NBA Conference Finals Preview

Expect the Miami Heat to win the East and the San Antonio Spurs to win the West. The Heat won their one match-up against each other this season, 120-98. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

A similar story runs through both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference Finals. Both series will match athletic, physically strong youngsters against experienced, cagey veterans. The brash and burly Miami Heat play the ancient and venerated Boston Celtics in the East, while the run-and-gun Oklahoma City Thunder play the super-synchronized San Antonio Spurs in the West.

Each teams stands just four wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals. A Celtics championship would write the perfect ending to the likely final year for their New Big Three, while a Heat championship would do away with all the criticisms LeBron James has endured about his lack of big-game effectiveness.

The Spurs would love to milk one more championship out of Tim Duncan, who’s already won it all four times since 1999. And a trophy by the Thunder would provide some hardware to match Kevin Durant‘s considerable skills.

Do brains conquer brawn in basketball? Do teams win in the playoffs by scoring or preventing scoring? Here’s my preview of the third round.

Celtics vs. Heat

Celtics fans desperate to believe their team can beat the Heat will no doubt look at the Celtics’ 3-1 record against them this season. You know who started all three wins? Avery Bradley. You know who won’t play basketball again this season? Avery Bradley. And without him, the Celtics don’t have enough perimeter defense to contain Dwyane Wade, especially with Ray Allen hurtin’ and the bench nonexistent.

The Celtics struggled with the 76ers’ strength and athleticism throughout their series. Doc Rivers even called them “Atlanta on steroids.” Well, the Heat are the 76ers on steroids: even stronger, even faster, even more durable. And they’ve had two extra days off.

Kevin Garnett won’t be able to dominate in the post as he did against the 76ers, and an injured Paul Pierce won’t be able to hang with James. Rajon Rondo is an infinitely better point guard than Mario Chalmers, but both perform best as facilitators, not scorers. And Chalmers just has better offensive options than Rondo.

Even if the Celtics return to Boston for Game 3 down 0-2, Celtics fans should give their team an overwhelmingly positive response. The Celtics have given every last ounce of strength to a season they never had a chance of winning. The Big Three fought tooth and nail in the playoffs, beating two younger teams and taking care of business twice on home court. A loss in the Eastern finals – even a bad one – is far above what anyone expected them to accomplish.

Be proud of your Celtics: they’ll go down, but it’ll be with dignity and in a blaze of glory. Pick: Heat in 6.

Spurs vs. Thunder

As a Celtics fan, I’ve never followed Western Conference teams all that closely. I picked the Thunder to win the West because they’re young and extremely talented, and I figured the lockout-concentrated season would favor such teams.

But two older teams making it all the way to the NBA’s Final Four shows experience clearly helps, especially when it’s championship experience. Duncan – definitely a better center than Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins – has played on all four championship San Antonio teams. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have each played on three. Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner each won one.

That’s a lot of hardware to throw at a Thunder team with just three prior champions: Derek Fisher (five), Nazr Mohammed (one) and Perk (one!).

Though the Thunder have only had to win one more playoff game than the Spurs (nine vs. eight), they’ve rarely looked as smooth as the Spurs have consistently looked through the first two rounds. While the Celtics have turned their experience into defense (now hampered by injury), the Spurs have turned theirs into offense, and that’s made for a much easier journey so far.

The Spurs won the season-series against the Thunder, 2-1, and they have home-court advantage. I see the Spurs sweeping their two home games, then going 1-1 on the road. The Thunder steal a game in San Antonio, but the Spurs come right back and clinch the series on the road. They were, after all, the best road team in the West this season.

I’d love the Thunder to win just because I’ll be moving to Oklahoma about that time, but I now don’t see it this year. The 2012 NBA Finals will match a preeminent franchise in San Antonio with an upstart one from Miami. Pick: Spurs in 6.

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