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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Golden State Versus Portland Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 Golden State (73-9) vs. #5 Portland (44-38)

Season series: Golden State, 3-1

Portland can win if…Damian Lillard is the best player in the series and the Trail Blazers accentuate their strengths (rebounding and three point shooting) while limiting their turnovers, particularly open court turnovers that could fuel Golden State's fast break. Lillard led Portland with 22.0 ppg in a 4-2 first round victory over the L.A. Clippers but he shot just .374 from the field, which will not be nearly good enough against Golden State.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors will overwhelm the Trail Blazers with precision passing, tough defense and deadly shooting. In the wake of Stephen Curry's multiple injuries, Klay Thompson led the Warriors with a 23.4 ppg scoring average and 19 three pointers made in a 4-1 first round win over the Houston Rockets, while Draymond Green showcased his all-around skills (13.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 6.6 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.4 bpg).

Other things to consider: Injuries have been the headline story of the 2016 postseason thus far, most notably the MCL sprain that has sidelined 2015 regular season MVP (and the presumptive 2016 regular season MVP) Curry for at least two weeks. Portland advanced to the second round mainly because the L.A. Clippers' Chris Paul and Blake Griffin suffered injuries that forced them to miss the final two games of the Trail Blazers' first round series win.

Golden State destroyed Houston even though Curry appeared in just two games for a total of only 38 minutes. The Rockets' run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals was obviously a fluke and this talented but dysfunctional squad showed its true colors by barely making the playoffs this season before quitting against the Warriors even after Curry had been definitively ruled out of action for the rest of the series.

This season and this series placed James Harden's shortcomings on full display: he exerts no effort on defense, his leadership style alienates his teammates and his selfish/self-centered style of offensive play generates a lot of attention and statistics for himself but will not win a championship. "Stat gurus" may still love Harden but anyone who watches basketball with understanding cringes at Harden's antics. As Shaquille O'Neal pointed out, Harden dribbles too much without going anywhere. O'Neal stated flatly that he could not play with Harden. Lisa Leslie commented that if she played with a guard like Harden she would get 50 five second violations or start blocking that teammate's shot instead of running up and down the court without ever getting the ball. Charles Barkley noted that Harden's overdribbling takes all of his teammates out of rhythm.

Harden is not 2006 Kobe Bryant playing alongside Kwame Brown and Smush Parker. Harden has veteran teammates who won championships or at least made it to the Finals without him, including Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry. Yes, Harden led the Rockets in assists but accumulating assists does not necessarily mean that a player is a good passer or a good teammate; just ask Stephon Marbury (or, more precisely, anyone who played with him).

Harden does not involve Howard in the offense. Isiah Thomas suggested that Howard is a poor fit for the Rockets' preferred style of play. That is true but it should also be pointed out that the Rockets' preferred style is not a championship-winning style, because it emphasizes offense over defense and it showcases Harden, not the team. It is almost like Houston General Manager Daryl Morey wants Harden to put up big numbers to prove that Harden is in fact a "foundational player" as Morey once insisted, even if this never results in winning a title.

After the Rockets were eliminated, Harden spoke about the need to upgrade Houston's roster. Again, he is not 2006 Kobe Bryant playing alongside starters who would soon be out of the league for good; Harden needs to stop blaming his teammates and instead upgrade his play and change his approach or he will continue to string together first round losses.

What does this have to do with Golden State versus Portland? Harden and Houston are so bad that it is difficult to determine just how much the Warriors will miss Curry when facing a cohesive team that will actually play hard at both ends of the court. My theory is that without Curry the Warriors drop from being historically great (73 wins) to being a "regular" championship contender (equivalent to approximately 55 wins).

I think that translates into at least two Portland wins in this series (and significant problems in the Western Conference Finals if Curry does not return at reasonably close to full health, but that is something to be addressed in a future article).

All four of the regular season games between these teams were decided by at least 16 points: Golden State blew out Portland by 20, 16 and 35, while Portland beat Golden State 137-105 on February 19 as Lillard erupted for a career-high 51 points in just 31 minutes while shooting 18-28 from the field (including 9-12 from three point range).

With Curry absent and Lillard unlikely to drop 51 points in a playoff game, those four regular season contests probably bear little resemblance to what we will see in this series. In order to eliminate Golden State, Portland needs to win one of the first two games on the road, because (1) winning four out of five against Golden State is unlikely and (2) early adversity in this series could place a lot of pressure on the Warriors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:30 PM

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Cleveland Versus Atlanta Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Cleveland (57-25) vs. #4 Atlanta (48-34)

Season series: Cleveland, 3-0

Atlanta can win if…Jeff Teague neutralizes Kyrie Irving, the Hawks prevent the Cavaliers from dominating the boards and LeBron James is slowed down by defense by committee (and/or the mysterious malaise that can inexplicably afflict him at any time after the first round of the playoffs). The Hawks are a somewhat puzzling team. They were not as dominant in the 2015-16 regular season as they were in they were in the 2014-15 regular season and they do not have a superstar player but they have a lot of really good players, including current or former All-Stars Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. Horford struggled in the first round versus Boston, Korver is a great shooter but is not good at creating his own shot, Teague seems to be the team's most important player yet Atlanta advanced despite his .395 field goal shooting versus Boston and Millsap had a bizarre series with four points in one game and then 45 points two games later. All of those players are going to have to be better and more consistent for the Hawks to have a chance against Cleveland.

Cleveland will win because…LeBron James rarely loses playoff series against outmatched teams. The Cavaliers have matchup advantages across the board in this series except for coaching and the center position. Mike "Gregg Popovich, Jr." Budenholzer will coach rings around Tyronn Lue, but the Cavaliers are still better off in that regard now than they were in this round last year when then-assistant coach Lue stopped then-Cleveland Coach David Blatt from calling a timeout that the Cavaliers did not have, which could have resulted in a disastrous technical foul.

Horford should have an advantage against whoever Cleveland plays at center. If any of the games are close enough for strategy and matchup decisions to matter, Budenholzer is going to have the advantage over Lue.

The big questions, as always with the Cavaliers, revolve around James. How will Atlanta guard him and how aggressive will James be? If the Hawks can get away with single coverage on James because James settles for long jumpers, then the Hawks have a chance provided that the quartet of players mentioned above are efficient offensively. If James plays up to his capabilities, the Hawks are obviously in trouble.

Irving was sensational in the first round as Cleveland swept Detroit. He led Cleveland in scoring (27.5 ppg), he shot .471 from the field and he only committed six turnovers.

Kevin Love ranked third on the Cavaliers in scoring versus Detroit (18.8 ppg) and he led the team in rebounding (12.0 rpg) but he shot just .410 from the field and his defense is always questionable.

Other things to consider: Many--if not all--of the teams that had any realistic chance to be competitive against the Cavaliers in a seven game series may be out of the picture soon. Injuries took out the L.A. Clippers and could potentially take out the Golden State Warriors, while the Spurs-Thunder series will eliminate a legit championship contender that is better than any team Cleveland will prior to the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are snacking on light Eastern Conference fare. TNT's Charles Barkley mentioned the possibility that Cleveland will not lose a game before the start of the NBA Finals. While that seems unlikely (Cleveland will lose at least one road game in this round and/or the Eastern Conference Finals), Cleveland obviously has a very favorable return path to the NBA Finals.

Timofey Mozgov, a key contributor to Cleveland's playoff run last year, has completely disappeared from Lue's rotation, playing just 14 minutes versus Detroit and not appearing at all in two of the four games. Tristan Thompson, who took over Mozgov's starting center role, averaged 3.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg against Detroit, hurting James' chances of winning Executive of the Year; all sarcasm aside, this is the coaching staff and roster that James handpicked, so the self-proclaimed "Best Player on the Planet" has no valid excuses or complaints if the Cavaliers do not win the championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 PM

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

San Antonio Versus Oklahoma City Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 San Antonio (67-15) vs. #3 Oklahoma City (55-27)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Oklahoma City can win if…Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant play at an All-NBA First Team level and the Thunder reverse their season-long pattern of collapsing in the fourth quarter.

Westbrook has clearly been the MVP of the first round, posting playoff career-highs in several categories (26.0 ppg, 11.2 apg, 7.8 rpg, .463 FG%) while leading all players in assists and ranking fourth in scoring. During the regular season, Westbrook ranked second in the league in assists (10.4 apg), fifth in steals (2.0 spg) and eighth in scoring (23.5 ppg). Stephen Curry is the only other player who ranked in the top 10 in all three categories. Westbrook posted 18 triple doubles, the most by any player in one season since Magic Johnson had 18 triple doubles in 1981-82. The Thunder went 18-0 when Westbrook had a triple double. Westbrook notched the second fastest triple double in NBA history (18 minutes) and he reached triple double numbers in less than 30 minutes on five different occasions. Westbrook is the engine that makes the Thunder go and a good case could be made that he is the best all-around player in the NBA. Perhaps the greatest thing about Westbrook is the tremendously high energy with which he consistently plays.

Durant has bounced back from his injury-hit 2014-15 campaign to regain his status as one of the NBA's elite players. He tied Westbrook for team-high honors with a 26.0 ppg average during the Thunder's 4-1 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in the first round but Durant shot just .368 from the field in that series. Durant ranked third in the NBA in scoring during the regular season (28.2 ppg, his third highest average in a nine year career during which he has won four scoring titles) while shooting .505 from the field and averaging a career-high 8.2 rpg.

San Antonio will win because…the Spurs are an efficient team that minimizes errors and mental mistakes. Every possession matters in the playoffs and the Spurs figure to waste fewer possessions than the Thunder. The Spurs are smarter, more efficient and better coached than the Thunder. Oklahoma City's advantages--besides the force of nature that is Russell Westbrook--are youth, explosiveness and size. This series will likely depend on fourth quarter execution, a strong suit for the Spurs and the weak link for the Thunder.

The Spurs' system does not encourage or permit any one player to put up huge individual numbers but Kawhi Leonard is absolutely an elite player even though his statistics do not jump off of the stat sheet. LaMarcus Aldridge is a top notch power forward even though his first round numbers (14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg) are nothing special.

Tim Duncan is in the old-David Robinsion phase of his career; he rebounds, he defends and he is a presence in the paint but he is a limited player who can only be counted on for limited minutes. If he played for any team other than San Antonio he likely would have retired several years ago but instead he has gracefully accepted the reduction in his role and status much like Robinson gracefully accepted a reduction in his role and status when Duncan first joined the team.

Other things to consider: Stephen Curry's status is up in the air and LeBron James is far from a sure thing in the NBA Finals, so this series could very well turn out to be the de facto 2016 championship series.

The Spurs efficiently swept the undermanned Memphis Grizzlies, but it is puzzling that media members placed so much emphasis on Memphis' injuries when the Grizzlies have actually not been serious playoff contenders for a while due to their inability to consistently generate enough offense--and that has been true regardless of what lineup they use. The Grizzlies made it to the Western Conference Finals in Coach Lionel Hollins' last year with the team (2013) but have been first round fodder in two of the three subsequent seasons. Even at full strength, the Grizzlies would have finished no higher than fifth in the West standings this season and likely would have lost in the first round of the playoffs. It is unfortunate that several of their key players suffered injuries but it is silly to act like these injuries actually changed the balance of power in the league.

Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban has been successful overall during his tenure in the NBA but he has also said and done some stupid things. His assertion that Westbrook is not a superstar may have been intended as some kind of gamesmanship as opposed to being an objective player evaluation but it is still an idiotic statement--and the "reasoning" behind that statement (that if Westbrook were a superstar then he would have led the Thunder to the playoffs last season) is ridiculous: in 2014-15, the Thunder won the same number of games as the eighth seeded New Orleans Pelicans but the Pelicans had the better tiebreaks--and the Thunder went just 5-10 in the 15 games that Westbrook missed, which strongly suggests that Westbrook is a superstar who almost single-handedly carried the Thunder to the playoffs.

Perhaps Cuban is trying to deflect attention away from his own team, which has now lost in the first round of the playoffs in four of the past five seasons and in seven of the past 10 seasons. Cuban supposedly used analytics to conclude that the best choice was to break up his 2011 championship team but the idea that you can make your team better by making your team worse is silly; just ask the Philadelphia 76ers, who have turned losing into an art form without making any tangible progress toward building a good team.

It is interesting that Cuban gets a pass from the media while the Thunder are often blasted for supposedly making a huge mistake by not retaining the services of James Harden. Harden was never going to be more than a third option in Oklahoma City and in his final year with the Thunder he performed terribly in the NBA Finals while also making it clear that he wanted to have an expanded role and would sulk if he did not get it. Since Harden arrived in Houston, the Rockets have repeatedly lost in the first round (other than one fluky Conference Finals run that will not likely be duplicated during his time with the team), while the Thunder have remained a championship contender when Durant and Westbrook have been healthy. The Thunder are the only team in the NBA that has advanced to at least the conference semifinals in five of the past six years and that run includes three trips to the Western Conference Finals. It is good for Daryl Morey that he loves Harden so much, because he is likely stuck with him for many years to come; I doubt that any team that has a legit All-NBA First Team player would trade that player straight up for Harden. The Thunder would most assuredly not be better off if Harden were on their roster and sulking about Westbrook being the focal point of the team's attack.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM

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