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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Golden State Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Finals

# 2 Golden State (58-24) vs. #1 Houston (65-17)

Season series: Houston, 2-1

Houston can win if…Chris Paul picks up the slack when James Harden drops off (assuming that Paul does not wear down, as he often does during the postseason), if Clint Capela dominates the paint as he did during the first two rounds and if Houston's deep roster continues to play well collectively (even if individual players struggle in one game or another).

James Harden is the presumptive 2017-18 NBA regular season MVP. He deserved a lot of credit for Houston's league-leading 65-17 record and he is receiving a lot of credit for Houston's playoff run to this point but the funny thing is that he is not performing at a higher level than he did in previous years when the Rockets flamed out during the postseason; the difference is that now Harden has a better supporting cast, headlined by Paul (who at times--particularly during the playoffs--looks like the team's best player and not Robin to Harden's Batman).

During the first two rounds of the 2018 playoffs, Harden averaged 28.5 ppg while shooting .407 from the field. In Harden's five previous playoff appearances with the Rockets (during only one of which the Rockets reached the Western Conference Finals), Harden averaged between 26.3 ppg and 28.5 ppg while shooting between .376 and .439 from the field. He has always been a high variance player, capable of dropping 40-plus points one night and then disappearing the next night, which is why his averages are deceiving--a player who consistently scores at least 20 points but is capable of erupting for 40 is more valuable than a player who averages 26-28 ppg by scoring 45 points one game and seven points the next.

Harden's playoff numbers for rebounds and assists have also not changed significantly over the past several years; to his credit, he has shaved his turnovers to 3.1 tpg--which would be his best postseason mark as a Rocket--but that clearly has a lot to do with Paul taking over a significant percentage of the ballhandling and playmaking duties.

Harden has a history of disappearing at key moments. Hall of Famer and six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen recently described how he would guard Harden and after making several strategic points Pippen concluded with the most important thing to know about defending Harden: if you take Harden out of his comfort zone, he'll quit. We have seen that happen in almost every playoff run of Harden's career. So far, the Rockets have not faced sufficient resistance to take Harden out of his comfort zone but that figures to change during this series.

Meanwhile, Paul has been the steadiest Rocket during the playoffs and he was sensational during the game five series clincher versus Utah, erupting for 41 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and no turnovers while shooting 13-22 from the field, including 8-10 from three point range (Harden shot 7-22 from the field and scored 18 points). Paul is scoring 21.8 ppg during the playoffs while shooting .485 from the field, .377 from three point range and .879 on free throws. He is averaging 6.4 apg and just 1.9 tpg while also ranking second on the team in rebounding (5.5 rpg). Paul is an undersized but very talented and feisty two-way player. His competitiveness and defensive intensity have had a tangible effect on the Rockets, who were severely lacking in both areas prior to this season. I did not think that Harden and Paul would have good chemistry based on their divergent personalities and skill sets but--to this point--they have proven me wrong.

Clint Capela has emerged as an All-Star caliber big man and he has played a major role in Houston's success. He is averaging 14.4 ppg on .634 field goal shooting during the playoffs while leading the Rockets in rebounding (12.2 rpg) and blocked shots (2.8 bpg). Capela outplayed Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round and he outplayed Utah's Rudy Gobert in the second round.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon have not shot well during the playoffs but both players have not only had some good moments offensively but they have also performed well defensively. Those two plus P.J. Tucker provide some much needed toughness, particularly since the Rockets tend to play small lineups that require their wings and guards to match up with bigger players.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are at full strength with Stephen Curry back in the lineup and because Kevin Durant--not Curry or Harden or Paul--will prove to be the best player on the court during this series.

Curry sat out the final 10 games of the regular season and Golden State's first six playoff games due to an MCL sprain in his left knee but he hardly missed a beat after returning to action in the second round, averaging 24.5 ppg in 31.3 mpg in four games versus the New Orleans Pelicans. The Warriors are a very good team even without Curry but they have shown glimpses of dominance again with Curry back in the fold; they won during Curry's first game back as he came off of the bench, they lost on the road to a New Orleans team determined not to be swept and then they closed out the series with victories by 26 and nine points. Curry has started the last three games and looks bouncier/more confident in each outing.

Durant is having another excellent playoff run, leading the Warriors in scoring (28.0 ppg) while ranking second in rebounding (8.0 rpg), assists (5.0 apg) and blocked shots (1.0 bpg). He is shooting .493 from the field and .891 from the free throw line; the only slight chink in his armor is subpar three point shooting during this postseason (.279). Whatever one may think of his decision to leave a perennial contender to join forces with a super team, Durant has lived up to his end of the bargain for the Warriors in terms of his on court performance.

Klay Thompson was the Warriors' second leading playoff scorer (21.2 ppg) while Curry was out. He is a top notch defensive player as well.

Draymond Green has showcased his usual all-around effectiveness (13.1 ppg, team-high 11.5 rpg, team-high 9.0 apg, team-high 1.9 spg (Curry is averaging 2.0 spg but he has only played four games) and a team-high 1.3 bpg while managing to avoid being ejected or suspended. He is not shooting well (.423 FG%) but the Warriors do not need him to be a knock down shooter.

Andre Iguodala joined the starting lineup while Curry was out and he has started nine of the Warriors' 10 playoff games as Steve Kerr has shuffled the rotation due various matchup considerations. Iguodala is averaging 7.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 3.5 apg.

Comparisons are often made between the Warriors and either Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix teams or D'Antoni's current Houston team but those comparisons are not very apt. The Warriors' success is not merely based on a high octane offense powered by shooting three pointers. The Warriors have a very fluid offense based on passing, cutting and taking advantage of the well-rounded skill sets of multiple players--and, just as significantly, the Warriors play tenacious team defense. Neither D'Antoni's Suns nor his Rockets were this complete offensively or this effective defensively. Houston's offense this season is primarily based on isolating either Harden and Paul; it hardly resembles the Warriors' free-floating offense at all, other than in the superficial sense that both teams score a lot of points.

The Rockets are a talented team that can be difficult to contain when multiple players get hot, but it will be a tough task to take four playoff games from the Warriors playing this way. Relying on isolation and shooting dozens of three pointers is a very high variance strategy. The Rockets could very possibly blow out the Warriors by 20 points in one game this series and still not even push the series to seven games.

Other things to consider: The Rockets have openly stated that they are built specifically to beat the Warriors. That is the contention of team architect Daryl Morey and that confidence is shared by the coaching staff and the players. The Rockets outperformed the Warriors during the regular season--both overall and in the head to head matchup--but none of that matters or will be remembered if the Warriors win this series. I have never been one to overstate the importance of one playoff run, one playoff series or one playoff game. The Rockets could lose this series and then win the championship next year. Overreaction and recency bias are two of the worst traits exhibited by far too many people who cover this great sport. However, with all of that being said, there is no doubt that this is an important playoff series and to some extent it is a referendum on Morey's vision--both on how to build a team overall and specifically on whether or not Harden can be the centerpiece of a championship team.

The Warriors have already carved out a place for themselves in pro basketball history based on their accomplishments during the past few seasons. Losing to them is not a basketball sin--but it is also not a vindication of Morey's openly held belief that he has masterminded a basketball philosophy and roster that can topple Golden State.

The Rockets are healthy and they have home court advantage, so--assuming that they remain healthy--they have no excuses if they lose.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 PM


Friday, May 11, 2018

Boston Versus Cleveland Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

# 2 Boston (55-27) vs. #4 Cleveland (50-32)

Season series: Cleveland, 2-1

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James continues his historic playoff run and if his supporting cast fills in the gaps at both ends of the court. James averaged 34.0 ppg, 11.3 apg and 8.3 rpg while shooting .553 from the field as the Cavaliers swept the Toronto Raptors in the second round; through two rounds, James is averaging 34.3 ppg, 9.0 apg and 9.4 rpg while shooting .553 from the field.

The Raptors posted the best record in the Eastern Conference (59-23) this season and featured both a top seven offense and a top seven defense but the Cavaliers just dismantled them. Game one was a heartbreaking overtime loss for the Raptors after leading throughout regulation but the Cavaliers dominated the Raptors in game two, held on to win a close game three and then stomped Toronto 128-93 in game four.

This outcome is not only a tribute to James' greatness--and to the ability of Coach Tyronn Lue to change his rotation on the fly in the playoffs (more about that below)--but it is also a devastating end to what had been the best season in Raptors' franchise history. The terms "MVP-caliber" and "elite" have always been thrown around way too liberally--and the body of work for Toronto All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, culminating in that second round debacle versus Cleveland, should remove both of their names from either of those conversations for the foreseeable future. James' greatness does not justify or excuse Toronto's total collapse, a collapse that is either a failure of coaching (not in this case, in my opinion) or a failure of effort/heart/focus among the players--and that kind of failure is largely the responsibility of the team's best players.

As for the Cavaliers, it is not that long ago that they were outscored over the course of a seven game first round series by an Indiana team that is hardly elite by any stretch of the imagination. Did Cleveland instantly become a contender, did James singlehandedly dismantle Toronto or did the Raptors--for lack of a better word--choke? There is probably a little bit of truth in each of those suppositions.

It does seem that Coach Lue has figured out the right rotation for the Cavs; putting George Hill in the starting lineup and shifting Kevin Love to center created a lot of matchup problems for the Raptors but it remains to be seen if those adjustments will be as effective versus the Celtics (or if Lue has further moves up his sleeve).

The Eastern Conference Finals will provide a much clearer answer regarding who the Cavaliers really are. I suspect that they may not be as vulnerable as they looked against the Pacers but I also doubt that they are as good as the Raptors made them look.

Kevin Love (20.5 ppg, .353 3FG%), Kyle Korver (14.5 ppg, .560 3FG%) and  J.R. Smith (12.5 ppg, .769 3FG%) provided a lot of help for James versus Toronto after each of those players looked terrible in the first round. The Cavaliers will need strong production from those players to get past the Celtics.

Boston will win because…the Celtics' collective effort and performance will outweigh the individual greatness of LeBron James. Some "experts" thought the injury-depleted Celtics would struggle to beat Milwaukee in the first round but the Celtics won in five games. Even more "experts" were convinced that the Celtics would lose to the Philadelphia 76ers, perhaps overly impressed by the 76ers' season-ending 16 game winning streak (at least six of those wins came against teams that were actively tanking, which is ironic considering Philadelphia's recent years-long tanking "Process"). Boston jumped out to a 3-0 lead and closed out the 76ers in five games.

How is Boston succeeding without injured All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward? No NBA team goes far without talented players. The Celtics have Al Horford, a strong two-way player whose individual statistics often do not fully capture his impact on winning. The Celtics also have a rising corps of young, scrappy players such as Terry Rozier (24 years old), Jayson Tatum (20), Jaylen Brown (21) and Marcus Smart (24). Those five players--plus 28 year old Marcus Morris--lead a balanced scoring attack, with each player averaging at least 10.6 ppg during the playoffs but no player averaging more than Tatum's 18.8 ppg. That depth and versatility makes it difficult to stop the Celtics. The Celtics are also strong defensively, with several individual plus defenders and a very strong defensive game plan.

That game plan comes from the mind of Coach Brad Stevens, who Horford called a "genius" during the Philadelphia series. Stephens has emerged as one of the NBA's top coaches. Unlike even some of the other top coaches, Stephens is an adept strategist at both ends of the court. He is consistently able to accentuate his players' individual strengths while hiding their weaknesses.

Boston's success is not a fluke and the Celtics will not be an easy out for anyone.

Other things to consider: Conventional wisdom would favor the team with home court advantage--not only because having an extra game at home provides a significant edge but also because that team proved to be better and more consistent over the 82 game regular season schedule. While it may seem that the most important aspect of home court advantage is having a potential game seven at home, it should be noted that game one winners win an NBA playoff series about 80% of the time. The adage about a series not beginning until the road team wins is not statistically or historically correct. Boston earned home court advantage by being more consistent than Cleveland and if the Celtics capture the first two games at home then the Cavaliers will face a lot of pressure to not only "defend" home court but to also win a pivotal game five in Boston.

On the other hand, conventional wisdom would also favor the team that has the best player. James is obviously the best player in this series; some voices are now contending that James is the best player of all-time, a statement that is impossible to prove--but James is without question a member of pro basketball's Pantheon and he has been for quite some time.

A great basketball player can impact team success to a much larger extent than a great baseball player or a great football player but even the greatest players need at least some help to win a championship. This season the Cavaliers remade their roster more than once in an attempt to surround James with the right supporting cast. No matter which combinations they tried, the defense was subpar but that seems to have changed during the playoffs.

It is possible that the Cavaliers have figured everything out after a season marred by injuries, dissension and several roster moves. Coach Lue's current starting rotation of LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and George Hill did not play together during the regular season but was extremely effective versus the East-leading Raptors.

James may also be the modern-day Shaquille O'Neal; O'Neal was blessed with so much size and physical talent that he could, at times, coast during the regular season only to turn up his level during the postseason. While James had a very good regular season on paper, it was obvious that his effort and intensity were below par--especially on defense. The Cavaliers had a solid month when they actually performed better when he was not on the court, which is unheard of during James' career (and very unusual for an MVP level player).

If James is the modern-day O'Neal and if the Cavaliers have figured things out, then the Celtics could be in trouble. Picking a depleted Celtics team against a surging LeBron James may be foolish and may look ridiculous a week or two from now--but I just believe that the regular season means something, that building habits over an extended period of time matters and that the Celtics have been underrated all season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:38 PM