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Monday, April 30, 2018

Toronto Versus Cleveland Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Toronto (59-23) vs. #4 Cleveland (50-32)

Season series: Cleveland, 2-1

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James has another superhuman playoff series (along the lines of 30-10-8 while shooting better than .500 from the field), Cleveland's supporting cast provides at least minimal support on offense and the Cavaliers reverse their-season long pattern of being horrible on defense.

The Cavaliers needed one of the best playoff series of LeBron James' career to sneak by the Indiana Pacers--a gutsy and gritty team but not a championship-contender. James averaged 34.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 7.7 apg (leading both teams in all three categories) while shooting .553 from the field in 41.2 mpg. He saved his best for last, scoring 45 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing seven assists as the Cavaliers won game seven, 105-101. That was James' third 40 point game of the series and just two points short of tying the highest scoring game seven performance ever (a mark shared by Sam Jones and Dominique Wilkins).

In game seven, James operated out of the post on many possessions and he proved to be almost unstoppable, either scoring at will or dishing to wide open teammates if the defense collapsed on him. James does not like playing in the post and it took him years to (1) learn the proper footwork and (2) be willing to play in the post but--as ABC's Jeff Van Gundy aptly put it during the game seven telecast--James may not like playing in the post but he likes winning and that is his team's best chance to win.

As great as James has been during his career, it is fair to wonder how much more he might have done had he been willing to play this way all along. Not that he could have averaged 45 ppg or anything like that, but consistently playing in the post with his size, scoring ability and passing vision/touch would have made James even greater than he has been.

In any case, it was a joy to watch how James performed in game seven. While basketball is a team sport, it is also a sport that allows great individual players to showcase their skills and even to sometimes triumph over a better all-around team. From players 2-15, the Pacers are probably better than the Cavaliers--but player 1 for Cleveland decided that he was not going to let his team lose.

James was not only active as a scorer, rebounder and passer but he was engaged defensively as well, something that had not been true for much of this season. James had four steals, passing Scottie Pippen to become the NBA's all-time playoff career steals leader. James now has 399 steals in 224 playoff games, while Pippen finished with 395 steals in 208 playoff games.

James' supporting cast had been missing in action for much of the series--Cleveland's only other double figure scorer was Kevin Love, who averaged 11.4 ppg on .338 field goal shooting--but they showed up in game seven. Coach Tyronn Lue put Tristan Thompson in the starting lineup after barely using Thompson in the first six games and Thompson responded well, producing 15 points, 10 rebounds and solid defense. Love chipped in 14 points and six rebounds, though he still shot poorly (5-13 from the field). J.R. Smith and George Hill--who missed three games versus Indiana due to back spasms--each scored 11 points.

Cleveland's main problem--which has not been fixed despite trades and lineup changes--is on defense. During the regular season, the Cavaliers ranked 26th in points allowed (109.9 ppg) and 28th in defensive field goal percentage (.474). Those numbers usually belong to teams in the Draft Lottery, not to teams that supposedly harbor legitimate championship aspirations.

Maybe the Cavaliers will figure things out at the last possible moment and go on a deep playoff run but that seems highly unlikely.
Toronto will win because…the Raptors are a deep, well-balanced and well-coached team that is well-equipped to exploit Cleveland's weaknesses.

When the season began, it was reasonable to assume that either Cleveland or Boston would win the East. Boston took the early lead in the conference even after losing Gordon Hayward for the season in game one, while Cleveland struggled out of the gate and never consistently looked like a title contender. Toronto started solidly but it was not until a late season 11 game winning streak that it became clear that not only would the Raptors finish with the East's best regular season record but they were a legitimate threat to represent the East in the NBA Finals.

The Raptors are strong at both ends of the court, ranking fourth in regular season scoring (111.7 ppg), seventh in field goal percentage (.472), sixth in points allowed (103.9 ppg) and fifth in defensive field goal percentage (.449).

DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors in scoring during the regular season (23.0 ppg) and he led the Raptors with a 26.7 ppg average in the first round of the playoffs as Toronto defeated Washington. He is the master of the now rarely-seen midrange game but he has also added the three point shot to his repertoire.

Kyle Lowry is the engine who makes the offense go (16.2 ppg and 6.9 apg in the regular season; 17.2 ppg and 8.3 apg in the first round of the playoffs).

Toronto's All-Star backcourt is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including center Jonas Valanciunas (13.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg versus Washington) and power forward Serge Ibaka; the Raptors closed last season on a 16-7 run after acquiring Ibaka and they earned the top seed in the East during his first full year with the team, so he has definitely had an impact in the standings even if his individual numbers are not always spectacular.

Other things to consider: Just looking at this series on paper, the Raptors would be an easy choice. There are only two reasons to remotely consider not picking Toronto: (1) The Raptors have never beaten the Cavaliers in the playoffs, so the moment/stage might be too big for them; (2) LeBron James has the ability to tilt a playoff series with his individual dominance. The Raptors answered the call in the first round, winning the first two games at home versus Washington to take a 2-0 lead--a significant accomplishment for a franchise that has historically struggled at home in game one of the playoffs. The Wizards won their next two home games but the Raptors closed out the series in six games with a pair of 10 point wins. This edition of the Raptors has not evidenced the playoff jitters that we have seen with previous Toronto teams, so the Raptors should be judged based on what they are doing now, not what they have done in the past.

Of course, in basketball the team with the best individual player usually has at least a puncher's chance. If James reels off several 40 point games while also playing lockdown defense, then the Raptors may have to devote so much attention to him that James' supporting cast will show some life. However, we have seen this Cleveland team for 82 regular season games plus seven playoff games (albeit in a few different iterations, but the team's performance level has been about the same); the Cavaliers are inattentive defensively and typically cannot score enough points against the good teams to make up for their defensive lapses. It is difficult to picture this version of the Cavaliers finding the wherewithal to beat the Raptors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:45 AM


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Boston Versus Philadelphia Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Boston (55-27) vs. #3 Philadelphia (52-30)

Season series: Boston, 3-1

Philadelphia can win if…the 76ers stick to the foundations that have taken them this far: outstanding team defense and rebounding, tremendous passing as a unit and then the individual brilliance of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who returned to the lineup for the final three games of the first round after being out due to an orbital fracture.

During the regular season, the 76ers ranked first in defensive field goal percentage (.434), first in rebounding (47.4 rpg) and second in assists (27.1 apg). They displayed toughness, physicality and unselfishness. The team improved throughout the season and survived the 18 regular season games missed by Embiid, who led the 76ers in scoring (22.9 ppg), rebounding (11.0 rpg) and blocked shots (1.8 bpg) despite playing just 30.3 mpg.

Ben Simmons, who likely will win the Rookie of the Year award, averaged 15.8 ppg, 8.2 apg and 8.1 rpg during the regular season. He is a throwback player who shoots a high percentage from the field (.545) while only attempting just 11 three pointers (none made) during the entire season. His rookie numbers are eerily similar to Magic Johnson's (18.0 ppg, 7.3 apg, 7.7 rpg, .530 FG%, 7-31 three point shooting)--but what made Magic special is that he led the Lakers to the championship that season and then led the Lakers to four more titles in the 1980s. Simmons averaged 18.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg and 9.0 apg while shooting .500 from the field as Philadelphia took care of Miami in five games in the first round.

J.J. Redick averaged a career-high 17.1 ppg during the regular season and he led the 76ers with 20.0 ppg in the first round of the playoffs. The defensive attention commanded by Simmons and Embiid obviously helps Redick a lot.

Marco Belineli, Dario Saric, Ersan Ilyasova and Robert Covington are all making excellent contributions.

Boston will win because…the Celtics are an outstanding defensive team that is better than the sum of its parts.

Al Horford led the Celtics in scoring (18.7 ppg) and rebounding (8.7 rpg) as Boston defeated Milwaukee in seven games. Jaylen Brown (17.9 ppg) and Terry Rozier (17.6 ppg) were Boston's next two leading scorers.

This may not be a "name-brand" roster but the Celtics can play. During the regular season they ranked second in defensive field goal percentage (.440), first in defensive three point field goal percentage (.339) and third in points allowed (100.4 ppg).

The Celtics are smart, tough and unselfish. They have consistently found ways to win even with their star players sidelined. During the first round, they held serve on their home court and almost won game four in Milwaukee before routing the Bucks 112-96 in Boston in game seven. It will not be easy for the 76ers to take a game in Boston during this series--and if the 76ers do, the Celtics could very well take one in Philadelphia to reclaim home court advantage.

Other things to consider: Both of these teams have had surprisingly good seasons. Few would have expected Boston to do so well after losing Gordon Hayward for the season due to an injury suffered in the opening moments of the first regular season game and even fewer would have expected Boston to make much noise after losing Kyrie Irving to injury prior to the playoffs. After firing Sam Hinkie in 2016, the 76ers finally stopped their seemingly endless tanking and emerged in the second half of this season as a legitimate playoff team. It is important to understand that the so-called "Process" did not make the 76ers good; firing Hinkie and replacing him with a real basketball executive (two-time NBA Executive of the Year award winner Bryan Colangelo) is what turned the 76ers around.

The 76ers closed the regular season with a franchise-record 16 game winning streak and they blitzed an overmatched Miami squad in the first round but dealing with Boston will be a different matter. Philadelphia may actually be more talented on paper but Boston's collective productivity--and having game seven at home, if necessary--will make the difference in what should be a competitive and exciting series that will probably go the full seven games.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the historical note that this is one of the NBA's greatest rivalries. The Celtics and 76ers battled against each other in the 1960s--led by Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain respectively (they also squared off earlier in the decade when Chamberlain played for the Philadelphia Warriors before the franchise moved to California)--and they faced off in a seven game series in 1977 (led by John Havlicek and Julius Erving respectively) before Julius Erving and Larry Bird competed against each other in four Eastern Conference Finals during the 1980s.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:03 AM