After a stunning upset of the San Antonio Spurs, can the Thunder keep their success going against the defend champions? The match-up is filled with star power with two-time reining MVP Stephen Curry on one side and OKC’s duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the other.
In the East, can the Raptors slow down the Cavaliers and avoid becoming the third victim of a Cleveland sweep? LeBron James and Co are well rested heading into the match-up, while Toronto were taken seven games in each of the first two rounds.
Listen to our analysis and breakdown of both series, as well as predictions on which two teams will meet in the Finals.
After their resounding victory over San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder are no longer being ignored as potential NBA champions.
Next up for OKC, however, are reigning champions Golden State Warriors and their repeat MVP winner Steph Curry. Warriors hold a 3-0 record against the Thunder in regular season action.
However, with confidence building after their excellent playoff showing, could OKC shock the favourites? Sport360’s Jay Asser and James Piercy discuss.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who is willing to pick the Thunder to outright beat the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, but no-one thought they’d beat the San Antonio Spurs either.
Oklahoma City might not be best team in the NBA over the course of a season, but get them in a best-of-seven and they’re extremely difficult to beat.
When you have a pair of superstars – two of the league’s top 10 players and borderline top five – in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, individual talent in a match-up is almost always on your side.
The Warriors are the rare team that can match the Thunder’s talent, but both Durant and Westbrook are capable of being the best player on the floor in a series and that, more often than not, decides the outcome.
First off, there’s no-one on Golden State’s roster who can guard Durant one-on-one, which is why he averaged 36.3 points on 53 per cent shooting in the three regular season meetings.
Draymond Green can make it harder for Durant, but only for stretches because he’ll be needed as a rim protector and at centre in the Warriors’ small-ball lineups.
OKC also holds a major edge on the glass, where they out-rebounded Golden State by over 13 per game in the regular season. If Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka are causing havoc on the boards, it will force Warriors coach Steve Kerr to go with more size – in turn taking minutes away from their deadly small-ball line-ups.
Speaking of the regular season, it’s easy to look at the end result of the Warriors winning all three encounters and gloss over how competitive the games actually were. In all three, the Thunder were either tied or leading in the fourth quarter, but eventually crumbled.
Closing out games was a problem for OKC all season, but they were strong down the stretch against the Spurs in the second round and that should give them an abundance of confidence.
Don’t get it twisted. The Thunder need a lot to go right to win the series and the Warriors are a different animal than San Antonio. But no one believed they’d get this far, so why can’t they go further?
Oklahoma City beating the Spurs in six – including two wins in San Antonio – is more than enough to set alarm bells ringing in the Bay, and then you add Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But some key factors keep bringing you back to one conclusion: it’s the Warriors to lose.
Firstly, they have the mental edge over their opponents. Three regular season wins, two relatively comfortably in the end with margins of eight and 15, the third via Steph Curry’s cruel 3-pointer in overtime which came from another galaxy.
As much as OKC can draw from the Spurs’ series, they know they’ve fallen short each time and in the game on February 27, Draymond Green scored two points. That won’t happen again. He’s averaging 17.7 points per game in the playoffs, a rise on his regular season number of 14.0, while Klay Thompson’s form in the postseason is also improved with 27.2 points against 22.1.
Both have shown they can pick up the slack in Curry’s absence with the MVP likely to get considerable defensive attention throughout this series.
Guarding Durant effectively and consistently is an issue, but we’re yet to see Andre Iguodala properly in these playoffs and it’s a defensive match-up tailor-made for him, having locked down players of equal stature before. We also often forget just how good a defensive unit Golden State are.
Turning to the opposition, just how convinced are we? They still rely too heavily on Durant and Westbrook, who did share the ball more against the Spurs, but accounted for 48 per cent of their total points.
They also still don’t look composed in fourth quarters, San Antonio trimming a 27-point deficit to 11 at one stage in Game 6. While we don’t have nearly enough space to get forensic on what Westbrook could do in terms of wasting possessions with his attempts to outshine Curry.
This is all without bringing Curry into the equation, who’s averaged 35.0 points against them for 2015-16, his joint-eighth most profitable opponents.
The Warriors lose when they shoot badly, OKC simply don’t have the perimeter presence to ensure that can happen enough. This is only going one way.
Slovenian star Dragic was outstanding as Miami squared the best-of-seven series at 3-3 to set up a decisive final duel in Toronto on Sunday.
Dragic also had seven rebounds and four assists as Miami seized an early lead before gradually pulling away from the Raptors.
Dragic’s tally was his highest ever score in a playoff game and once again demonstrated his knack of delivering on the big occasion.
He has scored 20 or more points in four of his last seven playoffs games. Friday’s haul came from 12 of 21 shots, including six layups and two three-pointers.
“I don’t want to go home to Europe,” Dragic said afterward. “I still want to be here.”
Dwyane Wade also made a telling contribution for Miami, chipping in with 22 points, including five assists and six rebounds at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.
Kyle Lowry meanwhile gave a superb individual display for Toronto in a losing effort.
The 30-year-old point guard finished with a game high 36 points, with three assists and four rebounds. DeMar Rozan added 23 for the Raptors.
Toronto coach Dwane Casey said his team had failed to adapt to Miami’s early brisk tempo.
“(Miami) set the tempo, and we didn’t adjust as far as guarding the basketball and keeping it in front of us,” Casey said.
Lowry meanwhile paid tribute to Dragic’s match-winning performance.
“The way (Dragic) played today — he played downhill,” Lowry said. “He’s shifty. He tries to drive the ball. You have to pay attention to him at all times.”
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the Slovenian’s ability to keep calm in a crisis had been crucial during the series.
“Goran has great emotional stability. He knows there are going to be highs and lows, especially in a competitive seven-game series,” Spoelstra said.
The winner of the series faces a daunting meeting with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
"You have to give everything you have. There is no tomorrow."— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 14, 2016
-⚡️ on playing another Game 7. pic.twitter.com/RUeq9UzmXO
Toronto are chasing a first ever appearance in the Eastern Conference finals in the Raptors’ 20-year history.
If Miami advance however it will mean a tantalizing duel against James, who helped the franchise land two NBA titles before returning to Cleveland in 2014.
On Friday Miami had edged clear in a cagey first quarter in which both sides struggled to find their range, shooting only 40 percent.
But Dragic began to hit his stride in the second quarter, completing six of seven shots from the floor including four layups on his way to collecting 14 points.
Dragic’s efforts gave Miami a 53-44 lead at the break.
That was the cue for Lowry to turn on the style in the third quarter, with 12 points.
But Miami kept their noses in front and extended their lead to 82-72 as the fourth quarter got under way.
Toronto rallied in the fourth quarter but were always struggling against a skilful Miami team as the Heat completed victory.