Warriors-Rockets, Cavs-Celts to face off in conference finals
The third week of the NBA playoffs reached its climax May 5 with two thrilling games, capped off by yet another LeBron James buzzer-beating, game-winning shot. Alas, this week’s action, for all intents and purposes, solidified the four teams that will compete for a shot at capturing the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy: the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.
Before each conference final game can be analyzed, a quick recap of the week’s action must be given.
After an unlikely poor shooting performance by LeBron during Game 1, the Toronto Raptors let that opportunity slip through their fingers once again, losing 113-112. Game 2, which was held on May 2 in Toronto, needed to become a must-win for the Raptors.
The Raptors began the game by extending their lead to as much as 9 points during the first quarter. However, the Cavaliers closed the second quarter strong, only down 2 points at halftime.
In the third quarter, LeBron could smell blood, and the Cavs came out strong and punched the Raptors in the mouth with a rapid-fire 8-0 run. Afterward, the Raptors caved. Kevin Love dominated the third quarter, punishing smaller defenders for 8 points, which turned into 31 by the end of the game.
LeBron would chip in another easy 43 points, as the Cavs smoked the Raptors 128-110, stealing both games in what TV analyst and Toronto native Mark Jones would coin mid-game, “LeBronto.”
At this juncture of the series, if the Raptors were not already mentally eliminated, Game 3 would certainly accomplish that task.
The Cavs thoroughly outplayed the Raptors for the first three quarters of Game 3 before Toronto benched its All-Star and best player DeMar DeRozan in the fourth quarter.
The Raptors made it a close game, but ultimately the unstoppable force of LeBron proved to be too much. With eight seconds left, he drove the length of the court only to kiss the ball of the glass as time expired for his second game-winning shot this postseason in a demoralizing 105-103 defeat.
The Cavs would go on to put the Raptors out of their misery in a Game 4 blowout 128-93, sweeping the Raptors for the second consecutive playoffs. Their opponent in the Eastern Conference will now come from the victor of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers series.
After a perplexing single-point performance on only four shot attempts by Sixers rookie-of-the-year-candidate Ben Simmons in a Game 2 loss, they faced a must-win Game 3 on May 5 or risk falling behind 0-3 to the Celtics.
The matchup was highly contested, as both teams struggled to separate from each other. The Sixers needed a last-second game-tying 2-point shot by Marco Belinelli just to send the game to overtime after a careless turnover led to a breakaway Celtics layup. Once they were in overtime, the Sixers’ youth finally caught up with them.
Philadelphia would capture the lead late in the extra period, but Celtics coach Brad Stevens drew up a fantastic out-of-bounds play that, after a switch, left undersized Robert Covington guarding Celtic big-man Al Horford.
Horford received a lob over Covington and was able to finish through contact for the 1-point lead. The Sixers then had a chance to win it, but again wasted their opportunity with another costly turnover, this time by center Joel Embiid.
The Celtics would go on to win 101-98. The Sixers did go on to win Game 4, 103-93, forcing a Game 5. However, no team has ever crawled back from a three-game deficit and the Sixers would not be the first team to do so, as they lost Game 5 114-112.
The Eastern Conference Finals will come down to two factors: defense and experience. The Celtics were one of the best regular-season defensive teams in the NBA, while the Cavs ranked second to last. However, during the playoffs, the Cavs have improved slightly to become 10th out of the 16 teams, and have succeeded, so far, in their now-notorious strategy of eliminating, defensively, the best player on the opposing team.
Victor Oladipo and DeRozan were the Cavs’ intended targets during the first two rounds, and they both struggled mightily during their respective series. If the Stevens system-driven offense is not competent enough to match baskets with the Cavs, this will be a quick series for the Celtics. In the end, for as good as their defense has been all year and in the playoffs, the Celtics will not be able to stop LeBron when the Cavs need a bucket, especially in crunchtime.
Furthermore, the Cavaliers come into this series with the decisive playoff and championship experience edge.
For example, when the Cavaliers had the chance to eliminate the Raptors, they did so convincingly, not giving them any semblance of hope. The young and relatively inexperienced Celtics — compared to the Cavs — played Game 4 against the Sixers like they did not care, simple as that.
That type of mentality, in a future conference finals against a LeBron-led Cavs team, will be the Celtics' undoing. Close to yet another finals appearance, the Cavaliers, and especially LeBron, will beat the Celtics in five games.
Out West, the Warriors and Rockets had a much tougher go of it, but nonetheless both have advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
The Warriors, as predicted in a previous recap, laid an egg in Game 3, losing 119-100, only to bounce back and trounce the New Orleans Pelicans 118-92 in Game 4. The Warriors seemingly took Game 3 off, as the Pelicans were in control from beginning to end. Anthony Davis had himself a game, scoring 33 points with 18 rebounds, while point guard Rajon Rondo chipped in an astounding 21 assists. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, the Warriors played Game 4 like they didn't want to return to New Orleans for a Game 6.
Kevin Durant shot jumper after jumper in the face of an array of different Pelicans defenders, en route to a game-high 38 points. The Warriors defense was stifling, not allowing the Pelicans, especially Rondo, any easy baskets with aggressive, ball-hawking defense. The Warriors wrapped up the series on May 8 with another impressive win, 113-104. They now face the other Western Conference team, the Rockets, who also finished off the Utah Jazz on the same night, 112-102.
After an impressive 116-108 Game 2 victory in Houston by the Jazz, the Rockets have played determined basketball in Utah for games 3 and 4, winning both 113-92 and 100-87 respectively. The difference this time was the Rockets' defense, led by Clint Capela.
A menacing offensive pick-and-roll player, Capela elevated his defensive prowess in Utah, combining for 10 blocks, four steals and 23 rebounds, to go along with a plus-23 point differential in 67 minutes played.
The other Rockets followed his lead, stifling a young Jazz offensive unit that sorely missed its floor general Ricky Rubio, who was out with a hamstring injury. The Rockets now advance to play the Warriors in the conference finals matchup NBA fans have been waiting all season to see: the Rockets versus the Warriors.
After successfully revamping their roster to match Golden State’s lethal “three-and-D” roster, the Rockets, with home-court advantage, will finally have their shot to dethrone the Warriors.
In three regular-season bouts, the Rockets won two, but one win occurred without Durant or James Harden partaking due to injuries. The player matchup most important in determining this playoff series will be Stephen Curry versus Chris Paul. If Curry is outplayed by Paul, the Rockets will have a great chance to beat the Warriors.
Paul does not need to outscore Curry, but if his assist numbers hover around 10 per game, it should mean that Paul is creating open shots, and most likely, in coach Mike D'Antoni's offense, that means open 3-point shots.
Look for the Warriors to steal one game on the road, and the Rockets to return the favor by stealing a game back in the Bay. Each team should hold serve on their home court in Games 5 and 6 that will be until the Warriors championship experience, coupled with the too-clutch shot-making of both Curry and Durant will prevail.
The Warriors will advance to their fourth straight finals appearance after a chippy, back-and-forth and high-scoring, seven-game affair.
So after a much anticipated playoffs that many believed would end the reign of the Cavs-Warriors finals, think again.
LeBron, at age 33, is still the best player in the league and more than capable of carrying his team through the much-improved, though inexperienced Eastern Conference. The Warriors concluded their week by proving they are still the best at their own game.