Houston v. Golden State
Golden State’s Motivation
I know you can’t measure this, but when Golden State is engaged and interested, they’re practically unbeatable. The problem is that during the long 82-game regular season (and having come off of 3 consecutive years reaching the NBA Finals) the Warriors stop caring and realize it’s smarter to do just enough to get through to the playoffs, where they turn on the jets. And I’d expect the jets to be functioning at full capacity the series, considering Golden State’s heard all the same things we’ve heard as far as Houston being constructed, solely, to take down the champs. If any opponent can get the Warriors playing to their potential, it’s this Rockets team.
Klay Thompson on James Harden
James Harden is the MVP, but his playoff resume isn’t as impressive. Even in the 9 games the Rockets have played this postseason, Harden has not been stellar on a routine basis. In four games, he’s shot below 40%. In this series, one of the league’s best defenders, Klay Thompson, will draw Harden. The history of this matchup favors Thompson — in fact Harden has not gone to the line when guarded by Thompson since a game they played against each other in February of 2016. A huge part of why Harden is so scary as a scorer is his ability to draw fouls. If he’s unable to do that in this series, Houston may have to rely on Chris Paul a lot more.
Paul and Harden Together
Paul’s presence has been a difference-maker this year, including in these playoffs. In the four games that Harden struggled from the field (shooting below 40%), Paul has averaged nearly 27 points and the team is 4-0. That’s a break from Houston’s past, where they were 5-10 in such games without Paul.
But the Rockets need both to play well , simultaneously. If they “trade off,” that won’t be enough. In short, neither guy can afford an “off night” in this series
KD’s Willingness to Take Over
Much was made about the late night text message that Draymond Green sent Kevin Durant, encouraging him to be more aggressive and to take over. The bottom line is Durant is capable of doing that at any given moment in any given game. I’d fully expect KD to be the alpha in this series — knowing the stage and knowing the opponent. It won’t take any text from a teammate to inspire Durant.
If you’re hearing Clint Capela’s name….
That’s great thing for Rockets’ fans. If all the talking heads are saying Clint Capela’s name, it’s because he’s grabbing a lot of boards and he’s serving as a major defensive presence in the paint — both of which are big for Houston in this series. His rebounding means two things: (1) Golden State is missing shots; and (2) he’s active on the offensive glass which is allowing for more shots and possessions for his shooters. And if he’s cutting off penetration and the Warriors aren’t able to get to the rim, this becomes a different series. On the other hand, if he’s silenced, it means this is a shooter’s series and that bodes well for Golden State.
Boston v. Cleveland
Ok, no one is stopping LeBron. He’s playing some of his most dominating playoff basketball of his entire career — 34/9/9. So let’s not misunderstand what I’m saying, however the Celtics do have the firepower to slow James down. Brad Stevens will throw a rotation of guys at LeBron — some will hit and foul him, some will attempt to keep him out of the paint, some will contest any jumper he takes. Again, “slowing” is different than “stopping”. With a combination of Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Semi Ojeleye, Boston will be able to throw more options at LeBron than any other team has been able to this postseason.
Showing Some Love
The Kevin Love that the Cavs so desperately need, if they’re to advance to the NBA Finals, showed up in a big way in Games 2, 3, and 4 against Toronto. Love was a force — offensively and on the boards (31/11, 21/16, and 23/6). Al Horford will be tasked with defending Love, which he’s had some success doing. This season Love scored just 5.0 points per game against Horford, on 25 percent shooting.
Remember when people used to claim LeBron didn’t want the ball in his hands at the end of games? That he dished off too much? That he was missing the “killer instinct” that made greats like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant so invaluable?
Yeah, I think we can agree that’s no longer a topic of conversation. And if you need statistics to back that up, well, I’d just encourage you to watch more basketball. Sometimes the eye test tells you everything you need to know.
But don’t overlook Boston in this discussion. Let me be frank — there’s no disputing if you want LeBron to have the ball at the end of a game or not. But the Celtics have some guys who, in this postseason, haven’t shied away from the big moments. Terry Rozier and Al Horford rank fourth and fifth, respectively, behind James as far as scoring in the clutch — the final 5 minutes of a game where the teams are separated by 5 or fewer points.
Again, LeBron’s “clutch-ness” is at a level you can only appreciate if you see it. But understand that Boston hasn’t exactly disappeared at the end of close games.
How important is getting off to a good start? Well, winning Game 1 in the conference finals is pretty good indicator of success. Since using this playoff format (1984), of the 68 teams that have taken a 1-0 series lead, 57 have gone on to make the NBA Finals.
While I don’t completely share Charles Barkley’s take that Game 1 is a “must-win” for Houston, I do believe winning the opener for both underdogs (Houston and Boston) will go a long way in making both series very competitive.
If Golden State is totally engaged, that could be over in 4 or 5. I’ll say they lose interest up 3-1 and the Rockets force a Game 6. But that’s as far as the Rockets will take it. Golden State in 6.
In the East, no team can throw more defenders at LeBron than Boston can. Brad Stevens’ s rotations will make it an interesting series, and if LeBron felt tired after the Indiana series, he’s going to feel downright exhausted and beaten up after this one. In the end, he’s the best for a reason, and he’ll find a way into his 8th straight Finals appearance. Cleveland in 6.
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