – 11-11 FG – in game 4, and will need to capitalise on his performance if the Thunder are to keep their momentum flowing (Image | Getty)

Last spring, Russell Westbrook’s erratic and sometimes selfish offensive performances were arguably OKC’s downfall against the eventual champion Mavs. There’s been markedly more maturity from the point guard this season, and the play of Sixth Man of the Year James Harden has taken some of the ball-handling pressure away from Westbrook by adding a third genuine isolation threat to the Thunder’s late-game rotation.

As a result, combined with a greater tendency in game 4 to get shots for Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka (who combined with Nick Collison for a game-changing 47 points on 22-25 shooting), OKC had greater success in two games at home in breaking down San Antonio’s defense, which, despite not being what it was four years ago, is probably the best of the four teams remaining.

The Spurs, meanwhile, stuttered a little away from home for the first time in the playoffs, despite improved performances from their X-factor Stephen Jackson. They allowed the Thunder big men too much space,  Tony Parker has struggled of late with evading Thabo Sefolosha, and Manu Ginobili took just seven shots in game 4. There are definitely things the Spurs need to change – or get back to, as their plan was working pretty well through two games of this season. Now they head home for game 5, which could effectively decide the series.

East – Big Two versus Big Four

The East finals are much more a case of building suspense right now – because the man who could decide them is still wearing a suit.

Chris Bosh’s ongoing absense is starting to cause problems for Miami, who got 12 points and 17 boards from Udonis Haslem last night but were forced to play LeBron James on Kevin Garnett for large spells while deploying Shane Battier as a back-up big man. With Brandon Bass having a quiet night in game 4, the absense of a post presence for the Heat was somewhat disquised as Garnett battled Haslem and James.

Bosh’s scoring, though, could elevate Miami far beyond the reach of the Celtics. It seems increasingly unlikely that the lanky power forward will be back in time for the Conference Finals, so Haslem will have to keep performing as he is through the next two or three games for the Heat to advance.

Who goes through?

I really was trying to write this article without answering this question, because there are too many variables in both series right now to make anything more than an educated guess. Thinking logically, with the two series now essentially boiling down to three-game match-ups, the sides with home advantage (Spurs and Heat) have the upper hand. But neither of those teams will return with momentum. Because I have a soft spot for the Spurs, but also because I can’t ignore the depth and versatility of their first ten or eleven players, Ill choose San Antonio to advance from the West. In the East, everything really will depend on game 5. If Boston wins that, they will go on to take the series. If Miami wins it, the Heat probably advance in six or seven. I’ll say Miami, but without much confidence. Check back in a week to see if I was right…

Tweet the author | @RobertSchatten

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