Heat, Spurs on track to meet again

With the playoffs down to four teams remaining, Sam Smith of Bulls.com previews the conference finals pairings which could lead to a NBA Finals rematch.

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So this is it? This is what we’ve waited for some seven months? To see Miami and San Antonio back in the NBA Finals?

Well, not yet, but it sure looks that way as the conference finals open Sunday with the Heat in Indianapolis and the Oklahoma City Thunder in San Antonio Monday.

Well, why not? Give the Spurs one more chance to take that series they should have had last season. And see if coach Gregg Popovich takes out Tim Duncan again down the stretch to guard the perimeter. Or if Danny Green leaks out and lets LeBron get another three that he makes this time or they call Ray Allen for traveling or…

Well, maybe it’s not a bad idea to see a replay of that one.

Of course, they have to get there over the next two weeks.

OK, anyone think the, well, let’s say confused, Pacers can win this one even with the home court advantage they talked about since being blown out in Game 7 last season in Miami?

Sorry, I don’t see your hand up Indianapolis Mayor Ballard. And that friendly wager of 10 pounds of Miami stone crabs for some used snow from the downtown monuments isn’t showing that much confidence.

It would be difficult to do so with the Pacers the way they have basically labored through the last two months of the regular season, were about out on their feet against the sub-.500 Hawks and were losing at home to the Wizards by almost 40 before eventually winning that series in six.

But they said they’d be back and they are.

So there! They did what they said they’d do, which is more than a lot of other teams can say.

But you’ve never heard the terms “emotional wreck” and “mentally fragile” mentioned as many times around a conference finals team than you have in the last month about the Pacers. Perhaps it’s a strategy to get the Heat to relax and not take them seriously, which is one of the things Miami does at times.

Hey, maybe they’re smarter than the rest of us. Well, Lance Stephenson, too. Nah, that can’t be.

Suddenly, the three-peat doesn’t seem quite that difficult.

In the Western Conference, the outlook changed dramatically Friday when Serge Ibaka was declared out for the rest of the playoffs with a calf injury. The Thunder looked like they’d knock out the Spurs last season until Russell Westbrook was knocked out for the playoffs before their series.

After all, it was the Thunder who took out the Spurs in the 2012 conference finals by winning the last four straight. Then the Thunder swept the Spurs this season 4-0 and all that fundamental play wasn’t meaning much against those amazing athletes and scorers.

We actually have some rivalries here as this is the third straight season of Indiana/Miami and second in three of San Antonio/Oklahoma City.

But now the Thunder lose its best defender and rim protector and a nice third scoring option when Westbrook and Durant decide not to shoot. Granted, that’s not often, but Ibaka had a career high scoring average this season and Westbrook even found out who he was.

It’s a major loss. After all, Ibaka is the guy they decided to pay and let James Harden go. More playing time for Kendrick Perkins? It would be a secret weapon, in a sense, as it could render the Spurs interior players vulnerable because they are laughing so hard.

The Thunder got a strong game from rookie Steven Adams to close out the Clippers after Ibaka was hurt. But this is the veteran Spurs and Adams could be out of the game going after head fakes by the second quarter. Perhaps Nick Collison starts, which doesn’t do wonders for an incomplete bench already.

The Spurs have some potential injury problems of their own as Tony Parker went out in their clinching win over Portland with a hamstring strain. The Spurs have said it’s not serious and they expect Parker to be fine for Game 1. But hamstrings are a tender--tendon?--issue and can reoccur when least expected.

Losing Parker would be as serious for the Spurs as losing Ibaka is for the Thunder. Does LeBron deserve to be lucky, too?

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Miami Heat (2)

2:30 p.m. Sunday ABC

Pacers defeated Atlanta Hawks in seven games and Washington Wizards in six games

Heat defeated Charlotte Bobcats in four games and Brooklyn Nets in five games

Season series: 2-2

Well, the Greg Oden experiment apparently didn’t work. No one’s much seen Oden for months and all the work apparently saving him for Roy Hibbert in the conference finals seems like it’s going to be another Eddy Curry experiment. Worth the try, anyway. But the Heat shouldn’t have that much difficulty as long as they take the Pacers seriously. Not that the Heat is so scary anymore. They’re not with Ray Allen hitting the occasional shot and Shane Battier deciding which team he wants to coach next season. It’s just that the Pacers have been this inexplicable curiosity, losing playoff home games by 20 and 30 points, often showing the urgency and interest as if they are playing a preseason game in Evansville. If Roy Hibbert’s problem was Andrew Bynum being around was making him jealous they have bigger issues. These playoff have broken perfectly for Dwyane Wade’s season long recuperation and he finished off the Nets with a big game. Playing the fewest games of all the playoff teams and many one sided, the Heat should be in the best shape coming into this round. They’ll likely make a lineup change, as they do often, with Udonis Haslem, who rarely played in the Nets series, likely back starting to bang around with Hibbert. Hibbert had a huge 22 and 10 series against the Heat last season that still defies belief for one of the more ungainly players in the NBA. Kareem winces every time he sees that hook shot. The marquee matchup will be LeBron and Paul George with some entertaining battles in the regular season. Lance Stephenson and Wade also could be intriguing. Stephenson always is because no one knows what he’s thinking. The X-factor, in a sense, remains Chris Bosh, who has made big threes in the playoffs. The Pacers don’t have big men who’ll venture much outside, so it also comes down to whose system makes the other guys blink: Can Hibbert intimidate at the rim? Can Bosh on the outside? The Pacers were absolutely flummoxed in the first round by Atlanta’s shooting big men. Though the Pacers won’t be getting as much shooting space as they did against the somewhat soft-on-defense Hawks and Wizards. If Miami makes threes it could get ugly.

Pick: Heat in six

WESTERN CONFERENCE

San Antonio Spurs (1) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (2)

8 p.m. Monday TNT

The Spurs defeated the Dallas Mavericks in seven games and the Portland Trail Blazers in five games

The Thunder defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in seven games and the Los Angeles Clippers in six games

Season series: 4-0 Thunder

I was pretty much ready to pick Oklahoma City until Ibaka’s injury. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, for as difficult as they make it on themselves with so little passing and ball movement, are amazing scorers and combined to average almost 60 per game against the Clippers, a pretty good defensive team. Though the Spurs are not as old as always believed and not as lacking in athletic ability, no one really matches those two Thunder players with Westbrook’s fury and Durant’s scoring wizardry. But one of the big elements for their defense, especially against the Spurs, is Ibaka’s rim protecting and ability to step out a hit a jump shot. Rookie Adams is a tough guy, but not as nimble and a rookie, after all. Maybe he starts; maybe Nick Collison. Maybe they go small, as they have done in the past with Spurs pest Reggie Jackson, and play Durant at power forward. After all, he is seven feet tall and it’s not like Tiago Splitter is going for 30. Hasheem Thabeet, anyone? Doubt it. They’ve also got Caron Butler and probably could downsize and scramble the game as the Spurs don’t go inside for scoring all that much. The defensive matchup will be Kawhi Leonard trying to deal with Durant. The Thunder don’t get much scoring inside, anyway, and it’s more their style to play fast from the outside. The Spurs are the idols of basketball insiders everywhere. They are the model franchise and team with players who defend and make everything difficult on their opponents and unselfish among each other. Their issue is Parker and whether he can avoid the hamstring problems. Patty Mills is a nice addition, but he’s no Russell Westbrook. Westbrook tends to relax on defense, which is fatal against Parker. The Spurs have the elite bench with Manu Ginobili and without the major interior threat will go inside more. You’d have thought there was no way they could get back again after last season’s brutal Game 6 Finals loss and series defeat. But here they are right on the brink again and perhaps valued even more.

Pick: Spurs in six

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