Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

NBA Conference Finals Preview

According to the seedings these are the NBA conference finals match-ups we expected. The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets were the first and second seeds in the West likewise the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers respectively in the East.

However, the road thus far hasn’t been all smooth sailing and has shown that the regular season is indeed important.

Chef Curry is ready to cook...
The home court advantage the Rockets stole in the final week of the regular season by clinching the West’s second seed, for example, was crucial in their miraculous win over the LA Clippers in the last round.

Houston only got home court over the Clippers by winning their division – the toughest in the NBA, ahead of the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks – even though LA had a better conference record.

In the end, home comforts helped the Rockets back from the dead.

Seemingly buried at 3-1, they fought back to level the series and then win the decisive Game 7 in Houston to become the first team since the Phoenix Suns in 2006 (over the LA Lakers) to overturn a 3-1 deficit in the playoffs and only the ninth in history.

Similarly in the East, the Hawks and Cavaliers’ progress has been aided by being higher seeds, helping both overcome their stuttering post-seasons so far with timely wins at home.

Though the Hawks-Cavs match-up was widely expected, it has been tougher going than expected for both. Atlanta especially, facing a second-rate Brooklyn Nets in the first round and then the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards, made heavy work of getting this far.

The Cavaliers haven’t been convincing for any prolonged period this season and seemed there for the taking by the Chicago Bulls in the last round before pulling through with a 4-2 series win.

But, here we are, and for the second year in a row the top two seeds in the West and East make the respective conference finals.

Taking the regular season seriously does help.

Western Conference finals
Golden State Warriors v Houston Rockets

According to Phil Welsh, a coaching pal of mine, it is Golden State all the way the NBA title. “Not only do I think they will win the title, I don’t think they will play a single Game 7 to do it” he said before the beginning of the playoffs.

It is difficult to argue his bold sentiments.

The 67-win Warriors have been the best basketball team all season long and produced one of the best regular seasons in NBA history.

They were projected to get this far and remain, according to bookies, expected to go all the way.

So far they have had an almost perfect postseason.

Apart from injury to bench spark Marreese Speights in the last series against the Memphis Grizzlies, all is perfect. The postseason has been testing for the Warriors, but not too difficult.

They were challenged heavily in spurts by the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round and even had to rely on some Stephen Curry magic to force overtime in Game 3. Still, they won in four games.

In the second round they met the Grizzlies at their Grit and Grind. That was a different and much-needed test.

The question was always whether the Warriors hot-shooting game could survive the grind of the postseason and after three games naysayers appeared validated. Golden State was down 2-1 and struggling.

But, the Warriors overcame the challenge and in style.

They closed out the series with wins of 17, 20 and 13 points.

Their game blazed like a supernova and passed the strength test which will surely help them going forward. In a way, the challenges they faced against the Pelicans (athleticism) and Memphis (grind) will be what they’ll see against Houston.

Now Golden State stands as the most equipped and healthiest of the four remaining teams.

Curry is the league MVP for a reason. Klay Thompson is not just a sidekick but a force on both ends of the floor. He’s averaging 25 points on 48 percent shooting and his defence of Mike Conley in the last round was pivotal.

Harrison Barnes is growing into something of the star envisioned when he came out of college and Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are elite players, period.

In the regular season the Warriors were 4-0 against the Rockets winning the games by an average of 15 points, including a 25-point drubbing in Houston after James Harden had said “they ain’t even that good”.

Dead eye shooter... James Harden
It will be tough for the Rockets.

The Warriors have a bevy of defenders to throw at Harden. Bogut and Green will give Dwight Howard his fair share of work, and the most worrying fact, Curry will be going up against 37-year-old Jason Terry.

If that isn’t scary from a Houston point of view, I’m not sure what can.

Difference maker
Golden State Warriors: Andre Iguodala
Once considered one of the best defenders in the NBA, Iguodala has only drifted from the conversation because he has unselfishly accepted the role of being a bench player for the Warriors this season. As the postseason has progressed he has got more minutes per game (26 in the regular season to 27.2 so far in the postseason) and he may be crucial defending Harden.

Houston Rockets: Josh Smith
Josh Smith will also be important. He was been crucial after being inserted into Houston’s line-up against the Clippers and was one of the main reasons the Rockets came back. He is a very talented player and was once viewed as a potential franchise player at Atlanta. His stock dipped drastically in later years at the Hawks and then at the Detroit Pistons where he was released in January just a year into a multi-million, multi-year deal.

He is happy in Houston playing with childhood friend Howard. He has the size, skill and athleticism to turn any game. He is also shooting 37 percent from 3-point range this postseason and has been a reliable, calm player for the Rockets.

What to watch
The Warriors have made 40 percent from 3-point range in 48 games this season, an incredible stat. They have won 44 of those, including two against the Rockets in the regular season. They are not letting up on their shooting in the playoffs. Golden State has have increased their 3-point output, hoisting 29.9 3s per game in the playoffs compared to 27 in regular season.

Houston was the best 3-point defence. Opponents made 32.2 percent of 3s against them. The Rockets aren’t slouches shooting them either. Houston shot the most 3s in the regular season and relies heavily on the deep ball. The Houston-Clippers series was Hack-a-Shaq, this one could see non-stop bombs from way downtown.

This one could go down to seven games. The Rockets have been written off several times but showed great resilience in finishing as second seeds in the brutal West despite a bevy of injuries and then in overturning the Clippers. However, the Rockets showed some bad habits in the series against the Clippers. They lost three games rather tamely to start the series – losing Games 3 and 4 by a combined 58 points – and were down 19 points in the third quarter of Game 6. Unlike Clippers, the Warriors will not pardon allow any slacking from Houston.

They will hurt the Rockets badly if they slack defensively or if Houston’s basic offence stutters.

It is only the presence of a returning-to-transcendence Howard and a savvy, fearless Harden that gives me any inkling of a long series. There is no team with the combination of Golden State’s hunger, discipline, speed and shooting right now. Their combination of outside shooting and defence seems unbeatable.

Warriors to win 4-2

Eastern Conference finals
Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers

All 4 one... Atlanta Hawks
Whereas the West finals feature two teams on the up, it feels as if the East is a patchwork. The Hawks have been limping since well before the end of the regular season while the Cavaliers are very mortal after their fantasy filled off-season.

Cleveland’s ‘Big 3’ is down to 1⅓. Kevin Love is injured and Kyrie Irving is hobbled dealing with ankles problems and tendonitis in the knees. Their support cast has stepped up but Iman Shumpert has been dealing with a groin problem and overall, health is a big issue in the Cleveland camp.

As it is, their season could very well be over. Trailing 2-1 to the Bulls in the conference semi-finals, LeBron James produced a 38-point, 12-rebound, six-assist, three-block, no turnover performance in Game 4. That superhuman performance kept Cleveland alive and ultimately doused Chicago’s vigour. However, it wasn’t convincing.

The Hawks haven’t done much better.

They were tested more than necessary by a weak Nets side in the first round before eventually winning in six games and could have easily been knocked out by the Wizards in the semis. In the end, Atlanta scraped through 4-2 again, however, new cracks are seemingly appearing each week.

The latest? Critical sharp-shooter Kyle Korver averaged just seven points per game on 31.3 percent shooting and 28.6 percent from 3-point range against the Wizards.

It just feels as though we have already seen the Hawks’ peak, and it was in the regular season.

Difference maker
Atlanta Hawks: Al Horford
Al Horford is a legitimate star and has been for sometime. The Eastern Conference finals could be his official coming out party.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Tristan Thompson
I have long maintained Tristan Thompson is of the most important players on the Cleveland team, arguably behind only James and Irving. His rebounding and boundless energy will be crucial.

What to watch
JR Smith. Of Smith’s 9.6 shots per game in the playoffs, 6.1 are spot up attempts. Similar to Josh Smith for Houston, JR has matured since arriving at his new team. He’s central to Cleveland’s hopes and, when he gets going with his shooting, it can be quite a show.

King Watching...
LeBron James
My feeling is LeBron James is going up against a mini San Antonio Spurs (Atlanta’s coach, Mike Budelholzer, spent 18 years as an assistant at the Spurs).

Firstly, Atlanta’s ball movement will be a problem for the Cavaliers.

Secondly, although DeMarre Carroll is expected to be James’ main defensive foe during the series, the Hawks will likely throw a variety of defenders and schemes at James, such daring him to take jump shots, as San Antonio sometimes did. And, James isn’t shooting well, posting his worst accuracy numbers since 2008 (42 percent overall and 15 percent from 3-point range).

The Cavs’ offence also often descends into a bevy of isolation plays characterised by poor ball movement and spacing, with James and Irving expected to make magic happen. That may not be good enough.

Atlanta was a top 10 team in both offence and defence during the regular season.

Overall, the Hawks appear slightly more rounded than Cleveland.

Hawks to win 4-3