Second Round Recap/Conference Finals PreviewI correctly predicted the outcome of three of the four second round series. It looked like I would go 4-0 before the L.A. Clippers collapsed against the Houston Rockets in one of the most stunning non-injury related come from ahead losses in NBA history. That series made my brain hurt, because the prediction that I really wanted to make is that neither team would win, even though that is obviously impossible. The funny thing is, it kind of seems like neither team won; the Rockets did not show up for more than half of the series and then the Clippers disappeared in the final three games. The team that stumbled the least backed into the Western Conference Finals, a series that should be quite an eye-opener, but more about that later.
The reason my brain hurt during the Rockets-Clippers series is that I have good reasons to believe that neither team is a legitimate championship contender. Over the years, I have stated that J.J. Redick is not good enough to be a starting shooting guard for a playoff team (let alone a championship contender), I have opined that Chris Paul is too small to be the best player on a championship team and I rejected the notion that James Harden is good enough to be the best player on a championship caliber team. Obviously, when these teams face each other one set of those narratives will be "disproved"--at least until the next round.
After Dwight Howard came to Houston, I wrote, "When healthy, Howard is the best big man in the NBA and a top five player overall. He can turn a mediocre team into a playoff team and a playoff team into a championship contender." In a battle between two teams that I find equally ill-equipped to win a championship, maybe I should have picked Houston based not only on home court advantage--which carried the day to a great extent in game seven after some raggedness in the first six games--but also based on Howard's reemergence. No one seems to be noticing or commenting much about Howard's recent dominance, which is odd considering that for several years prior to his injury issues Howard was widely recognized as an elite player. Howard appears to be healthy now and he has had a major impact for Houston in the playoffs. Everyone understands that Bill Russell was Boston's best player even though he was not the team's leading scorer--which is not for one moment to suggest that Howard is as good as Russell or Houston is as good as Russell's Celtics--but that understanding is lacking regarding Howard and the Rockets.
Howard is the 2015 NBA playoff leader in rebounds (13.8 rpg) and he ranks second in blocked shots (2.5 bpg), trailing only Anthony Davis, whose New Orleans Pelicans made a cameo playoff appearance before being swept. Howard is shooting .588 from the field and even though his free throw percentage is lousy he draws a ton of fouls and thus helps Houston get into the bonus early, which pads James Harden's scoring totals by giving Harden extra free throws every time he flops even in non-shooting situations.
I disagree with the idea that Harden has somehow validated himself based on the Rockets beating the Clippers. Here is a capsule review of what happened in that series. In game one, Harden had nine turnovers as the Rockets squandered home court advantage despite Chris Paul sitting out due to injury. In game two, Harden played well as the Rockets evened the series. In game three, the Clippers blew out the Rockets 124-99 as Harden padded his box score totals (he scored nine of his 25 points in the fourth quarter when Houston never cut the deficit to less than 20 points). In game three, the Clippers routed the Rockets 128-95. This time, Harden padded his numbers in the third quarter, scoring 10 points while the Clippers expanded their lead from 60-54 to 103-79. Harden played very well in game five (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) as the Rockets staved off elimination with a 124-103 win.
Game six was the turning point of the series, as the Clippers returned home with a 3-2 advantage. The Clippers stormed out to a 19 point lead. Harden sat out all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter as the Rockets made one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history. How often has a supposedly MVP level player been benched for the fourth quarter of an elimination game as his team comes from behind to win? I heard someone compare this to game six of the 1992 NBA Finals, when Scottie Pippen and four reserves led a huge Chicago comeback with Michael Jordan on the bench. Give me a break! Jordan returned to the game to finish matters off alongside Pippen (the Bulls won 97-93 to clinch their second consecutive title) and Jordan led both teams with 33 points on 13-24 field goal shooting. Jordan played 43 minutes in that game. In contrast, Harden shot 5-20 from the field and finished with a -21 plus/minus number (every other Houston starter was +10 or better) while playing 30 minutes.
In game seven, Harden scored a game-high 31 points on 7-20 field goal shooting--but three other players (including Howard) had better +/- numbers. I am not a big believer in +/-, particularly in small sample sizes, but it is very telling that Harden's plus/minus numbers in the playoffs consistently indicate that the Rockets are winning despite him and not because of him, regardless of his individual statistics. Harden's plus/minus number through 12 playoff games is -.3. For the entire playoffs, the Rockets have actually been outscored slightly when Harden is in the game. Howard's plus/minus number is 1.3. For comparison purposes, consider the 2015 playoff plus/minus numbers of the leading regular season MVP candidates: Stephen Curry (9.6), LeBron James (6.4), Chris Paul (3.1). Former MVP Derrick Rose had a 6.2 plus/minus number. Anthony Davis posted a -5.0 plus/minus number but that is skewed because his team was severely outmatched and got swept by Curry's Warriors. Plus/minus is not the be all, end all statistic; Draymond Green (12.7) is the 2015 playoff leader and no one thinks that he is the best player in the NBA. However, all of the people who scream and shout that Harden is the best player in the NBA must explain why Houston's playoff run thus far has largely been accomplished despite and not because of Harden.
Why did I say that the Golden State-Houston series will be an eye-opener? Harden ran his mouth weeks ago, declaring that Golden State is not that good and that he deserved the MVP over Curry. Now is put up or shut up time. If Harden is really the best player in the NBA, then he should demand the opportunity to guard Curry. When Cleveland Coach David Blatt drew up an end of game play that did not involve LeBron James shooting the ball, James nixed that idea in a hurry before taking (and making) the game-winner. It is one thing to flap your gums during the regular season and talk about how good you are; now is Harden's chance to put his money where his mouth is. Also, if Harden is really the best player in the NBA, then he should be in the game when the outcome is decided and he should be the primary player deciding that outcome.
Golden State swept Houston 4-0 during the regular season and Curry outperformed Harden individually in those games. As ABC's Doug Collins pointed out, regular season head to head records do not always foreshadow playoff results; teams have more rest and can make more adjustments during the playoffs. It also must be noted that Howard missed two of those games. Maybe an energized Howard will make a big difference, but I think that Curry will turn this series into a personal showcase and the Warriors will advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1975. I am tempted to say Warriors in five but I will go with Warriors in six.
Meanwhile, LeBron James reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the fifth straight season, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA's Final Four after taking Miami there each of the past four years. Even with Kevin Love sidelined by a season-ending shoulder injury and Kyrie Irving hobbling, James received a lot of help from his teammates. James had a an epic performance in game five versus Chicago (38 points on 14-24 field goal shooting, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocked shots and no turnovers in 41 minutes) but he is shooting just .424 from the field during the playoffs.
James is the best all-around player in the NBA but he has only been at his best sporadically during this postseason. That will not be enough against a deep, balanced Atlanta team that sent four players to the All-Star Game and won a franchise-record 60 games. The Cavaliers need for James to be a big-time scorer while also accepting the challenge on defense. James cannot hide behind the "I am a pass-first player" mythology in this series. Yes, James is an excellent passer and his passing opens up opportunities for his teammates but James' teams have always been built around his scoring prowess; it is not fair to his teammates for him to suddenly decide not to shoot or to settle for outside shots instead of driving into the paint. If James becomes passive then he throws his own team out of rhythm; we have seen James do this on the biggest stage several times (2007 NBA Finals, 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals, 2011 NBA Finals, 2014 NBA Finals) and if he does it versus Atlanta then the Cavaliers have no chance.
James' erratic shooting and questionable shot selection during the 2015 playoffs are cause for concern but I think that James very much wants to win a championship in his first year back in Cleveland. James left unfinished business behind when he went to Miami and he is eight wins away from ending Cleveland's long championship drought. If he cannot focus and bring his best game now, he may never finish that business; a crop of new, young stars is emerging and James is already showing signs of physical decline even though he can still perform at a very high level.
The Hawks peaked early during the regular season and seem to have been coasting ever since. They have not been overly impressive during the playoffs but the disrespect card will undoubtedly motivate them in this series. They feel like they have been overlooked and they know that many people are picking Cleveland. The Hawks own home court advantage and that could matter if the series goes seven games (just ask the Clippers).
Throughout NBA history, we have often seen matchups of the best player surrounded by a good supporting cast facing an ensemble of really good players. On the surface, it would seem like a group of really good players should be able to nullify the best player but most of the time the team with the best player wins, though James has been on the wrong end of that a few times. I expect that James will have his best series of 2015 and the Cavaliers will win in six games.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:11 PM