The 2012 NBA semifinal playoff series involves many contrasts – in strategy, team compatibility and outright athletic ability. But probably the most important contrast is cumulative league experience versus relative youth and inexperience. Having “been there before” is a powerful addition to the plus column for judging how a team will perform under playoff pressure. Like other generalizations, this can seem simplistic; but history has shown it’s not without precedent or merit. Below is a thumbnail preview of three semifinal matchups that by and large will pit one such team against another.
1. Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers
The buzz Monday was that one of the Miami Heat's Big Three is out "indefinitely." Without Chris Bosh, can the Miami Heat continue to take it offensively to the Indiana Pacers for 48 minutes, the way they did Sunday? The short answer: Yes. The Heat’s big three of Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James can score from anywhere – on the perimeter or on the inside – and have been highly successful at getting the Pacers into foul trouble. This was particularly evident in game one, where after playing the Heat basically into the middle of the fourth quarter, had to let up on the gas because their big men – including forward Paul George, guard George Hill, and center Roy Hibbert each had five fouls with several minutes remaining. Indiana power forward Danny Granger was harassed all afternoon by LeBron James, and that’s a major reason why he hit only one of 10 field goals. He needs to be more productive if Indiana wants any kind of chance to take this series.
The Heat relied heavily on James and Wade in the second half, and they responded by turning a six-point deficit at the half into a nine-point win. Together, they combined for 61 points and were able to stem the tide created by the absence of Chris Bosh, who left the game with an abdominal strain before the end of the second quarter. James and Wade are both lethal with the basketball in the open court, and this will present ongoing problems for Indiana. However, Bosh’s return is important to the Heat’s fortunes; without him, Indiana could draw this series out to six or maybe even seven games. On the other hand, with Bosh in the lineup, Indiana will be fortunate to win two games. With or without Bosh, Miami, with its playoff hardened and deep lineup, will advance.
2. San Antonio Spurs vs. the Los Angeles Clippers
San Antonio, led by the ageless Tim Duncan, has been playing exceptional basketball over the past month. Duncan and guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have played together for what seems like forever and form a synchronized and disciplined core unit. Add personnel like eleven-year veteran forward Stephen Jackson and former Florida Gators star forward/center Matt Bonner, and you have a depth that is hard to equal in the league. Coach Greg Popovich has always been a master at motivation and his team is always focused come playoff time. The fact that San Antonio has won 14 consecutive games, including a four-game blowout of Utah in the first round playoff is a testament to this team’s resolve.
On the other hand, you have the young but immensely talented Los Angeles Clippers, who just went through a bruising quarterfinal series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Guard Chris Paul and power forward Blake Griffin are exceptionally talented and athletic additions to this team; but they’ve just been too inconsistent from game to game. In game six against Memphis, Griffin looked lost half the time, and as if he didn't have his heart in the game. However, all of that changed in game seven, which the Clippers took convincingly on Memphis’ floor. Will that team show up against the Spurs? It’s anybody’s guess.
Veteran guard and three-point specialist Chauncey Billups was sidelined for the season in February, and so the one player with the most experience is Kenyon Martin, with 11 years under his belt and has played for three different teams. He can be a game-changer. Still, Duncan will be tough for Griffin inside, and San Antonio’s ball movement around the perimeter is unmatched in the NBA. They can go inside and outside with equal agility. This will prove too much for the banged-up Clippers. San Antonio advances.
3. Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder
This is an intriguing series with a compelling story line. There is ex-Laker and now Thunder guard Derek Fisher, who will be hungry for a shot at his former club. There is Laker strong forward Metta World Peace, who just returned from a seven-game suspension for slamming an elbow into the side of Oklahoma City guard James Harden’s head. World Peace has been unapologetic for his antics in that regular season game, and one could safely assume it will light a fire under the Thunder when this series starts Monday night (9:30 p.m Eastern time on TNT).
The Lakers had a tough first-round draw against the Denver Nuggets, which went to seven games. World Peace’s return turned out to be important for them, as he scored 15 points in the deciding game. And certainly the Lakers’ lineup is stacked – imposing center Andrew Bynum is a constant scoring and rebounding threat; Forward Pau Gasol had a sparkling seventh game with a double-double (including 23 points) against Denver. Of course, guard Kobe Bryant is always a deadly outside shooter capable of racking up big points, and with bench support like ex-Maryland star guard Steve Blake (who had a career-high 19 points in that same game seven against Denver), L.A. is balanced, disciplined and can win when it counts. Coach Mike Brown, who previously brought Cleveland to the brink of an NBA title, is both stoical and poised. As a group, this team is imposing.
All told, it’s safe to say that series pits a veteran team against a young and relatively inexperienced team; but Oklahoma City has demonstrated the last two years that it can play together extremely well. After last season’s playoff run, the Thunder have gain an impressive maturity. With Kevin Durant’s pinpoint shooting accuracy from the arc, Serge Ibaka’s amazing rebounding and inside shooting ability, and guard Russell Westbrook’s relentlessly accurate three-pointers, this team not only was able to convincingly sweep the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, but it showed every NBA fan that this is a team to be reckoned with. The Thunder are for real and should handily win this series.