One thing is for sure: the Larry O’Brien trophy will change hands soon and I couldn’t be any happier.
After a riotous 82-game regular season, excitingly boring set of first round series and nail-biting finishes galore in the conference semifinals, we are down to four teams.
Golden State’s Steph Curry and Houston Rockets’ James Harden looks to add to the league’s more anticipated one-on-one matchups in recent memory while the team-oriented Atlanta Hawks will try to solve the supposed one-man band in Cleveland when the NBA conference finals rolls in.
Somewhere, somehow, someone is not liking this. Phil Jackson, anyone?
NBA Eastern Conference Finals Preview
As soon as LeBron James decided to return home and “orchestrated” the trade of Kevin Love from Minnesota to Cleveland, the Cavaliers’ chances of landing in the Finals seemed more sure than death and taxes. True, there were some bumps in the early to midseason which of course provided more ammunition from haters to shoot James down from head to foot, but the underrated trades for Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, and J.R. Smith helped settle the rocky boat. (The Cavs were 19-17 before the Shumpert-Smith deal and has gone 34-12 since.)
But no matter how we argue about the importance of role players in Cleveland, there’s no mistaken who’s in the driver seat behind the wheel. James has been averaging an Oscar Robertson-like 26.5 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.9 assists, terrorizing opponents from the perimeter, on the inside, and even with just his passing skills.
In the closeout game versus Chicago on the road, LeBron (11 assists) was content to shift the limelight away from him when it comes to putting the ball in the basket (there’s no other way if you’re shooting 7 of 23), letting Matthew Dellavedova, Shumpert, Smith, and to a lesser extent, Tristan Thompson shoulder the scoring load.
Players outside of James and Kyrie Irving is the key to this series because even in the playoffs, Atlanta rarely maxes out minutes from key guys (Kyle Korver leads the team in MPG in the playoffs with 38.1) and hands out playing time to four more guys other than the starting five. Dennis Schroder (19.8), Kent Bazemore (16.5), Pero Antic (14.6) and either Mike Muscala and Mike Scott could get anywhere between 10-12 minutes a game depending which Mike Budenholzer seems fit.
Cleveland is already without Kevin Love while Irving is limping all over Quicken Loans and the United Center and they couldn’t afford the All-Star point guard to be ineffective against a very solid and stable Hawks backcourt. Actually, against a very poised and equally (if not more) well-coached team like Atlanta has.
While they don’t have a particular dump-the-ball-and-we’ll-get-out-of-the-way kind of guy, the Hawks are very good at finding open shots on ANY situation with superb precision-passing, spacing, and personnel movement. On their eight playoff wins, Atlanta assisted almost a ridiculous 69% on made baskets and the drop-off even during losses is so minimal (67.5%) that you can see from a mile away what they’ll do. The catch is, of course, how you can stop them.
Key matchup: It doesn’t matter who you put on LeBron James– DeMarre Carroll and the whole world know this– he’s still going to put up huge numbers. The more compelling and interesting face-off in this series is in the Jeff Teague-Kyrie Irving matchup.
The two Eastern conference All-Stars are keys to their teams for different reasons. Irving is the second fiddle to LeBron and how well he plays on offense determines how defensively committed opponents are going to be to James. On the other hand, Teague is relied upon to make good decisions especially running the pick-and-roll which he is deadly, to say the least.
An engaged Jeff Teague is a handful. Ask the Wizards.
Prediction: Atlanta in 7
Western Conference Finals Preview
Shootout. Hide the women and the children and that’s all we need to know.
There’s no reason to believe the Houston Rockets are going to slow the tempo down anytime soon. Last time they did that, they found themselves in a 1-3 hole.
Before anything else, there aren’t going to be any– I mean ANY– epic comebacks this time around. No matter how incredible that Game 6 in LA was, it won’t happen in Oakland.
Key for Rockets: Defense.
We haven’t seen Houston defend in a full 48 minutes or even a whole friggin’ half this playoffs. Before they even dream of something bigger, Kevin McHale’s bunch needs to dig deep and get their hands a little dirty. It’s not a very bad idea especially if you’re defense allows the local girls’ high school team to score 100 on any given night. The Rockets’ defensive rating (106.8) is the worst in this field of four and had the only negative net rating among the remaining teams.
It’s not that they don’t have the pieces but a change in mindset is a welcome development. The Rockets need to realize they are NOT going to win giving up that many points especially to this version of the Warriors. Engaging them in an offensive duel is futile unless you’re ready see your own head rolling on the floor faster than green grass through a goose.
Key for Warriors: Get Steph going.
The Golden State Warriors have no reason to be backing down from a shootout either and if the regular season is any indication, that could be what they’re aiming for right now.
But what’s a shootout battle without the best long-range basketball weapon ever to known to man? And I’m talking about the MVP himself Steph “The Chef” Curry.
The 26-year old Curry has been a barometer of sorts for the Warriors more so in this playoffs. His scoring dipped NINE points in the two Warriors losses (from 30.0 to 21.0 PPG) and to say the percentage suffered is an understatement. Curry cans only 19 percent of his threes in those defeats while drilling an insane 46% in wins including going 8-for-13 in closing out Memphis.
In all of the eight victories, Curry has drilled at least 3 treys in each of those. In the two losses, he shot a combined 4-for-21.
It doesn’t take a “rocket” scientist. No pun intended.
Prediction: Warriors in 6