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Sunday, May 03, 2015

First Round Recap/Second Round Preview

I correctly predicted the outcome of just four of the eight first round playoff series, which means I have already been wrong about more series in 2015 than I missed during the entire 2014 playoffs, when I went 13-2.

For the second year in a row, I underestimated the Washington Wizards and predicted that they would lose in the first round. The Wizards once again face the top seeded team in the second round. Last year, they won game one at Indiana before losing the series in six games. I expect a similar outcome this year versus the Atlanta Hawks: the Wizards will be competitive and may even temporarily swipe home court advantage but the Hawks will prevail because Atlanta's blend of four All-Stars plus several potent role players will prove to be more effective and consistent than Washington's explosive young backcourt/crafty veteran frontcourt.

The Cleveland Cavaliers face the Chicago Bulls in the other Eastern Conference second round matchup. When LeBron James returned to Cleveland last summer, he vowed to bring the city its first professional sports championship since 1964. He joined with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to form a younger version of the Big Three that led Miami to four straight Finals and back to back titles. Not everything went smoothly; rookie Coach David Blatt looked overwhelmed at times, starting center Anderson Varejao succumbed to yet another season-ending injury (he has played at least 65 games just once in the past five years) and the chemistry between James and Love looked very poor from the outset. Then, James went into "chill" mode on the court before electing to miss eight straight games, during which the Cavs went 1-7 and could not even beat the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, a team actively trying to tank. The Cavs dropped to 19-20 after a 107-100 loss at Phoenix in James' first game back and they seemed to be going nowhere fast but then the Cavs won 12 straight games as James reasserted his status as the sport's best and most complete player. The Cavs finished with the second best record in the Eastern Conference and looked like legitimate championship contenders heading into the playoffs. In addition to James' stellar play, the Cavs were also boosted by midseason trades that added starting center Timofey Mozgov, starting shooting guard J.R. Smith and reserve guard Iman Shumpert to the rotation.

The Cavs won each game of their first round sweep of the Boston Celtics by at least eight points but Love suffered a season-ending dislocated shoulder in game four. Love has been much maligned throughout the season as his individual numbers plummeted from the All-NBA level figures that he posted as the best player on a horrible Minnesota team but he played a critical role in Cleveland's success. Love led the Cavs in rebounding (9.7 rpg) and defensive rebounding (7.9 dprg) while also ranking second on the team in three point field goals made (144) and third on the team in scoring (16.4 ppg); he spreads the floor on offense and even though he is a below average one on one defender he is a very capable defensive rebounder and his outlet passes ignite fastbreak opportunities. The Cavs went just 3-4 without Love during the regular season. The Cavs won three of their four regular season games versus Chicago but the one game that they lost is a game that Love missed.

J.R. Smith will miss the first two games of the Chicago series because the NBA suspended him for a cheap shot that he delivered to Boston's Jae Crowder in the fourth and final game of that series. Considering Smith's history as a cheap shot artist and the fact that he elbowed Crowder in the head, Smith is fortunate that he was only suspended for two games. Losing Smith for two games due to him being a knucklehead should not surprise anyone and is a factor that has to be considered when predicting Cleveland's playoff chances. Guys like Smith will take ill-advised shots, commit stupid fouls/turnovers and/or get suspended. Love's injury is beyond Cleveland's control but Smith's absence is the cost of doing business with him; as I said last year after Zach Randolph was suspended for game seven versus Oklahoma City after throwing a punch in game six, "Part of predicting the outcome of a playoff series is making a judgment about which team's stars are more consistently productive and reliable." Randolph is talented but he has always had knucklehead tendencies and the same is true of Smith.

The Chicago Bulls have excellent personnel and excellent coaching but something seems to be missing from the mix. The Bulls advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, Coach Tom Thibodeau's first year with the franchise, but since then injuries and a lack of offensive punch have led to first round eliminations in two of the past three seasons. A raw Milwaukee team pushed the Bulls to six games in the first round. Even with Love on the shelf and Smith unavailable for two games, I do not see Chicago beating Cleveland--unless James enters "chill" mode.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference the 67-15 Golden State Warriors swept the overmatched New Orleans Pelicans, while the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Portland Trailblazers 4-1. Golden State won the regular season series with Memphis, 2-1. Even if Memphis' starting point guard Mike Conley had not suffered a facial fracture that may force him to sit out the series, I would still take Golden State; the Warriors have a well-balanced team, while the Grizzlies' lack of outside shooting will enable the Warriors to pack the paint against Memphis' big men.

The series between the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs and the potential heirs to the throne L.A. Clippers went the distance before the Clippers won an epic, thrilling game seven at home, 111-109. I generally do not like in the moment declarations that often lack true historical context but I have been following the NBA since I was a kid in the 1970s and this was one of the best played, most exciting seventh games I have ever seen. The Spurs did not lose the game but rather the Clippers won it, with both teams performing at a high level. Chris Paul's heroics on a gimpy hamstring (team-high 27 points, including the game-winning shot with one second left) deserve praise--and his resume needs some signature playoff moments considering that he has yet to advance past the second round-- but it is worth noting that Blake Griffin authored his second triple double of the series (24 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) and he was the best player on the court, as he has been throughout the series (24.1 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 7.4 apg).

The Dallas Mavericks entered the first round with at least the remnants of a championship pedigree dating back to their title run four years ago, headlined by 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki and including starting center Tyson Chandler and sparkplug guard J.J. Barea. They added Rajon Rondo, a key contributor to Boston's 2008 championship, via midseason trade but Rondo never clicked with Coach Rick Carlisle or with his new teammates. I still thought that the veteran Mavericks could pull it together enough to beat a Houston team that had not advanced past the first round since 2009. Instead, Dallas' key offseason acquisition Chandler Parsons suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the series, Rondo melted down before being exiled sans a playoff share and Houston won, 4-1. I expected better defense from Dallas, worse shooting from James Harden and some effort from Rondo. I did not expect Dwight Howard to enter a time machine and reemerge as Dwight Howard version 2009.

What should we make of the Rockets now? When the Rockets acquired Harden three years ago, I compared him to Manu Ginobili and asserted that he is good enough to make the All-Star team more than once but not good enough to be the best player on a championship team. After Harden made the All-NBA Third Team in 2013 and the All-NBA First Team in 2014, I reiterated my thoughts and expectations about Harden:

I never said that Harden is a bad player. He is a good player; he just is not an elite or "foundational" player. If Manu Ginobili had left the Spurs early in his career he probably could have scored 25 ppg, made several All-Star teams and received some All-NBA selections--but Ginobili never was an elite player and neither is Harden. Ginobili elected to take less money, stay in San Antonio and fill a major role on a championship team behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker; Harden chose to seek more money and, in his opinion, more glory. It will be interesting to see how that works out for Harden, Morey and the Rockets.

This is what I wrote about Harden after Houston's first round loss last year:

Speaking of unreliable, James Harden could be a solid number two option or an excellent third option for a championship contender but unless or until he adds a midrange game, a postup game and some semblance of defensive awareness/effort to his skill set repertoire he will be better suited to a supporting role than a leading role. Harden averaged 26.8 ppg, 5.8 apg and 4.7 rpg in Houston's first round loss to Portland but he shot just .376 from the field and .296 from three point range; during last year's playoffs, Harden averaged 26.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 4.5 apg while shooting .391 from the field and .341 from three point range. Harden's game is based on shooting a lot of three pointers and flailing his arms while driving to the hoop, hoping to get bailed out with a foul call. Teams that deny Harden open three pointers and block his path to the hoop without fouling him can force Harden to shoot a low percentage. In other words, he is poorly suited to be the number one option for a championship contending team because when he faces elite teams he will not score efficiently and/or draw double teams, nor will he make enough contributions in other areas to offset his ineffective offensive game. The Thunder can and have replaced Harden's offense but Harden has not yet found two superstars like Durant and Westbrook who can take the pressure off of him.

Many "stat gurus" see little value in the midrange game, asserting that basketball teams should take the majority of their shots either at the rim or behind the three point line. The math behind that theory is sound--the highest percentage shots are dunks and open three pointers--and I used to take that same position with my teammates in recreational league/pickup play, arguing that a three point shooter who shoots .400 from that distance is equivalent to a two point shooter who shoots .600, but there are major differences between amateur basketball and NBA basketball. Teams below the NBA level can win by bombarding the opposition with three pointers, because the players' skill level and the coaches' acumen are not nearly as advanced as they are in the NBA. Paul Westhead had great success as a college coach and he won a WNBA title employing a fast paced approach with a high number of three point attempts but his 1980 L.A. Lakers championship team played a more conventional style.

This season, Harden is almost universally considered an MVP candidate. I understand why he is in the discussion based on his high scoring average but my leading MVP candidates for 2014-15 are LeBron James (best all-around player in the game), Stephen Curry (elite scorer/playmaker who is a very underrated defender), Anthony Davis (rising, versatile star who scores, rebounds and defends) and Russell Westbrook (explosive performer at both ends of the court who single-handedly carried the Thunder during a tumultuous season). 

Harden has turned out to be a better player than I expected but I still do not believe that he can be the best player on a championship team and I would not take him ahead of any of the aforementioned four players. Look at what happened in the first round, when the Rockets won a series for the first time since acquiring Harden. Harden shot just 9-28 (.321) from the field in the first two games versus Dallas. Without Howard's dominating work at both ends of the court, the Rockets surely would have lost homecourt advantage and might have even been in an 0-2 hole heading to Dallas. When the Mavericks adjusted their defensive coverage to account for Howard's activity, Harden rose to the occasion with a playoff career-high 42 points on 15-24 field goal shooting in a game three Houston win.

The difference between Harden and players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James who have led teams to championships as all-around versatile wings is that Harden needs someone else to be the focal point. In Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook drew most of the defensive attention, while Harden either lived in their shadows or else played against bench players. In his first two years in Houston, Harden shot less than .400 from the field in each of Houston's first round losses; Howard had not joined the team in 2013 and in 2014 Howard was still not back to his normal self.

If Howard continues to play like he did in 2009 when he led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals, then the Rockets can be a legitimate championship contender with Harden as the second best player. However, even if Howard plays at a high level I still expect the Clippers to beat the Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals. The Clippers showed a lot of maturity and poise in the San Antonio series and those traits will serve them well against Houston.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM



At Sunday, May 03, 2015 3:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Duncan/Popovich Spurs are one of the greatest organizations in sports history. The only possible knock against them is that they have never won back to back titles.

If you look at the repeat champions of the last 20 or so years, every one of them featured a dominant scorer who could get 30 points at will; Jordan, Olajuwon, Jordan, Shaq/Kobe, Kobe, LeBron. As great as Tim Duncan is, he is not nor was he ever that kind of player consistently. He was certainly the kingpin of those championships, but it was always more of a collaborative effort with the Spurs in terms of scoring, with several different players taking turns dominating in the clutch.

The Spurs had several different factors leading them to championships in terms of scoring and I would say that it is much harder to have all those different factors working together two years in a row as opposed to having one consistently dominant go-to scorer who can keep the team afloat by offseting any shooting struggles that other players on his team might be having.

At Sunday, May 03, 2015 4:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another thing which you often mention with Kobe, when he scores more, LAL do a lot better. Harden led the league in 30 pt. games with 35. HOU was 30-5 in those games, which means he's scoring at least 30 pts. in almost half of his games and HOU was only 26-21 when he doesn't score 30. I think he leads the league in 40 pt. games with 10, with HOU going 9-1 in those games.

If you want to say you don't think he can be the best player on a title team, fine. How many guys then can? 3-4? Let's look at the past top guys on title teams. From start to finish, Parker was the best Spur last year. Leonard won Finals MVP and is now the best player on SA. And old-man Duncan is still in there. Harden's certainly better than those guys. James won the previous 2. 2011 Dirk wasn't any better than 2015 Harden. Kobe won the previous 2. 2008 Paul Pierce wasn't as good as 2015 Harden. And then Billups is in there, too in 2004.

You got Kobe, James, Duncan. Each might not necessarily have the best casts always, but they all had very good casts when they won titles. Duncan certainly hasn't been an elite player for several years now, but his teams are still so good. All these other teams have to have a lot more things go their way, but they all were very good teams when they won. Given the best players on some of these recent title teams, several guys can be the best player on a title team. Curry and Harden aren't Kobe and James, but they have very good teams, especially Curry, and they could certainly win it all. HOU, MEM, and LAC are dealing with key injuries. GS is deeper to begin with plus healthier, plus they homecourt advantage, huge advantages for them. It'd be hard to see any of these last 4 Eastern teams even make it out of the 1st round in the West. By the time the finals comes, the Western winner might very easily barely have enough guys to compete. Even with Love out, CLE should still advance. The Bulls have issues as does ATL. 46-win WAS might be CLE's main competition, how bad is that?

At Tuesday, May 05, 2015 3:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Good point about the Spurs vis a vis the teams that won repeat championships. Duncan has had great longevity and consistency but his peak value was never quite as high as Jordan, Olajuwon, Shaq, Kobe and LeBron.

At Tuesday, May 05, 2015 3:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I never suggested that the Rockets are worse off when Harden scores 30 or more points. Harden is an All-Star caliber player and, as is the case with most All-Stars, his team does best when he performs well. I never understood or believe the idea that the Lakers were somehow worse off when Kobe asserted himself, particularly during the seasons when he had no help (2005-07).

The dominant players who are good enough to lead a team to a championship right now without necessarily having a tremendous supporting cast are LeBron James, a healthy Kevin Durant and maybe a healthy Russell Westbrook. Anthony Davis may be that good, too, but I would have to see more of him in the playoffs competing against elite teams.

James won two titles when he figured out that he has to assert himself in key games/moments and stop deferring to lesser players. Durant and Westbrook made it to the Finals as young, healthy players but they lost to James and their team has been star-crossed with injuries ever since or they likely would already own at least one ring.

Dwight Howard is dominant enough to carry a team to a title but with him there are always questions about physical health and mental focus.

Stephen Curry has emerged as a franchise player this year.

Blake Griffin has the physical tools and skill set to be a franchise player but I am not convinced that he is all the way there yet.

That is my list.

Duncan was without question a franchise player during his first three title runs. I still thought that he was in 2007 as well, though the media gave the Finals MVP to Parker. Now Duncan is like old (but not decrepit) Kareem--a former franchise player who can play at that level on a given night but not every night.

The Celtics had a perfectly blended trio: Pierce was a big-time clutch scorer, Garnett rebounded and defended, Allen was a long range sharpshooter. The Celtics also had Rondo, who was an All-Star level talent at the time. Harden would not have started for that team, just like he did not start in OKC.

Harden will not be the best player on a championship team unless he becomes a better and more complete player than he is now. If Houston wins a title--and I would be surprised if that would happen--then Howard will play at a dominant level.


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