Boston Celtics (2) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (4)
Prediction: Cleveland in 4
After underestimating this Celtics team and crashing and burning with my “Philadelphia in 4” pick, it seems I still haven’t learned my lesson. While this Celtics team is more talented than we give them credit for due to the whole “not having their best two players” thing, they still play a much more talented team. After seeing Al Horford step up his game, thoroughly dominate Joel Embiid on both ends of the court, and be the defensive leader that takes the Celtics to a different level, I’m not so sure Horford isn’t the most important player on this team. If you could have Kyrie back, but lost Horford, would you do it? With ‘Scary’ Terry Rozier playing this well, I don’t think I’d make that hypothetical swap. Big props to Brad Stevens for having this team consistently ready to perform, outplay expectations, and limit mistakes. He’s (obviously) a big reason they made it to the Conference Finals. Now, can they continue to play this good? Probably. But that won’t be enough. Cleveland finally turned into the team we’ve expected to see all season. Kevin Love has picked it up and played at an all-star level, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver started making shots, Tristan Thompson was resurrected and is giving valuable minutes again, and George Hill is providing leadership in the few times when LeBron sits. Also, LeBron has played arguably his best basketball in the past 15 years. Which means he might be playing the best basketball we’ve seen by anyone. Ever. I think even the casual basketball fan is beginning to realize that we should appreciate every minute of basketball we get to see him play because it is truly special. Where Ben Simmons was played off the floor by stopping him in transition and making him shoot, that won’t work with LeBron. Al Horford could sit back and play help side defense and force the 76ers into contested shots. The Cavs have shooters around LeBron who you can’t help off. LeBron will just find them for open triples. The Celtics won two games in the previous series where they benefited from simple mistakes the young players on the 76ers made down the stretch. (To their credit, the young players on the Celtics made less of these mistakes). But LeBron won’t make those mistakes. If the game is close down the stretch, the best player will take over. LeBron James won’t let the Cavs lose.
Keys to the Series:
1. Brad Stevens. I don’t think there’s an answer for the Cavs playing their best basketball against this Celtics roster. If there is, Brad Stevens will find it and try to use it. If the Celtics get the Cavs out of their rhythm, they may have a chance.
2. Role Players Playing Bigger Roles. Aron Baynes was 3 for 21 (14.3%) from the 3 point line in the regular season. He’s currently 9 for 19 (47.4%) in the playoffs. Marcus Smart hasn’t shot well, but when it’s mattered, he’s made the play. Terry Rozier has played so well that a player most people didn’t know at the beginning of the postseason already has all-time awesome nickname and is known by most NBA fans. If they can continue to do more than their role, while not making mistakes, I could look foolish again betting against them.
3. The King. If LeBron continues his dominant play, this one will be over quickly. He’s far better than anyone on Celtics, and their best chance to guard him (Gordon Hayward) is still out. I believe he will. Cavs in 4.
Houston Rockets (1) vs. Golden State Warriors (2)
Prediction: Golden State in 5
The series that every NBA fan has been awaiting for months finally arrives and promises to be a wild ride. These were two best teams in the NBA during the regular season, and it wasn’t even very close (sure, Toronto had 1 more win than Golden State during the regular season, but Curry and Durant missed a combined 45 games, and the Warriors were on cruise control for most of the regular season. Also, c’mon. It’s Toronto). The Rockets won the season series 2-1, but the most recent game was nearly 4 months ago, and neither team seemed to want show any tricks they had up their sleeves. Even so, it doesn’t feel right to think the Rockets will only win 1 game. They are a historically efficient team, and Chris Paul is playing out of his mind. Capela has been a stalwart contributor on both ends of the floor, and James Harden can get hot in the blink of an eye. They could easily push this to 7 games, and nobody would be surprised. The reason I think they won’t win more than 1 game is that I still don’t trust James Harden in the playoffs. That might be a wild take, but he’s crumbled under pressure. Usually I don’t like to take a small sample and call it a trend, but with Harden it seems mental. He clearly, visibly, gave up last season against the Spurs. This year, he has not looked his best, and he seemed far to comfortable to cede control to CP3 last round. His points, rebounds, assists, FG% and 3P% are all down compared to the regular season, and though he’s gotten hot a few times, he doesn’t seem to bring the consistency the Rockets need to hang with the Warriors. The other thing that worries me about James Harden is that he’s going to need follow Klay Thompson around. The Warriors will run him through as many screens as they can to make Harden chase, and if the Rockets switch everything (as they like to do), the Warriors will force the Rockets into a Durant matchup with Harden and let him go to work. Working hard on defense makes everything on offense more difficult. I trust the Warriors who have shown they can do it on both ends when it matters most over the player who has shown he can’t. Chris Paul heroics aside, I think the Warriors are too much to deal with. Draymond picked up the defensive effort and has been terrific on that end, reminding us of the greatness he can display when he’s locked in. He deflects balls constantly, forces tough shots, and finishes possessions with contested defensive rebounds. Klay has not been his best, and his 3-point percentage would be the lowest in his career over a full season. Luckily for the Warriors “not his best” is still pretty damn good. He’s shooting *only* 37.8% from deep on 7.4 attempts/game this postseason. For reference, the league average is 36.2%. The only player who concerns me on the Warriors right now is Andre Iguodala. He hasn’t been awful, but he looks scared to shoot from deep, which is what the initial threat of this Warriors offense was – everyone can shoot 3s. If I was Mike D’Antoni, I’d tell the Rockets to sink in and let him shoot. Make him prove he’s prepared to take the shot before adjusting if starts hitting. Durant will be Durant, Steph will be Steph, and the Warriors will continue rolling.
Keys to the Series:
1. Chris Paul. Every time CP3 plays against Steph Curry, it seems like he’s playing extra angry. Going back to 2015 when Curry won his first MVP, each time they played I felt like Chris Paul was thinking “this guy is MVP? I’m better than this motherfucker!” And then tried to show it. Curry has shot 38.5% when Paul has been guarding him compared to his season average of 49.5%. Some of that is small sample size, some of it is real. This is also the first season that the talent around CP3 is not staggeringly outmatched. If he wins the point guard battle, it doesn’t guarantee the Rockets will win the series, but if Curry gets the better of him, they’re toast.
2. 3-Point Shooting. I know what you’re thinking: Duh. Well, when the team that shoots the most 3-pointers (Houston) plays against the team who shoots the best percentage on 3-pointers (Golden State), it’s going to be an area of focus. The Rockets have shot worse overall, but they are capable of getting hot and matching the Warriors shot for shot. If either team gets hot for an extended period, they probably win the game.
3. Transition Defense. Capela has been outstanding, and the entire Rockets team seems locked it. Draymond Green finally seems back to “best defender on the planet” level and has brought the Warriors’ defense back with him. Both teams feast in transition, and start big runs through forcing turnovers and turning them into transition 3s. I’d be willing to wagernwhoever leads in points off turnovers and fast break points wins the series.
Here’s to hoping this series is as exciting as we’ve been hoping for!