The NBA Finals are mere months away. The playoff picture has yet to be set in stone, but there are clear frontrunners in each conference.
Odds are, it would take some massive upsets to see any other teams playing on May 31 than the five we’re about to discuss. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but considering records and reputations, it’s unlikely.
With that in mind, here are the most likely 2018 NBA Finals matchups.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors (Part IV)
Let’s get this one out of the way first.
This season has been a roller coaster for Cleveland. There has been disappointment, turmoil, turnover, redemption and mediocrity. In their last 10 games, they have come away with five wins. In the midst of a brutal six game road trip, they seem to either thoroughly impress, or inspire no confidence whatsoever.
The Warriors have had their own struggles this season. Although the word “struggles” should be taken with a pound of salt. Golden State’s “struggles” don’t even amount to the worst teams’ best nights.
Stemming from technical foul trouble, injury woes, and running into what amounts to complacency, this Warriors team seems less inspired than previous iterations. It has even reached the point where coach Steve Kerr let the players coach during a game against the lottery-bound Suns.
When playoff basketball arrives, however, it’s simply unwise to bet too much money against LeBron James or a team with four All-Stars. They could feasibly be bound for yet another clash in the NBA Finals. If that happens, it would be reasonable to expect the series could be the best yet.
Both teams have breezed through the playoffs in the past three years. But the targets on their backs have never been larger than they are now. Chinks in the armor have formed, and the other teams in the playoffs will do their best to exploit the weaknesses.
If they do meet, though, expect the series to be sloppier than the previous three. Expect it to be more defensively oriented, with less scoring and chippier play. It will also probably go the distance, as Cleveland and LeBron aren’t going to want a repeat of last year’s five game showing.
In the end, though, the Warriors’ four All-Stars and their chemistry will be too much for the new-look Cavaliers. The coaching and cohesiveness of the offense and defense will win a one game series, as we’ve seen in the regular season over and over again.
Prediction: Warriors in 7
Finals MVP: Kevin Durant
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Houston Rockets
Again, this potential matchup is predicated on LeBron James’ ability to will the Cavaliers to the finals. An historic eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals will silence even some of his most vitriolic haters, especially with this roster.
Houston’s path will undoubtedly go through Golden State, seeing them achieve their ultimate goal of dethroning the Warriors.
Cleveland has dealt with the incredible offensive capabilities of Golden State three years in a row, but that experience won’t amount to much if this matchup comes to fruition. Add in the confidence Houston will bring into the series having defeated a juggernaut, and the Rockets will be a completely different animal.
Houston has come out on top of both of the regular season games against the Cavaliers. If they are healthy going into the NBA Finals, there is no reason to expect that trend won’t continue. The three-point abilities of this team are like nothing the NBA has ever seen. The Cavs won’t be able to defend the arc enough to make a difference, and they certainly cannot match the barrage of long range shots the Rockets will put up.
LeBron certainly won’t let his team be swept, but all of his effort will simply result in yet another finals loss on his resume.
Prediction: Rockets in 5
Finals MVP: James Harden
Toronto Raptors vs. Houston Rockets
These are two teams whose styles couldn’t contrast more starkly.
Toronto has earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference through defense and fundamental play. Their offense features plenty of mid-range and low-post shots, going to the three-pointer only when it’s there for the taking. Coach Dwane Casey is the frontrunner for Coach of the Year due to his ability to keep his message and style fresh through the 82 game season.
Houston, obviously, is the most offensive-minded team in the league. Chris Paul, James Harden and Eric Gordon always have a green light behind the three-point line. Coach Mike D’Antoni does not pull his punches flexing the team’s shooting strengths. The Rockets play almost no defense, but it’s essentially irrelevant considering their ability to score.
This would be the most fun NBA Finals matchup to watch for hardcore fans. Contrasting styles don’t always make for the best games in other sports. Consider the 2014 Super Bowl featuring the NFL’s best offense (Denver Broncos) getting smothered by the best defense (Seattle Seahawks) in the league, for example. But in basketball, it just means either philosophy could prevail during any given game.
A Raptors-Rockets finals series would more than likely go the full seven games. The Raptors seem like one of the only squads in the NBA that could halt the Rockets’ attack with regularity. So, again, it comes down to a one game series.
In one game, though, bet on the Rockets’ shots to fall, and bet on the Raptors playing hard but ultimately failing to match the offensive production. It would be close, but James Harden and Chris Paul would finally get the playoff monkey off of their backs.
Prediction: Houston in 7
Finals MVP: James Harden
Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors
Two terrific defenses coming out on top of their respective conferences would be a shocking turn of events considering the NBA’s current identity of offense over everything. But that’s exactly what this matchup would feature.
While Golden State’s defense has taken a step back this season, they are still ranked within the NBA’s top-10 defenses. Toronto’s defensive rating has fluctuated from game-to-game, but they have been solidly within the top-5 all season long.
This series would come down to coaching. Steve Kerr vs. Dwane Casey doesn’t sound like the most exciting storyline, but for old-school NBA fans, it would be a welcome change from the hero-ball driven games to which the league has become accustomed.
Given that take, one could expect the coach with the longer playoff resume to come out on top. However, Casey wouldn’t be an easy out. This Raptors team would make life difficult for these Warriors. Frustration and contested shots would be deciding factors in every single game.
The Raptors’ bench is also on par with, if not better than, Golden State’s. That wouldn’t be a huge issue considering the Warriors’ fantastic starting lineup, but, contrary to popular belief, they actually do rely on their bench’s offense.
These finals would be hotly contested, and would be some fantastic television. It would also undoubtedly end in another rivalry being formed regardless of the outcome. In the end though, the surprise factor of the Raptors can steal enough possessions and sink enough mid-range shots to dethrone the champions.
Prediction: Raptors in 6
Finals MVP: DeMar DeRozan
Boston Celtics vs. Houston Rockets
Another matchup featuring contrasting styles, a Boston-Houston NBA Finals could go many different ways.
Boston’s defense is superb, led by coach Brad Stevens’ commitment to that end of the floor. The Celtics are a long team, concerned with blocking low-post shots and challenging everything. The offense is a different story, however.
Kyrie Irving has been fantastic in his ability to create and make shots. Irving cannot play every minute of every game however. Rozier and Smart have been serviceable during his minutes on the bench, but it’s hard to match that kind of production without another superstar on the team. Matching the Rockets’ offense is a very, very tall order for Boston.
If the team defense and coaching isn’t rattled by Houston’s ability to put up points in a hurry, then Boston can absolutely steal a game or two. But star power often wins out in the NBA, even if smart money is on defense over offense. That would make it the Rockets’ series to lose.
Prediction: Rockets in 6
Finals MVP: James Harden
Boston Celtics vs. Golden State Warriors
Brad Stevens is semi-arguably the best coach in the NBA. Steve Kerr is probably one of the most progressive coaches in the game today. This series would truly be a meeting of the minds; a scheme vs. scheme matchup that could go either way.
Kevin Durant and the Golden State offense won’t be as baffled by Boston’s defense as some other teams would. By the same reasoning, Horford and the Celtics’ defense wouldn’t be as rattled by Golden State’s offense.
This is would be a very even matchup, regardless of Boston’s offensive shortcomings. Stevens is one of the only coaches in the NBA that could make the Warriors play the Celtics game, rather than trying to match theirs. Not to say that would completely baffle Golden State’s “big four,” but, frustration would come into play.
If the Warriors have one weakness, it’s the fiery attitude of their lineup. Durant, Green, Pachulia and Young all have type-A personalities that Stevens can exploit to his advantage. These attitudes, however, are also a strength that helps the Warriors win close games.
Either team could win this particular series. If it comes to be, the Warriors would probably be underprepared, looking past this Celtics team due to their offensive struggles. Coming down to the wire, though, the smartest choice is taking the experience over the ifs buts and maybes.
Prediction: Warriors in 7 (in OT)
Finals MVP: Stephen Curry
Featured image by John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports
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