Premature Prognostication: An NBA Playoff Preview
When you think NBA Champions, Golden State and Cleveland are going to be the first two teams you hear. Of course the Spurs find their way in the conversation, along with this newly renovated Houston Rockets team…not to mention the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, or Washington Wizards, all teams that have made serious cases for why they can come out on top of a very unexpectedly competitive Eastern conference.
The Finals are no longer set in stone, that is clear. Do not get me wrong, Golden State is great at full strength, as is Cleveland, but unfortunately for them, they were not the only team to make “improvements” prior to this year’s postseason. I will be the first to tell you about how wrong I was coming into this season in some instances. For example, I expected Washington to take a slight dip, but their supporting cast proved me wrong and has been downright consistent. That was my biggest blunder, and now that the playoffs are closing in, an early preview seems only fitting. Expect some fireworks, but most of all, expect there to be a new champion holding the trophy.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Boston Celtics
3. Toronto Raptors
4. Washington Wizard
5. Indiana Pacers
6. Atlanta Hawks
7. Detroit Pistons
8. Miami Heat
1. Golden State Warriors
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Houston Rockets
4. Los Angeles Clippers
5. Utah Jazz
6. Memphis Grizzlies
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Dallas Mavericks
As you can see, nothing really crazy in the standings heading into the post-season, but this is where it becomes a little more interesting. See all those 5-8 teams? I do not expect a single lower seeded team to win a series this post-season. it might be an outrageous claim to make analytically, but looking at those top teams they would be facing, it only seems certain.
Starting with the East, the Cavaliers will advance to the Conference Finals, but whether it will be Toronto or Boston they will be facing, I am not sure. Not to sell a very well-rounded Washington team short, but I do not believe that Washington can stop DeMar DeRozan, and the Wizards are a bit shallow when it comes to their frontcourt. That being said, they absolutely have the scoring power to shut me up and push any series they play to seven games, if not win. It is not a good idea to underestimate the scoring of this team, but the Celtics and Raptors are simply better equipped when it comes to bench contributions, a major factor in postseason basketball.
The Cavaliers are still top dogs in the East, but Toronto and Boston have the capability to send the reigning champions home and a shockwave through Cleveland. For Toronto, Serge Ibaka was nothing less than a stellar signing by the Raptors, and Ibaka alone changes the entire foundation of that team. With Ibaka as the key defensive cog and lead rebounder, Jonas Valanciunus is relieved from some of his defensive pressure, adhering to his role as a primary offensive threat for the Raptors. The Raptors will still need to play near perfect basketball to come out with a series win against Cleveland. Entirely possible, but not likely.
As for Boston, the Celtics have a deep roster, the offense, defense, and enough athleticism across the board to compete with every team, including both front-runners for the championship. What is going to hurt the Celtics will be their rebounding and inability to keep teams from easy second-chance points. Luckily for Celtics fans, Coach Brad Stevens clearly knows his weaknesses and counters that by instilling a defensive culture in his team. The Celtics may struggle with the few defensive stats like blocks, steals, and rebounds, but manage to hold opponents to some of the lowest 3PT and 2PT shooting percentages in the league. This means that when push comes to shove, the Celtics know they need to rebound and it will likely be a focus of their post-season play.
Going against the Cavaliers seems ludicrous, but they have been beaten before, and will continue to get beaten in the future. Cleveland and Golden State are still frontrunners, but the water has been muddied up and the path to the Finals is no longer crystal clear. Everyone says “Playoff LeBron James” is a different creature, and I cannot disagree with that. The man is unstoppable, but stop him and the team is required to do some un-wanted heavy lifting. Other than Kyrie Irving and LeBron, the Cavaliers have weaknesses that can be exploited and beaten by a team like the Celtics.
Conference Final prediction…Boston beats Cleveland in seven to advance to the Finals.
Now that you are most likely doubting my basketball knowledge, it is time to move westward.
First of all, the Warriors have not gotten better, if anything they have gotten a bit worse. They gave up depth and defense for a superstar. So far, it has not paid off, and while the experiment was mainly for the Finals, it does not change that if Draymond had not gotten suspended, the Warriors very well could have been repeating champions… I will try to refrain from speculating and I’ll move on to say that the Rockets and Spurs will face a challenge, but still not take the West from the Warriors.
The Spurs are a very interesting team. The most talked about figure on the team is the coach, and their superstar is about exciting as an un-popped bag of popcorn. That being said, they are a good team with a talented bench, but unfortunately, I do not think the talent matches up well against the Rockets or Warriors. They can play great defense and in-turn, run your defense into the ground. As for a series, they lack the energy that usually puts teams over the edge, hence losing before the Conference Finals to teams like the Clippers and Thunder. Kawhi Leonard is a 5-time MVP in an alternate universe, but this league is about scoring and flash. I still take the team that signed too much flash than they even know what to do with. Not to mention that I would take the Rockets over the Spurs anyway…
James Harden has made his case for MVP, willingly taking the award away from Russell Westbrook. Harden has more than thrived in the point guard role, distributing the rock like a geologist on “Free-Rock” day. That does not change the fact that his team still needs to be able defend against the likes of the Warriors and Spurs, but yes, the Rockets will not likely lose when they go on of their frequent scoring parades. We have seen with Golden State, you cannot rely on shooting to carry your team to ensured victory night-in and night-out, meaning they will need to hunker down on defense and prove they can stop teams, rather than out-shoot them if they hope to make a Finals appearance. This year does not seem promising, but crazier things have happened and Rockets are a gun-slinging, quick-firing bunch that at times, you cannot help but just watch and admire…I will still take Golden State in a series.
Conference Final prediction…Warriors beat Rockets in six games to advance to Finals.
If the Finals turned out to be Boston versus Golden State, the series would be a seven game dog-fight, with the Warriors closing out a second championship in three years. The Celtics have just about everything they need to win a championship, other than a defensive presence in the paint. This is something that Steve Kerr will be able to easily exploit with Kevin Durant in the game. As much as the Kevin Durant signing may have depleted the team as a whole, when it comes down to the Finals, having those four superstars is going to be a series-altering asset that will cause Boston to scramble for offense in response.
Luckily, this is where the depth and versatility of the Celtics becomes league-wide knowledge. Rookies Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown have made significant developments as the season has gone on, and stand above most of the other rookies in the league when it comes to experience and composure. While the two still have room for improvement, it will be necessary for them to come through as contributors if Boston wants to win. Unfortunately for the Celtics, Steve Kerr has ALSO done a fantastic job giving his young guys game-time experience, has just as much athleticism on his roster, and has a more talented squad. I have to go with the guys who have been there three years running. Boston becomes the new guy on the top block, but they will not bring home the trophy just yet.
Warriors win NBA Finals is seven games.