Game 5 shockers in Conference Finals put Spurs, Heat on the brink

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Anybody who saw this coming, please raise your hand now.  Just raise it up.  Raise it up nice and high.  Anybody?  OK…I didn’t think so.

With Oklahoma City winning in San Antonio Monday and Boston winning in Miami Tuesday, the NBA Playoffs have suddenly been flipped upside down.  After trailing 0-2 in their respective series, both the Thunder and the Celtics have done the near-impossible, winning Games 3, 4 and 5 to move within one win of creating an NBA Finals matchup that nobody expected.  To top it off, both Game 5 victories came on the road against the NBA’s two best home teams—the Spurs and Heat each went 28-5 in the regular season at home and were a combined 13-1 at home in the playoffs entering Monday.

Analysts and columnists have had Heat penciled into the NBA Finals since Derrick Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 of the first round, while just a week ago, the Spurs had won 20 straight, prompting questions about their chances of sweeping through the playoffs undefeated.  So what happened?  How did the tide change so quickly?  And what happens next?  Can either wounded team now flip the script and win Games 6 and 7?

OKC winning with defense?

Though they’ve received efficient scoring from all over, the Thunder’s resurgence has primarily been keyed by an energetic, swarming defense that has made San Antonio’s once balanced attack look sloppy and out of sync.  By frustrating Tony Parker and disrupting the pick-and-roll game, OKC has held the star point guard to just 16-41 shooting in the last three games, while forcing the usually secure-handed Spurs into 21 turnovers in Game 3 and in Game 5.

Spurs dejected

With early defensive energy helping them claim first-half leads, the Thunder have simply had too many weapons for San Antonio to contain.  After nearly everyone went off for OKC in Game 3, their big men drained jumpers and finished dunks to the tune of 49 combined points in Game 4.  Durant has had his way with anyone the Spurs have sent at him in the fourth quarter, while James Harden continues to nail dagger threes, none bigger than the bomb he sunk to help clinch Game 5.  All of a sudden, the Thunder’s high energy defense and collectively efficient offense have moved the Spurs from a comfortable 2-0 lead to the brink of elimination.

Mirror images

After San Antonio’s surprising loss at home in Game 5, few expected a similar result in Miami.  Columnists and analysts all had the Heat winning comfortably; the ESPN Facebook page even declared the Heat winners of Game 5 before it had ended.

Boston’s win could not have come without Paul Pierce’s incredible 3-point swish over the outstretched arm of LeBron James, a shot that was remarkably similar to Harden’s just a night earlier.  Both players made up for a horrible offensive possession by burying a highly contested fade-away jumper to give their respective teams a two possession lead in the final minute of play.

A scarier comparison for Miami’s loss might just be the Game 5 loss sustained by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2010 conference semifinals.  Both teams were led by James, fresh off an MVP season with a high seed and championship hopes.  And yet, both teams came up empty on their home courts in crucial Game 5s, with James disappearing against a Boston team that everyone had written off as too old and too injured.

Sure, James’ performance Tuesday night wasn’t the stinker he dropped in 2010 amid the Gloria James-Delonte West rumors—James managed just 15 points on 3-14 shooting in a 32-point Cavs loss—but it certainly wasn’t MVP worthy.  He needed 25 shots to score 30 points, had just two assists and took only two meaningful shots (he scored an easy layup with 8 seconds left and the Heat down by 4) in the final seven minutes of the game.  Both attempts came up empty, with a layup blocked by Kevin Garnett and a 3-pointer that went in and out.

dwyane wade lebron james

As you might remember, that loss in 2010 proved to be James’ last game in a Cavs uniform, as he departed in free agency that summer.  While he won’t be going anywhere this time, with the Heat on the brink, there may very well be other major changes for Miami in the offseason.

Two electric Game 6s

The biggest winner in the reversal of these two series is most definitely the fans, who will now be treated to two high-pressure elimination games with the series favorite on the ropes.

In Oklahoma City, expect another tight one, probably with the Thunder carrying a lead in the fourth quarter for the fourth straight game.  Given the way San Antonio kept pace in Games 4 and 5 when it seemed nothing was in their favor, OKC must be extremely careful not to fall behind in the third quarter.  Even with the Thunder’s offense clicking, this one could very easily go the Spurs’ way and head back to San Antonio for Game 7, but the result should come down to Durant.  If the Thunder feed him on every play down the stretch, as they should, this year will likely be Oklahoma City’s first of many NBA Finals appearances.

Boston Celtics

In Boston however, things look much bleaker for the road team.  The Celtics have outplayed Miami four games in a row and the Heat are lucky to even be playing a Game 6.  If ever there was a way for James to silence his critics and prove himself under pressure, it would be with a monster fourth quarter performance in Game 6 that sends the series back to South Beach.  And yet, James and the “not five, not six, not seven” crew have shown time and time again they don’t have the mental toughness to beat a closely knit veteran team when it matters.  Expect Rajon Rondo and Boston’s Big Three to close this one out at home and make one last NBA Finals appearance, sending Miami into a tumultuous offseason that will no doubt be full of changes.

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