NBA Playoffs: Too close to call

By Jason Inocencio

Posted at Jun 04 2012 03:39 PM | Updated as of Jun 04 2012 11:39 PM

The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs looked like they were on a collision course to meet in the NBA Finals after each established 2-0 leads in their respective Conference Finals series.

San Antonio rushed to that lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder and 20 straight wins going back to the regular season. So dominant were the Spurs that everyone was already rushing to crown them as the 2012 NBA Champions.

But these series are best-of-seven affairs, not best-of-threes, thus giving Kevin Durant’s Thunder ample time to adjust and get back into their own groove. After Manu Ginobili reasserted himself in Game One and Tim Duncan took on the offensive burden in Game Two, the Western Conference Finals shifted from the AT&T Center to the friendly confines of the Chesapeake Energy Arena, a place where the Thunder had yet to lose in this postseason.

The first big move that Thunder coach Scott Brooks made was placing defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha on Spurs ace Tony Parker. With his long limbs and physical play, Sefolosha hounded Parker and disrupted his playmaking. The Swiss swingman also had career bests of 19 points and six steals to give Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden some much-needed assistance. Before Gregg Popovich knew what hit him, the Spurs 20-game streak was over and the Thunder won in convincing fashion 102-82.

With their streak gone, everyone was expecting the Spurs to come back strong and impose their will on the Thunder once again in Game 4. What nobody expected was another career game, this time from Thunder big man Serge Ibaka. The newly naturalized Spanish forward went 11 for 11 from the field, and four for four from the free-throw line for a career-high 26 points.

Not even the insertion of Thunder-killer DeJuan Blair could help the Spurs over OKC. After seeing his team’s 15-point lead dwindle to four in the middle of the fourth quarter, Durant took over. The reigning three-time NBA scoring champion scored all 16 of the Thunder’s points over a five-minute span that helped preserve the 109-103 win. The series now stands 2-2 heading back to Texas.

The Miami Heat had supposedly absorbed the best punch that the Boston Celtics had. They took Rajon Rondo’s career-high 44 points in Game 2 yet still eked out a 115-111 overtime win that left Boston wondering where things went wrong. There was no time for second-guessing or blaming one another though as the series quickly shifted from the AmericanAirlines Arena to the TD Garden.

In Beantown, it looked like the Celtics were rejuvenated by their home crowd. So energized were they that their lead rose to 24 early in the fourth quarter. Miami tried rallying behind a flurry of three-pointers but it was too little too late and the Heat lost 101-91. Kevin Garnett led the way with 24 points and 11 rebounds followed by Paul Pierce’s 23 points and Rondo’s 21 points and 10 assists.

Game 4 looked to follow the script that Game 3 had established as the Celtics had 61 points in a sizzling
first half. In the second half, however, Miami started clamping down on defense and finally grabbed their first lead of the game in the fourth quarter. With LeBron James passing to Udonis Haslem and him missing as time expired, another overtime awaited these two rivals.

Early in the extra period, Paul Pierce fouled out on a play with Shane Battier that could have gone either way. Later, James fouled out for the first time since he’s been in Miami on a questionable call of his own while tangled with Mickael Pietrus.

Even as Rondo scored on a free throw and teardrop jumper late in OT, the Heat still had a chance to tie the game or win. With Boston leading 93-91, the ball went where everyone expected it to go, to Dwyane Wade. Wade was able to get Pietrus up in the air and got a clear look from behind the arc but clanked the ball off the rim as the Celtics tied the Eastern Conference Finals, 2-2.

With Chris Bosh supposedly ready to suit up for Miami against Boston in Game 5, expect the Heat fans to be louder than ever as they try to return to the NBA Finals after coming so close to a championship last year.

For the Thunder, the question now is who will step up next to give Gregg Popovich’s crew some headaches. Russell Westbrook has been playing in control in Games 3 and 4, undoubtedly helping OKC in getting back into this series.

The 20-game win streak is now a thing of the past as the Spurs are now facing something they have been unfamiliar with recently, back-to-back losses. Neither series has seen a road team win as of yet.

Will this trend continue or will the lower seeds finally steal a road game?