AFTER seven long months and a thousand stories in between, we are back at square one. Many of us expected to see the Warriors and Rockets duelling it out for an NBA Finals berth, with the Cavaliers and Celtics clashing on the other side of the bracket for the same prize. These four teams are vastly different versions of the teams we expected to make up this year’s Final Four, setting the scene for one of the more memorable Conference Finals’ in recent memory.
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#2 Boston Celtics vs. #4 Cleveland Cavaliers
A lot can change in a year and miraculously the Celtics and Cavaliers are back, fighting for a spot in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season. People around the world had them tabbed as the best two teams out East from the start, so their return isn’t shocking. However, I didn’t think we would be here without both Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas, who were miraculously traded for each other in the offseason.
FOR the Cavs, IT was shipped away after an injury-interrupted 15-game horror stretch with the club. He arrived from Boston in exchange for Cleveland’s championship-winning point guard Kyrie Irving, who joined the enemy in Massachusetts. Proving that he could be the leader of a team, Boston fans had their hearts broken for the second time this year through injury. Irving was sidelined six weeks ago with knee issues, cruelly ruling out a matchup of Kyrie against his old team.
Image from sbnation.com
THIS Boston team isn’t going to roll over and die though. Their steely resolve and team spirit has them looking like a tough bunch to halt. Brad Stevens is probably the Playoffs MVP (sorry Bron) and his coaching genius is worth at least one win in the series. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have taken the next step, both looking like 10-year veterans and don’t even get me started on Scary Terry.
HOWEVER. They still have to go up against LeBron James, who may be playing the best basketball of his career. It’s hard to fathom what ‘The King’ is doing 11 games into the postseason, averaging 34.3 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 9.0 APG while throwing in a ridiculous pair of buzzer-beating game-winners. Despite his individual brilliance, his lack of a decent supporting cast had us doubting their championship credentials. That was until J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and Kevin love caught fire, making us believe in them again.
THERE is nothing to lose for this Celtics franchise who, along with the Sixers, looks set to rule the conference for the next 3-4 years. That being said, LeBron James isn’t any old player and at the peak of his powers, there may not be anyone in the league who can stop him. Making matter worse, Boston aren’t able to combat him with the best group with their best choice a young Tatum/Brown combo.
LIKE I said Stevens’ masterful coaching should get the Celtics at least one W and it wouldn’t surprise me if it came in Game 1. It wouldn’t surprise me either, if following that match LeBron gave them the gentlemen’s sweep, claiming four straight wins to book a ticket to his eighth (holy shit) straight Finals. Cleveland isn’t unbeatable though and anytime you are relying on Korver and Smith to stay hot things must be pretty dire.
AGAINST Toronto, the Cavs rolled out their older, opting to put players like Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance on the pine. With their unit clicking and LeBron not being forced to play every ticking second, much like he had to against Indiana, then a championship isn’t out of the question. Will it be good enough to take down one of the West juggernauts? We don’t know yet. But after five (ok maybe six) games against Boston, Cleveland will be in a position for us to find out.
#1 Houston Rockets vs. #2 Golden State Warriors
THERE isn’t quite as much drama surrounding the Rockets and Warriors, but there is just as much intrigue. In what people are calling the real NBA Finals, we get to see just how Mike D’Antonio’s new team, that was built for the purpose of taking down Golden State, shapes up. Of course, the top-seeded Houston fancy their chances, especially with the Warriors looking mortal at times both in the regular season and the playoffs. Don’t be fooled for a second in thinking they aren’t a force to be reckoned with though.
EVEN without their All-Stars guys fit and firing for chunks of the year, Golden State still managed to reel off 58 wins, and just 24 losses. All of their guns missed at least a dozen games, with Steph Curry’s health one of the biggest talking points heading into the playoffs. However, just like I said back then in mid-March they are the reigning champs for a very good reason and until we see otherwise it’s almost impossible to doubt them.
Image from abc7news.com
IN Game 5 against the Pelicans they looked back to their dynamic best, quelling NOLA’s run with a balanced attack. They absorbed the biggest punch Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the rest of New Orleans squad could throw and they responded with poise and precision. That’s a scary thought that should be noted by everyone league-wide. When they are at their best they are unstoppable and another 10 games may be all that stands between them and consecutive banners.
IT would be a bit of a shame if the newest ‘super team’ formed out West couldn’t combat the Dubs, with Houston seemingly ready for the fight. They stormed towards the best record in the NBA this season (65-17) and in doing so James Harden probably secured some end of season silverware regardless of what unfolds next round. His running man Chris Paul is the biggest headline right now though, finally breaking through to the conference finals for the first time in his storied career. Postseason failures plagued his reputation but after his monstrous Game 5, he can now hold his head high.
EVEN though two of the best maybe 12 players in the league are steering the ship, there are other important parts to the Houston Rockets basketball machine. One of them is Clint Capela, who is thriving as a lob catching, screen setting, rebounding big man in his fourth pro season. He is going to command one hell of a salary this offseason and his defensive prowess saw him block 15 shots in the last three games of the Utah Jazz series.
IF Houston wants to win then Capela needs to keep looking like an All-NBA guy. Without him protecting the rim it’s hard to see the Rockets winning a classic shootout against their rivals. Much like in the East though, Golden State is vulnerable with Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Kevin Looney (yes, Kevin Looney) all being called upon to play big roles. Not a great plan of attack.
REGARDLESS of who else makes up Dub Nation’s minutes, they remain a lethal team if all four stars are healthy. For Houston, this is it, make or break. As I mentioned Capela needs to be paid in the offseason and Chris Paul isn’t getting any younger. If they can’t take down the Warriors this season, then they never will. The Rockets are ready for a fight and I think they will get big contributions from their bench to help force this series into a Game 7. Once they get there though Golden State will flex their muscles setting up a fourth straight instalment of Cavs vs. Warriors.