Last time we checked in on the NBA playoffs (aside from Scipio's piece on the Thunder vs. Joey Crawford) I suggested that LeBron's championship run was likely contingent on how long Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett could wear their throwback jerseys before they needed to be thrown into the wash, so to speak.
That remains true, but I would add an additional factor that will also go a long way towards determining these Western Conference Finals. I present the following stat line:
22 Minutes, 1-3 shooting, 5 points, 7 rebounds (2 off), 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocks, 0 turnovers, 0 personal fouls.
That was Serge Ibaka's line in game 1 of the Western Conference Finals in which the Spurs overcame the Thunder in an exciting 101-98 opener.
I suggest that add one more name to the list of guys with the potential to swing the playoffs: Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and Scotty Brooks.
When the Spurs went small ball late in game 1 it was out of a need to get penetration against the length and athleticism of the Thunder D which was effectively trapping the pick'n'roll decision man and recovering to shooters, which led the Spurs creators and shooters alike to make bad passes against the pressure. The Spurs 14 turnovers and only 9 3 pt attempts in the 1st half had everything to do with the Thunder almost stealing one by the River Walk.
Then the Spurs started playing Steven Jackson at the 4 and Brooks, seeing a potential double jump in line for Popovich, traded a rook for a pawn. 22 minutes for the game's best shot-blocker in a loss enabled by the other team's ability to repeatedly get layups on halfcourt possessions in the 4th quarter is inexcusable and bizarrely incompetent.
Additionally, the decision-making by Westbrook on a few of his 17 shots and by Brooks in playing Fisher so much could lead to a short series for the Thunder. Up to now, Westbrook has avoided turnovers and demolished teams. The Thunder can't have him go into shoot-first mode and survive in close games with the uber-efficient Spurs.
Fisher shot exceptionally well in game 1, but he's a defensive liability and offers little else in the way of tangible production. Thunder fans should hope that his heavy minutes in game 1 was a function of his hot shooting and not a series-long strategy on the part of Brooks.
Serge Ibaka fulfills the requirement for NBA championship contenders to control the area around the rim. Dominant front court players almost always have a greater impact than dominant guards, that's why Michael Jordan was so freaking special. His athleticism and ability to recover is essential to the Thunder in stopping the Spurs ball-movement and penetration. If you insist on matching the Spurs small ball lineups, keep Ibaka in the game and sit Perkins and Collins. If you are only going to play one true big then play the good one...it's not that hard. If anyone can offer an explanation for why Brooks did this I'd love to hear it, I feel I must be missing something that would make this appear at least a step above idiotic.
As Jeff Van Gundy noted in a brief preview of the Eastern Conference Finals, KG is basically a jump shooter at this point in his career. He doesn't really have the explosion to blow past guys and get to the rim, that was starting to dissipate in the 2010 playoffs. What he has now is his classic turnaround, his range on pick'n'pop deep 2's, and whatever he can get through putbacks and fast breaks (if father time doesn't rim check him). He's still a great passer as well, although he doesn't create as much opportunity for others as before.
That said, he's still the 2nd best player on the Celtics and has a great potential impact in the series against the Heat because of his defense. He still challenges shooters at the rim, he still adjust shots, and his 13 rebound performance in game 7 demonstrated that he can still clean the glass.
The Heat don't have a big who can do that. Joel Anthony performs capably at times but he's not a shot blocker and he doesn't stretch a defense like KG can. The Heat rely on James and Wade rebounding well above average for their positions and getting to the rim. Both of them (particularly James) struggle if their route to the rim is guarded by a well-positioned 7-footer.
That gives the Celtics a chance. If they want to finish the series they'll need 1). KG to continue to offer defense, rebounding, and floor spacing 2). Continued brilliance by Rondo and 3). Health and healthy shooting from Pierce and Allen.
For KG to re-discover his 05 offensive form and torch the Heat inside for a few 30-15's might do the trick but I think the more likely recipe for success is for Pierce to match his better games with Rondo's and Allen to start hitting his 3's.
On the flipside, the Heat need continued dominance from James and Wade. Ignore the hyped losses of Bradley and Bosh, the Heat are arguably better with James at the 4 and Battier or Miller in to help space the floor for James and Wade to wreak havoc. Bosh is not going to make Garnett a weaker post-defender, he's not going to help rebound against the physical Celtics, he simply doesn't offer that much that the Heat can't replace.
On the other end, losing Bradley as an answer to Wade is rough but they still have Pietrus and it would be hard to argue that Boston's team defense has been weaker since our one and done has been absent.
The Big Fundamental went 6-15 against the Thunder but, like Garnett, his ability to rebound and protect the rim is still huge. The ability to block/defend shots without fouling is a rare and exceedingly valuable talent. Unlike Garnett, Duncan still has his toolbox of post-up moves which vary in effectiveness depending on his stamina and opponent.
With Ibaka still primarily a defensive player potentially hamstrung by his coache's bizarre personnel decisions and Garnett moving closer in that direction in identity, Duncan remains as potentially the only classic low-post scorer in these playoffs. The Spurs don't rely on him in that role as they did in the 00's but against the faster and better trapping defenses employed by the Heat and Thunder he's an ace in the hole.
For that and other reasons (overall versatility and spectacular and flexible offense) I'm guessing the Spurs roll to a 5th Duncan-Popovich championship.