Some Thoughts on the NBA
A Belated Primer of Games Before the Finals
After dispatching of the Washington Wizards in a full seven-game series, the Boston Celtics are now on the docket to face the Cleveland Cavaliers before the latter’s likely three-peat appearance in the NBA Finals. As a result, this post took a little longer to put together, with the Western Conference Finals tipping off before I could complete this article and granting me a bit of cheat sheet of observations for previewing the Western Conference. In all likelihood, we’re on a collision course between the Cavaliers and Warriors for a third-consecutive Finals but for those interested in the process of reaching that June destination, here are a few of my observations and predictions for round three of the NBA Playoffs.
Golden State Warriors (1) vs. San Antonio Spurs (2)
Regular Season: Spurs 2–1
The Spurs rode into this series with one of the best one-on-one defenders and isolation scorers in Kawhi Leonard, a perennial defensive player of the year candidate whose teammates also relied on him to direct the offense following Tony Parker’s season-ending injury. Now with Leonard missing for Game 2 after re-aggravating his ankle injury during Game 1, the team will undoubtedly miss what he provides for them on both ends of the floor. Specifically, they’ll miss how he assists with boxing out the paint and preventing the Warriors from nailing shots along the perimeter, necessary steps for stopping Golden State from going on one of their offensive barrages to mount a comeback or put away a game.
With or without Leonard, San Antonio will rely on the formula of slowing the fast-pace of Golden State’s game, limiting their opponent’s constant ball movement to force isolation plays and guarding the paint to prevent Draymond Green or any of the Warriors centers from rebounding and kicking out to wing players looking to shoot the three, a feat they accomplished against the Houston Rockets.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has never feared experimenting with his lineups, which he’ll surely do in the absence of Leonard and Parker. To combat the Warriors small ball lineups and weakness at center, it’ll be interesting to see if Pop decides to stay big with LaMarcus Aldridge at power forward while rotating Pau Gasol and David Lee at center or if he moves Aldridge to center and throws out a guard-wing heavy lineup involving combinations of Patty Mills, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Jonathan Simmons, Dejounte Murray, or Kyle Anderson that worked against the Rockets in Games 5 and 6 of round two.
During their series with the Jazz, the Warriors faced a team that was essentially Spurs-lite, built on strong defense and slow-moving offense to create high efficiency shots for players. To compare, the Jazz played at a pace of 92.1 possessions per game while the Spurs play at the more pedestrian rate of 90.6 possessions in the postseason. In contrast, the Warriors are averaging 98.8 possessions in the playoffs after running a mind -boggling 102.3 possessions in round one versus the Trailblazers. The Dubs also have questionable health issues of their own, with sixth man Andre Iguodala hampered with knee issues in Game 1 against the Spurs and backup point guard Shaun Livingston filling in for Iggy in the death lineup during crunch time. This could work if Iggy remains hobbled for Game 2 and 3. While he lacks the defensive playmaking of Iguodala, Livingston provides some additional rim protection with his impressively long arms, notably tipping out the second rebound on this possession. This series could provide some drama for viewers beyond discussions on Zaza Pechulia’s footwork with Leonard, given the creative genius of coach Popovich to match with the exhaustive talent on the Warriors to keep games close in the fourth quarter.
Final Pick: Warriors in five
Boston Celtics (1) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (2)
Regular Season: Cavaliers 3–1
The Celtics deserve credit for grinding for reaching this point. Many seemed to write off the Celts after losing their first two games at home in round one, dismissing their no. 1 seeding and how they required seven games to make the Eastern Conference Finals. Unfortunately, they’re about to meet up with a well-rested Cavaliers team that made 3s at a postseason-high rate of 43% and has yet to lose a game. What’s more, the Cavs front court lineups including LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson provide a mismatch for the shorter roster of the Celtics, allowing Cleveland to clog the paint and grab offensive rebounds in a winning formula that Chicago used in the opening games of their first round matchup against Boston. What can Boston do against the death star that is LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Like Popovich, Celtics coach Brad Stevens never shies away from changing his lineups, throwing out Kelly Olynyk and rookie Jaylen Brown with great success in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Wizards. Facing the Cavs, he could extend his usage of Marcus Smart and Avery Johnson to try to limit the scoring of Cleveland’s dangerous bench units that included veterans Deron Williams and Kyle Korver rolling with LeBron while Kyrie and Love rest. At the very least, one would hope that this series provides some memorable moments from Isaiah Thomas, getting buckets before LeBron and company run up the floor on the ensuing possession to reassert their place in the Eastern Conference.
Final Pick: Cavaliers sweep