DAR Sports: The NBA Conference Finals

By @TrueGodImmortal

The time has come. There are four teams left. After a long and crazy NBA season, we have arrived at the NBA Conference Finals. Shockingly, the Conference Finals feels like a repeat of last year.... and in many ways, it is. Three teams that were in the Conference Finals last year have made it back, and no one is surprised at the teams that made it. Perhaps the only shocking thing about it is how one of those teams got here. While many expected both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors to make the Conferece Finals, and it seemed very possible that the Houston Rockets would make it, it comes as a shock that a team missing Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving  are here. If anything, the Boston Celtics should be thankful for the job that their coach Brad Stevens has done. He has essentially employed the "next man up" mentality and has done more with a team of mostly young players than anyone could have expected. So, with that, the stakes are set. There is a familiar feeling here, one that resembles the last three seasons in a way. This all feels like it is leading up to the inevitable clash, but the objective here today is to look at some of the keys needed for each team to win, defensive strategies, and the players to really watch out for. Let's take a look at the Eastern and Western Conference Finals.

(2) Boston Celtics vs (4) Cleveland Cavaliers
-One thing I'll never do is talk about advanced stats in my articles. While some of them make for a compelling read and add to the narrative, that isn't my job. When looking at advanced stats, they might tell you a story that you can't see from watching the game, but aside from a few of those, they do very little to add to analysis of basketball. I start off with that to let you know what I won't be doing in this article in reference to the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James. LeBron is an advanced stats king, as is Chris Paul, but one thing that advanced stats can't trump is the eye test and actual knowledge of the game. Now, with the eye test, LeBron James is playing some of the best basketball of his career offensively. The Cavs are rolling and seemingly found their rhythm against the measly Toronto Raptors, who seemed to be on a path to greatness at one point, before burning out badly against the Cavs. A look at the previous series for the Cavs showcases how the mental aspect of this game trumps all stats. The Raptors worked their ass off all year to obtain that no. 1 seed and where are they now? This is the issue that I have had all regular season. For many teams, the regular season mattered. Their playoff hopes. The no. 1 seed. Homecourt advantage. They all mattered. Not to the Cavs. They struggled to reach 50 wins, settled for the 4th seed, and will enter their second straight series without homecourt advantage. Yet, it doesn't even matter. The Cavs have enough firepower to dismantle any Eastern Conference defense and they will likely do just that to the Celtics..... but, if this season has shown us anything, it has shown us that you don't want to count the Celtics out. At all.

Brad Stevens is the Coach of The Year. If you voted for anyone else or picked anyone else, you're a fool. This Celtics has managed through tons of adversity and losing their two best players, yet they've made it here in interesting fashion. After a tough 7 game series with the Bucks, the Celtics would defeat the 76ers in 5 games, but there were two telling things about that series. Only one game in the entire series seemed out of reach for the 76ers, and at least three of the Celtics wins came from careless play by the 76ers and last minute breakdowns. You can attribute this to the defense of the Celtics, the IQ of some of their better defenders, or you can attribute to the lack of playmaking on the part of the 76ers. Whatever the case may be, the Celtics took control and won when it counted. Against the Bucks, the Celtics struggled. Even against the 76ers in a 5 game series, they struggled. What will be the determining factor in this series is the fact that the Cavs have not gotten much better defensively, yet have found their offensive rhythm. For a team like the Warriors or even the Rockets, this would be a goldmine, which is why people see the WCF as the real Finals. However, for the Celtics, the Cavs being in offensive rhythm while being led by LeBron James is a scary thought. However, Brad Stevens has the chance to take game 1 and shock the world. The Cavs dominated two of their games against the Raptors, and barely pulled out victories in the other two. The Celtics have been so good in late game situations, that they may steal a game or two, especially at home, where they haven't lost a game in this playoffs yet. Could that change come game 1? It is likely.

Is there any option to guard LeBron? No, but their best option is to try and trap LeBron with double teams and aggressive defense, which likely won't stop him anyway, but you have to live with that. If you can slow LeBron down with your defensive sets, then the Celtics have a fighting chance. Their defense is good enough to slow the rest of the Cavs team down, and if Kevin Love doesn't get any rhythm, you could very well see the Celtics get off to a running start in the series. I have been saying for the entire season that we were on a collision course for the fourth and final meeting of the Cavs and Warriors in the Finals to end the rivalry off the right way, and that hasn't changed. A Celtics team with Kyrie might actually have pulled this victory off. Add in a healthy Hayward and you definitely have the Celtics looking even more dangerous than before. One can only wonder how dangerous this Celtics team could have been had they made a trade for Tyreke Evans before the deadline, as he could have provided great bench scoring, but regardless, you have to play with who you have and the Celtics have been doing just that. I would keep my eyes on Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Greg Monroe during this series. Monroe was solid in the game he played against the Cavs this season, and he could provide some post trouble for them if used properly. For the Cavs, outside of LeBron, I think the players to watch are Kevin Love, George Hill, J.R. Smith, and surprisingly, Jordan Clarkson. Clarkson has been virtually useless in the playoffs this year, and hasn't found a rhythm, but this series could see him ignite for a few scoring bursts.

For the Celtics, they should go out and fight as hard as they can, hopefully winning a game or two in this series, because we know they can. If the Celtics last year could win a game without their best player and against LeBron and Kyrie, then this Celtics can certainly steal a game or even two. The Cavs will win the series, but for the Celtics to make it this far without their two best players, one has to assume that they'll run the Eastern Conference for years to come. However, that dominance over the East won't begin this year. Next year will be a different story.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 5

(1) Houston Rockets vs (2) Golden State Warriors
-As the regular season came to a close, the Golden State Warriors found themselves in a strange position. They were not the no. 1 team in the West. They were not the 60 win team in the Conference for the first time in the last 4 years. They seemed.... vulnerable. On the other hand, the Houston Rockets seemed virtually invincible. Chris Paul seemed to fit in well with James Harden, and they seemingly improved their defense to make the top 10 rankings, which had to be considered a massive success for a team that supposedly at one point had the best ranked offense in the NBA history (numbers don't necessarily support that 100%). Whatever the case may be, the Rockets were seen as the formidable challenger to the defending champions, and after going 65-17, they seemed focused on taking the no. 1 seed and becoming solidified as the team to beat in the West. That was the regular season. The regular season is over. In the regular season, the Houston Rockets looked amazing. So did the Toronto Raptors and well, we saw how their season just ended.
The game of basketball is coaching, talent, and skill, but it is also a mental thing as well. For the Houston Rockets, the mental aspect of the game is what led them to where they are now. Their drive to take the no. 1 seed, win 60 games, and steal home court through the playoffs was due to their anger and lack of vindication. Chris Paul is tired of being overlooked and underappreciated, and now he can put the Conference Finals jokes to rest. 

For the Rockets, their keys to victory rest within their ability to defend and maintain a level of excellence offensively that they did before. The game changes, so their need for foul dependency has slowed down, and as a result, they don't look like the invincible team that only lost 3 times in over 45 games with the trio of Capela, Harden, and Paul together. They have lost two games out of the 10 they've played in the playoffs against much lesser teams, and while that's not a cause for concern because it is the playoffs, there have been minimal flashes of brilliance from the team. Their biggest flash of brilliance? That amazing 50 point quarter against the worst defense in the playoffs, the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not to discredit the Rockets, but their 50 point quarter has been the highlight of the entire playoffs. There is one game in each series where the Rockets command the game with authority and they did so in game 3 against the Jazz. In the other games, we saw the Jazz give them slight trouble at different times, but of course, the Jazz were outmanned and outgunned by a team built for THIS series. James Harden has been solid this playoff run, but his inconsistency will never go away. It is not about him being a playoff choker, but rather that this is what his game has always been. Even during his MVP regular season, his stats were around the same, and his shooting numbers were never the most efficient. Now, in the playoffs, this issue gets highlighted more than it needs to because of the obvious microscope that every game is under. Every game means something. Every win counts. For the Rockets, their path here has been interesting, with some minor lucky breaks (not fully healthy Jimmy Butler, Ricky Rubio missing the series, Donovan Mitchell getting injured as the Jazz were getting close to stealing the game in game 5), but they've made it. Now, the time has come.

The keys to a Rockets victory is actually tougher than one realizes. For one, they have to play their best basketball and do so consistently for 48 minutes, and even then it might not be enough. Their role players, PJ Tucker, Luc Mbah A Moute, and Trevor Ariza will have to be at their very best, and one has to wonder if the battle of winning 65 games and their roles being expanded when Harden and Paul missed extended time hasn't worn on them in some ways. There were moments of fatigue showing in both the Wolves and Jazz series, but that should be wiped out with the week long break both teams have been given before game 1. The Rockets have homecourt advantage and will get the favorable calls most of this series due to Harden and Paul, but it might not be enough. They have to control the pace and just play the game. The ISO heavy style of the Rockets is effective, but I think it is offensive to the Cleveland Cavaliers of the two previous years to say that this Rockets team is the best the Warriors have faced. No one on the Rockets roster is better than LeBron, and I don't think there is an offensive player on that team that is as potent and explosive as Kyrie (Harden is debatable), and when add in a stretch 4 like Kevin Love, as well as the other pieces that the Cavs had the last two years, I would say that was the best team the Warriors faced. In both of the series, when the Warriors were fully healthy, they dominated. 2016 saw the Cavs take advantage of a weakened Warriors team and as a result, they won the championship. It took the greatest performances from both Kyrie and LeBron to pull off that feat. However, this is not 2016 and this is not the same Warriors team. At all.

The X-Factors in this series for the Warriors to win? Just show up. This is not meant as a slight to the Rockets. Not at all. This is just to point out the fact that on their best day, the Warriors are the best team on the planet. On their worst day, they still are better than 98% of the world. The dreaded four man combination of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green is the hardest to stop, and when you add in the increased playoff play of Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and the youth of Quinn Cook, Kevon Looney, and Jordan Bell, one would have to imagine that the Warriors have so much more versatility and talent than this excellent Rockets roster. However, the biggest factor here is that the Warriors seem extremely motivated, while for the Rockets, the most motivated person in their organization seems to be someone not on the court. Daryl Morey has talked all year. He has spoken as if he had the formula to beat the Warriors. Sure, Clint Capela, James Harden, and Eric Gordon have talked a little bit this season, but Daryl Morey has been the most outspoken person this season. While I can respect the confidence he has in a greatly assembled team, something about this entire series gives me the vibe of what we witnessed last year in the Finals. This Rockets team is more than capable of winning a game or two in this series, but they have to be firing on all cylinders and reach to that next level of playoff play. Chris Paul stepped up in game 5 against Utah, and that'll be important in this series, but does the rest of the team have that next level? Capela has been great at exploiting his matchups in the playoffs, but will that sustain in a series against the best defense in the entire playoffs? Will it sustain against a physical defender in Looney or perhaps the league's best defender in Green? Can the Rockets stop the PNR that might get used often? No one can stop the Warriors PNR and if this series goes the way I expect it to, it might be over fast. However, objectively speaking, this series depends on game 1, and for some reason, I believe the Warriors are determined to go in and take game 1. A close game 1 win for the Warriors means this series goes 6 games. A blowout game 1 win for the Warriors could mean this series goes 5 games... or maybe less. A close win for the Rockets would mean this series goes 6, maybe 7 games. A blowout win for the Rockets might mean this series doesn't go how I'm expecting it to at all.

If you asked me my actual personal opinion, I would say Warriors in 4 or at best 5. If you asked me why, I would point out that the Warriors are playing the best basketball they have played all season and are starting to peak at the right time. That is dangerous for everyone in the league, even a James Harden and Chris Paul led team. This doesn't mean the Rockets won't put up a fight. It's just that I've watched all three games between the two teams this season and the only way you really beat the Warriors is if they get lackadaisical or are missing a pivotal player (Andre Iguodala missed both of the games the Rockets won, Draymond Green missed the 4th quarter of opening night, and Jordan Bell missed the final game of the season between the two teams). The Warriors are at full strength and playing their best basketball, and for the rest of the league, mentally that can break any team. Will it break the Rockets? Maybe, maybe not. However, if the Warriors come in motivated and focused to win, they're nearly unstoppable. Despite the efforts of the Rockets and how well they've done this year, a feeling of reality swept over most fans who understand the game as both their second round series ended. I'll give the Rockets two games to be objective, but this is where their journey likely ends. Dread it, run from it, destiny still arrives all the same.

Prediction: Warriors in 6



Popular Posts