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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Houston Versus Utah Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 Houston (65-17) vs. #5 Utah (48-34)

Season series: Houston, 4-0

Utah can win if…the Jazz contain Houston's three point attack, force the Rockets to drive into the paint and then rely on Rudy Gobert to protect the rim. Donovan Mitchell scored 171 points in his first six playoff games as a rookie, a total exceeded by only Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mitchell averaged a team-high 28.5 ppg in Utah's six game series versus Oklahoma City and he made 10 field goals in a row down the stretch of game six to hold off the Thunder. He is a special player who has a diverse offensive skill set plus the right mentality.

Gobert is a great presence in the paint. He averaged 14.0 ppg on .612 field goal shooting versus the Thunder, while also posting 11.2 rpg and 2.0 bpg.

Point guard Ricky Rubio, who was not able to finish game six due to a hamstring injury, is the catalyst for Utah's offense, a good rebounder and a stout defender. His healthy return is critical if the Jazz are going to have any chance to pull off the upset.

Joe Ingles' regular season numbers do not stand out (11.5 ppg, 4.8 apg) but he gave the Thunder fits with his driving, his clever passing and his three point shooting.

The Jazz are not an ordinary fifth seed. They went 29-6 to close out the regular season and they actually had the same win total as the Thunder (48), so they are not a team that Houston should take lightly.

Houston will win because…the Rockets just have too much offensive firepower for the Jazz to contain. Daryl Morey's dream of constructing a team that shoots almost nothing but three pointers, dunks/layups and free throws has come true under the coaching of Mike D'Antoni. The Rockets made 75 three pointers in their five game first round victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who connected 45 times from beyond the arc and could not generate enough offense elsewhere to make up the difference.

James Harden led the way with series-high averages in scoring (29.0 ppg) and assists (7.4 apg). As always, he is a high variance player: he had 44 points on 15-26 field goal shooting in a game one win and then he only scored 12 points on 2-18 field goal shooting as his teammates carried the Rockets to a game two victory. Until I see it happen, I will remain skeptical that a player who is that inconsistent--no matter how well he can play at his best--will lead a team to a championship, but Harden is 12 wins away from proving me wrong.

Chris Paul averaged 19.0 ppg, 6.6 apg and 4.0 rpg against Minnesota. He is a deadly midrange shooter, a crafty driver, a clever passer and a bulldog defensive player. He tends to wear down as the playoffs progress, so that will be something to watch, but his defensive mindset has helped the Rockets significantly and elevated them to the top of the league thus far.

Clint Capela (15.0 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 2.0 bpg versus Minnesota) is the perfect big man for D'Antoni's system: he sets great screens, he rolls hard to the basket, he rebounds, he defends and he does not clog the middle on offense, thus leaving room for Harden and Paul to do their thing.

Eric Gordon did not shoot well during the first round (.344 FG%) but his scoring off of the bench and underrated defense are an important part of Houston's success.

Other things to consider: The Jazz have performed much better than expected after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency and they appear to be a team to watch in the future. Mitchell is performing at an All-NBA level, Gobert's defense is a major factor and Ingles has emerged as a quality secondary playmaker, finishing second on the team in scoring (14.2 ppg) and second on the team in assists (3.2 apg) in the first round. Rubio is a poor shooter (.354 FG% in the first round) but he played a significant role in Utah's victory (14.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, team-high 7.0 apg) and if he can make a healthy return then Utah may have a puncher's chance at upsetting Houston.

On paper, the Rockets should win the championship. They posted the league's best regular season record by a country mile, they are healthy, they have a backcourt consisting of the presumptive regular season MVP and a future first ballot Hall of Famer and they have a deep cast of good players who understand/accept their roles. The elephant in the room is that Harden, Paul and D'Antoni all have a history of underperforming in the playoffs.

I am picking Houston because that is the most logical choice but I will never be surprised if a Harden/Paul/D'Antoni team loses in the second round of the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:44 AM


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Golden State Versus New Orleans Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 Golden State (58-24) vs. #6 New Orleans (47-35)

Season series: Golden State, 3-1

New Orleans can win if…Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday continue to play at an elite level offensively and if the Pelicans can slow down the Warriors' high octane offense.

The sixth seeded Pelicans only won two fewer games than the third seeded Portland Trailblazers, so perhaps it is not shocking that New Orleans won that first round series--but it is shocking that the Pelicans swept the Trailblazers with an average margin of victory of nine points.

I picked Portland to win that series in six games, so the gap between what I predicted and what actually happened is probably as large as it has ever been in a series not impacted by injuries to significant players.

What happened and why was I so wrong? While New Orleans' average margin of victory was lopsided, the series was close in many ways; the teams had the same number of rebounds (174) and steals (33) and Portland only had four more turnovers (58-54). Three areas that jump out are field goal percentage (.521 to .453 in New Orleans' favor), free throws made/attempted (68/87 to 49/63 in New Orleans' favor) and blocked shots (26 to 15 in New Orleans' favor). New Orleans feasted on high percentage shots and drew a lot of shooting fouls (Portland only committed four more fouls than New Orleans despite the large disparity in free throws made and free throws attempted), while Portland had great difficulty creating or making good shots.

Anthony Davis led the way for New Orleans in scoring (33.0 ppg), rebounds (12.0 rpg) and blocked shots (2.8 bpg). He also shot .570 from the field and tied for the team lead with 1.8 spg. Often, the biggest concern for a higher seeded team is that the lower seeded team has that one superstar player who will not be denied and that is a big part of why New Orleans prevailed.

However, Davis had a lot of help. Jrue Holiday averaged 27.8 ppg and 6.5 apg while shooting .568 from the field. Holiday never remotely approached those numbers in his three previous playoff appearances and those numbers easily exceed his career-high averages (19.0 ppg, .494 FG%) in 81 games during the 2017-18 regular season.

The often-maligned Rajon Rondo showed that "Playoff Rondo" is not just an urban legend, as he averaged 11.3 ppg, a series-high 13.3 apg and 7.5 rpg. Rondo may not be a great shooter and he may have a difficult personality at times but there is no denying his high basketball IQ or how hard he competes.

Meanwhile, Portland's backcourt featuring three-time All-Star Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum came up short. Lillard struggled mightily, averaging just 18.5 ppg on .352 field goal shooting while committing a series-high 16 turnovers. McCollum played well (25.3 ppg, .519 FG%) but did not keep pace with the less-heralded Holiday.

Al-Farouq Aminu had a solid series for Portland (17.3 ppg, team-high 9.0 rpg) but no one had an answer for Davis and no one picked up the slack for the slumping Lillard.

Of course, it is one thing to shut down Lillard and quite another thing to deal with the multiple high caliber offensive weapons that Golden State brings into battle.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors have many more defensive answers than Portland did in the first round and the Warriors' offensive attack is too potent for the Pelicans to contain.

The Warriors took out the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs 4-1, despite not having the services of Stephen Curry, the 2015 and 2016 regular season MVP who has been out of action since suffering a grade two MCL strain in his left knee on March 23. It is not clear when Curry will return to action, though it is reasonable to assume that he will be available for at least limited duty at some point during this series.

The Warriors have an embarrassment of riches. Veteran Andre Iguodala, the former All-Star and 2015 NBA Finals MVP, replaced Curry in the starting lineup versus the Spurs; as is often the case with Iguodala, his individual numbers do not jump off of the page but he made winning plays as the quintessential "glue guy."

Kevin Durant's numbers almost always jump off the page and the first round was no exception: team-high 28.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5.2 apg, .480 FG%, .946 FT%. Klay Thompson scored 22.6 ppg while shooting .529 from the field and a team-high .516 from three point range. Draymond Green flirted with a triple double average (11.4 ppg, plus a series-high 11.2 rpg and a series-high 8.0 apg), while the Warriors received excellent contributions off the bench from Shaun Livingston and JaVale McGee.

The Warriors' offense--with or without Curry--will pose a significantly greater challenge for New Orleans than Portland's limited attack but the real key to this series (and Golden State's sustained run of success) will be the Warriors' defense. Davis is a great player who can put up numbers against just about any defense but it is doubtful that he will maintain both his scoring average and his field goal percentage from the previous series. If necessary, Thompson will guard Holiday and not let him run wild.

I have seen/heard some suggestions that the Pelicans could pose a real threat to the Warriors but I expect the Warriors to win in five games.

Other things to consider: The Warriors may be the most "under the radar" dynasty in NBA history. Last season, they capped off the best three year regular season run in pro basketball history, with 207 wins during that time span. The Warriors also won two titles and have an excellent chance to become the first team to take three NBA titles in a four year span since the L.A. Lakers "three-peated" from 2000-2002.

In my Golden State-Utah preview during last year's playoffs, I compared the Warriors to several of the NBA's previous dynasties. I ranked Russell's Celtics, the '67 Sixers, the '72 Lakers, the '82 Lakers, the '83 Sixers, the Bulls' "three-peat" teams and the Shaq-Kobe Lakers over the Warriors, while also stating that the '84-'86 Celtics and '87-'89 Lakers "could match the Warriors star for star."

For single season dominance--particularly during their playoff runs--I would still take the '67 Lakers, '72 Lakers, '82 Lakers and '83 Sixers over any edition of the Warriors. If the Warriors win a third title, they clearly move into a different category from teams that won one title--no matter how dominant they were during that one season--and deserve to be compared in depth with the squads that sustained championship excellence for several years. I am still not convinced that I would take the Warriors over Russell's Celtics, the Jordan-Pippen Bulls or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers--but a third championship enables the Warriors to at least legitimately enter those conversations.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:02 AM