Warriors Pelicans preview

Warriors vs. Pelicans series preview

The first round of the 2018 NBA playoffs is underway, with plenty of competitive series still being played, and a few of those 4-0 or 4-1 series coming to an end in the last couple of days. There has been a plethora of competition for the most part, with the one-eight matchup in the East tied up and the second-seeded Celtics just barely getting a game up on the seventh-seeded Bucks to bring them to 3-2. Even the LeBron James-led Cavaliers have struggled against the Pacers, leading the series just 3-2. If the Cavaliers lose the series, it would raise a ton of debate over James’ spot on a squad next season.

The Golden State Warriors vs. the New Orleans Pelicans is the first second-round matchup ready to roll. Let’s predict what this series will bring and who will come out on top.

Golden State Warriors

Warriors Pelicans preview

(Photo from www.bluemanhoop.com)

The Golden State Warriors did not struggle too much without Steph Curry, defeating LaMarcus Aldridge and the San Antonio Spurs 4-1. The Warriors were up 3-0 and could have swept for some extra rest time, but they did not bring much to the table in Game 4. Game 5 was a close one too, as the Spurs almost pulled off a comeback, but Kevin Durant was ultimately too clutch to handle.

In terms of a Curry return, there is no telling when exactly he will be back. Head coach Steve Kerr said a couple days ago that it would not be “anytime soon,” but he does appear to be progressing quite well. When the former MVP comes back, this team will return back to their regular unfair form.

In the Spurs series, Durant led the way with averages of 28.2 points on 48 percent shooting, 8.6 boards, 5.2 assists and a few defensive stats here and there. His numbers are up slightly, assuredly due to the absence of Curry, but his efficiency is down a bit. Regardless, 48 percent is nothing to be upset about, and he will be phenomenal as long as he is on the floor.

Klay Thompson stepped up as well, averaging 22.6 points on 52.9 percent shooting. He has always been ultra-efficient and is constantly a treat to watch. Without Curry, he gets more touches and more looks, and for whatever reason has increased efficiency more often than not. Watch out.

Draymond Green struggled with his shot, but with everyone else making seemingly everything, they do not even need many of his points. What he lacks in scoring he makes up literally everywhere else, as his rebounding especially has been fantastic this postseason.

As all basketball fanatics know, this is a team capable of basically anything, and the return of Steph Curry brings them that much closer to possibly being the best squad to ever grace the basketball court.

New Orleans Pelicans

Warriors Pelicans preview

(Photo from www.fansided.com)

Anthony Davis and the Pelicans are arguably the surprise of the postseason so far. They took down a very, very good Portland Trail Blazers team with what seemed like ease, sweeping them 4-0 and advancing sooner than anyone. Keep in mind that this is a Portland team that won 13 straight games at one point this season, and were hotter than anyone in the league. As soon as they reached the playoffs, they got a hint of Jrue Holiday, a dash of playoff Rajon Rondo and a heap of The Brow. You have to think this Portland team is going to look a bit different come next season.

Davis was up to his old tricks this series, averaging 33 points, 11.8 boards, 2.8 blocks and 1.8 steals with high efficiency. His excellence is almost taken for granted these days, and he could be the best player in the postseason barring any injuries. If James Harden does not win MVP for whatever reason, there is no way it does not go to AD.

Holiday and Rondo were the most pleasant of surprises, and were truly the difference makers in this series.  Holiday came away with some amazing averages of 27.8 points, four rebounds and 6.5 assists per game, while Rondo surprised everyone with 11.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 13.3 assists. And there is good news for Pelicans fans: Holiday loves playing the Warriors as he averaged 24 points and some other goodies against them in the regular season.

This Pelicans squad is one without DeMarcus Cousins, and have quickly proven that they are the real deal. Their only problem? Their next opponent.

Analysis

What the Pelicans have done this postseason is incredible, but they have a tough task ahead of them. Golden State is deeper, more experienced and has more studs. The season series was a 3-1 Warriors advantage, but there has only been one game played between them since the new year. The result was a six-point Pelicans win.

The Pelicans are a different team than what we saw before the All-Star Break, and this could be a competitive series. However, betting against the Warriors is usually not a good call, even with them not having the best 3-point shooter ever on their side.

The Pelicans will definitely put up a fight with their three big stars in the Portland series, but unfortunately they would really need a fourth guy to stand a chance against the defending champs. Each team should have a much tougher series this time around. The Pelicans should be able to steal some games and bring this series to a Game 6.

Prediction: Golden State in six

 

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New Orleans Pelicans playoffs

The Pelicans are for real

Late in a game against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 26, Pelicans star DeMarcus Cousins injured his left Achilles in the closing seconds of the battle. He was later diagnosed with a torn left Achilles, and as a result, underwent season-ending surgery. The four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA nominee was having the best season of his life. Up to that point, “Boogie” was averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists. With all that production gone, the Pelicans playoff aspirations appeared in jeopardy.

With Anthony Davis leading the charge, New Orleans went 21-13 in Cousins’ absence and earned the sixth seed in the tough Western Conference. They were set up to face the Portland Trail Blazers, who appeared to have the edge on paper. Portland has made the postseason in each of the last five years, while New Orleans had not played in the playoffs since 2015, a year in which they were swept by the Golden State Warriors.

New Orleans Pelicans playoffs

Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis combined for 88 points in the series-clinching game against Portland. (Photo from NBA.com)

According to USA Today, “not only did all four of USA TODAY Sports’ experts pick Portland, but all 22 of ESPN’s writers and all six from CBS Sports did as well.”  Maybe these guys should stick to their day jobs.

After defeating Portland 131-123, “New Orleans became the first No. 6 seed (or lower) to sweep its first-round series since the NBA switched from its best-of-five format in 2003” according to USA Today. The Pelicans absolutely dominated Portland, who had no answer for any of New Orleans’ star players, or even their role players.

In Game 3, Nikola Mirotic had 30 points on 12-of-15 shooting with eight rebounds and three steals. The only other player in NBA history with 30 points on at least 80 percent shooting from the field with eight rebounds and multiple steals is Hakeem Olajuwon, who also did it against Portland back in 1987.

In the clinching game, Anthony Davis erupted for 47 points and 11 rebounds, while Jrue Holiday went for 41 and added added eight assists. Rajon Rondo joined the fun with seven points, seven rebounds and a game-high 16 assists.

Now let’s take a further look into the Pelicans “Big 3″ by examining the numbers.

THE BROW

Davis, for the third time in his six-year career, led the NBA in blocks per game with 2.6. He averaged a career-high 28.1 points and tallied up 11.1 rebounds with 2.3 assists. He now has four seasons averaging a minimum 24 points on at least 49 percent shooting from the field, 10 rebounds and a free throw percentage greater than 75 percent. The only player with more seasons matching those statistics is Karl Malone, who has five. Keep in mind, Davis is just 25 years old.

Yes, we know he is great in the regular season, but what about the postseason? The media has been telling us that he is terrible since he has never won a playoff game. Are they aware that basketball is a team sport and Davis actually played extremely well in the four losses to the Warriors?

Dating back to those 2014-15 playoffs, “The Brow” now has seven straight games with at least 22 points and 11 rebounds. Shaquille O’Neal holds the record with 11. In his eight career playoff games, Davis is averaging 32.3 points per game, which is second-best behind Michael Jordan’s 33.4.

Consecutive playoff games with at least 22 points and 11 rebounds

*Still Active

PLAYER CONSECUTIVE NO. OF GAMES
SHAQUILLE O’NEAL 11
KARL MALONE 8
ANTHONY DAVIS 7*
KEVIN GARNETT 7
HAKEEM OLAJUWON 7

His epic Game 4 performance put him in elite company. Davis became one of six players (Jordan, O’Neal, Paul Millsap, Elvin Hayes, Charles Barkley) to finish a playoff game with at least 45 points on 60 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and multiple blocks. Of course, Davis could not have done without some help from his guards.

The Jruth

This season, Jrue Holiday joined LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry as the only four players to average a minimum of 19 points on 49 percent shooting and six assists. Holiday, a former All-Star, played in 81 games this year and set career highs in points, rebounds, blocks and win shares.

After Saturday’s win, Holiday became one of 12 players in NBA history to score 40 points on at least 65 percent shooting with eight assists. The last to do it was his teammate, Rajon Rondo, who exploded as a Celtic in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Championship against the Miami Heat.

Rondo

“Playoff Rondo” is not only the best version of the former Kentucky point guard, but it is quite possibly the second-best playoff point guard we have ever seen. Rondo had 17 assists in Game 1 against Portland. This was the fifth time he finished a playoff game with at least 17 assists and eight rebounds. The only other players with multiple 17-assist, eight-rebound games are Magic Johnson and Fat Lever.

No. of playoff games with at least 17 assists, 8 rebounds

PLAYER NO. OF GAMES
MAGIC JOHNSON 14
RAJON RONDO 5
FAT LEVER 2

In the series-clinching match, he added on 16 more assists, giving him 12 career with at least 15 assists in the playoffs, trailing only Magic Johnson (42) and John Stockton (27) for most all time. For his career in the postseason, which currently sits at 100 games, Rondo is averaging 14.2 points, 9.2 assists and six rebounds. The only other player in NBA history with at least 20 playoff games to average that stat line is Magic Johnson.

One more triple-double and Rondo will tie Jason Kidd for the third-most triple-doubles in NBA Playoff history.

No. of triple-doubles in the playoffs

PLAYER NO. OF TRIPLE DOUBLES
MAGIC JOHNSON 30
LEBRON JAMES 20
JASON KIDD 11
RAJON RONDO 10
LARRY BIRD 10
WILT CHAMBERLAIN 8

Whether he is a headache for coaches or not, Rondo has had quite the career. A classic point guard, Rondo has had six seasons averaging 10 points, nine assists and four rebounds, which is the fifth most behind Jason Kidd (11), Magic Johnson (10), Oscar Robertson (nine) and Chris Paul (eight). He also has four seasons averaging 10 points, 11 assists and four rebounds, which is second to Magic Johnson.

New Orleans Pelicans playoffs

“Playoff Rondo” is a scary sight for all opponents. (Photo from SlamOnline)

One of those four seasons occurred in 2015-16. As a member of the Sacramento Kings, Rondo averaged 11.9 points, 11.7 assists, six rebounds and two steals. The only other player to average those numbers was Magic Johnson, who accomplished this back in the 1983-84 season. If you are constantly being mentioned in the same department as Magic Johnson, you are clearly a pretty good player.

In all likelihood, New Orleans will square off against the defending champion, Golden State Warriors. On paper, they may appear like the underdog, but that is what the analysts said about them in the Portland series. After looking at these numbers, there is no way anyone can sleep on the Pelicans Big 3.

 

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first round

NBA playoff roundup: Summaries and analysis after two games

The first round of the NBA playoffs is here.

With every series shifting to the lower seeded team’s home court, it is time to take a look at where each team stands matching up with their opponent, some potential focus changes and predictions on how the next games will shake out.

Here is a summary of every series now that the first two games are in the books.

Eastern Conference

Raptors vs. Wizards

The Toronto Raptors finally shook the first game monkey off of their backs.

Up until Saturday, the franchise had never won the first game of a playoff series. Now, they hold their first-ever 2-0 lead.

Game 1 ended in a 116-104 win for the Raptors, although the final score does not quite tell the whole story. Toronto started off well, and got out to an early lead. By the end of the third, though, they only lead by one point. The bench players sealed the win in the fourth quarter, which is unsurprising, as Toronto’s bench has been fantastic all season.

first round

Lowry guards Wall during Game 1. (Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Game 2 was all Raptors, as the Wizards could not keep up after Toronto put up a 44-point first quarter. DeRozan led all scorers with 37 points, as the game wrapped with a 130-119 final score.

Although players like Serge Ibaka and Mike Scott have been terrific, the real story here is the battle of the backcourts. DeRozan and Lowry are winning this battle handily. Lowry is averaging 12 points and 10.5 assists, and DeRozan is giving the Raptors 27 points and 5 assists.

Wall seems to have no more rust to shake off, however, as he is putting up 26 points per game, and distributing at a clip of 12.5 assists per game. While Beal, who has played all year and earned his first All-Star appearance, can only muster 14 points and 3.5 assists.

The series is now shifting to Washington, but that is not necessarily a gigantic advantage. The Raptors away record is two games better than the Wizards’ home record. Expect the home crowd to give the Wiz a boost, but if the Raptors continue their trend of incredibly timely scoring, this series could be over in four or five games.

Celtics vs. Bucks

Although the Celtics are up 2-0 in the series, it has not been as lopsided as the record indicates.

In Game 1, Boston needed overtime to beat the seventh-seeded Bucks, after Khris Middleton knocked down a Hail Mary 3-pointer with 0.5 on the clock. It was a game of runs, as Boston had a 15-0 run to end the first quarter, with Milwaukee answering with a 21-5 run in the second. It was only fitting that a game that back and forth got an extra period.

As the old adage goes, though, better teams win in overtime. The Celtics outscored the Bucks 14-8 in bonus time, and took the win.

Game 2 ended with a 120-106 Celtics victory, but the Bucks were not hopelessly behind for the entire game. Rather, they hung around, but just could not muster the defense necessary to hold off Boston’s balanced attack.

As expected, Antetokounmpo has been the driving force behind Milwaukee, averaging 32.5 points and 11 rebounds in the two games. Middleton, the Game 1 hero, has been a scoring machine, giving the Bucks 31 points in the first game and 25 in the second. Outside of the Greek Freak’s 13 rebound performance in Game 1, though, no other Buck has had a double-digit rebound game. This likely has contributed to their 0-2 hole.

Without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics have looked just fine. In Game 1, four Celtics scored 20 or more, with Jayson Tatum only being one point shy of making it five. Six of Boston’s players had double-digit scoring games in Game 2. Not bad for an injury-laden team whose offense was written off after the All-Star break.

If the Bucks can break out of some bad habits and lackluster defense, they could even this series at home. But look for the Celtics to take the series with their more complete team and better coaching. Biding time until Marcus Smart can return in May, Boston has a lot to play for.

76ers vs. Heat

This series has been great, and will likely stay that way.

The “watchability” factor is due in part to the fact that Game 1 was an absolute blowout. The 76ers carried their cocky attitude and potent offensive attack into the playoffs to the tune of a 130-103 win. Even without Embiid locking down the paint, this young Sixers team found ways to score and keep Miami from doing much offensively.

Veterans and newbies stepped up for Philadelphia in the 27-point drubbing of Miami. Redick and Belinelli contributed 28 and 25 points, respectively, while Saric gave a 20-point performance. Ben Simmons, the possible Rookie of the Year, was one rebound shy of a triple-double, and Ilyasova turned in a double-double. There is not much an opposing team can do about that.

first round

Wade against Simmons in Game 2. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The story of Game 2 was vintage Dwyane Wade rearing his head. Wade played outside of his mind, scoring 28 points. He was playing off of the ball, however, only tallying three assists. Five other Miami players scored in double figures, including Dragic’s 20-point performance.

Saric and Simmons both had good second games, but while they received support scoring-wise, the defense was not enough to stop the Heat.

As the series moves to Miami, it will be the talk of the NBA if Wade can keep playing at this level. With Embiid still out, the series is up for grabs, as the mixed veteran and young talent of Miami tries to take advantage of the 76ers’ mostly inexperienced roster.

Hopefully, we are looking at a classic seven-game first round series.

Cavaliers vs. Pacers

The Pacers put an end to LeBron’s historic 21-game first round winning streak in Game 1 of this series. Considering all of Cleveland’s struggles this season, it is not really that surprising this is the year it came to an end.

In Game 1, the Pacers were on a mission to earn some respect. In the first quarter, they outscored the Cavs 33-14, and did not look back. Victor Oladipo, as he has been all year, was the focal point of Indiana’s offense. He scored 32 easily, while Stephenson, Turner and Bogdanovic all had double-digit scoring games.

LeBron had a triple-double, putting the Cavs on his back. It was not nearly enough, however, as they lost by 18 points on their home court. Only two other Cavaliers scored more than nine points, which cued the calls of “LeBron needs more help.”

Game 2 was a full-fledged LeBron takeover, though, as he was determined to not go down 0-2. James had 46 points and 12 rebounds, and outscored the entire Pacers team in the first quarter. As the Pacers cut an 18-point lead down to just four, more LeBron heroics sealed the win, as the Cavs came away with the three-point victory.

Any series featuring this Cavaliers team will be put under a microscope. The issues this team has had are not only well-documented but numerous. The second half of their season was less tumultuous, but it is generally agreed upon that 2018 could possibly put an end to LeBron’s streak of seven straight NBA Finals appearances.

Are the Pacers good enough to knock this battle-tested Cleveland team out in the first round, though? Probably not. Especially if LeBron continues his ageless 2018 campaign. Indiana does have a six-game advantage at home, versus Cleveland’s road record. But the Pacers continue to lean heavily on Oladipo.

Averaging 26 points in these first two games, probable Most Improved Player, Victor Oladipo, has no choice but to keep playing this well if the Pacers want to keep winning. Everyone knows what the Cavaliers can do when they put it all together, so, even though NBA pundits will say otherwise, the pressure is on Indiana to continue to impress.

 

Western Conference

Trail Blazers vs. Pelicans

The Pelicans have taken a surprising 2-0 lead in this third versus sixth seed first round series. It is magnified by the fact that both of these games have taken place in Portland, which features a fantastic home court advantage.

The first game was close, but the margin of victory would have been two possessions, if McCollum did not hit a prayer of a three-pointer at the buzzer. As with many NBA games, the final two minutes were the most exciting of the game. The Trail Blazers were within one point with one minute left, after a McCollum three.

The last minute was punctuated by poor decisions and turnovers by Portland. Not to be overshadowed, though, was some excellent defense by Jrue Holliday, which included a massive block with nine seconds left.

Another bad second half cost Portland Game 2 as well. The Pelicans dominated the turnover game and took advantage of every opportunity handed to them. Playoff Rondo is back in full force, falling one assist shy of a triple-double in Game 2, and had a massive 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter. He even stole the spotlight from Anthony Davis, which is no easy task.

first round

Jrue Holliday celebrates after a late foul was called against Portland. (Photo by Sean Meagher/Oregon Live)

It is hard to pick the brightest spot on the Pelicans roster over the first two games. Mirotic has proven to be an important addition, averaging 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. Jrue Holliday, as mentioned earlier, is playing well on both ends of the floor. Rondo contributed with his passing in Game 1, with 17 assists, and in all areas in Game 2. And of course, Davis has gotten his, with a 35-point, 14 rebound first game, and a 22-point, 13 rebound second game.

On the flip side, it is easy to pick out the problems for the Blazers. Lillard and McCollum have outright failed to carry the team the way that they did during the regular season.

Lillard is averaging 17.5 points, and McCollum has just a 15 point average. This is a far cry from Lillard’s 26.9 point and McCollum’s 21.4 point regular season average. These two simply need to play better, because when they do, the rest of the team feeds off of them. This is not an easy task, however, if Holliday and Rondo are going to continue to guard them as well as they are.

Yet another problem for the Blazers, is that the series now shifts to New Orleans. Not having the home court fans behind them has been a problem for Portland. The team is only one game above .500 on the road. The Pelicans only hold a three-game advantage at home, so expect the series to stay hotly contested.

Thunder vs. Jazz

Back-and-forth games have been the calling card of this series. Both games have been closer than their final scores indicate, due to late-game fouls and free throws. Lead changes are at a premium, and it appears that these two teams are evenly matched.

Game 1 featured two of the “OK3” have terrific nights. Paul George and Russell Westbrook combined for 65 points and 20 assists by themselves. Carmelo Anthony added 15 points and 7 rebounds, which helped carry the Thunder to a win.

Donovan Mitchell continued his dismantling of NBA defenses, with a 27-point night. He was also good for a double-double as he notched 10 rebounds. Six other Jazz players were in double figures in the scoring column, but the OK3’s 80 points were too much for the rookie-led Utah team. Both teams scored over 100, setting the stage for, possibly, the most exciting first-round series, depending on preference.

Continuing that trend, Mitchell did it again on Wednesday, earning 28 points. Derrick Favors turned in a double-double, and Ricky Rubio flirted with a triple-double. There were 13 lead changes in the game, but the last one in the fourth quarter belonged to the Jazz.

Westbrook, George and Anthony combined for 54 in Game 2. But Utah’s scoring was much more timely. The Thunder played well on the offensive end, as they usually do, but the defense that the Jazz are known for kept them ahead when it counted.

If the Thunder’s big three can continue averaging 67 points per game, it simply will be up to the Thunder’s bench to outscore Mitchell. The other big obstacle is Rudy Gobert, who locks down the paint with the best of them.

Utah’s home court advantage is significant, but the Thunder can score anywhere. Westbrook will have to continue to get his teammates involved, and Mitchell will have to play his brand of basketball to keep this series as fascinating as it has been.

Much like the Sixers-Heat series, we could be in line for a seven-game shootout here in the first round.

Warriors vs. Spurs

It seems as if the Warriors are doing just fine without Stephen Curry.

This is looking like the most lopsided series in the first round of the playoffs, because neither Game 1 nor Game 2 were close. The Spurs took minimal leads during Game 2, but they were short-lived. Other than those few instances, it has been all Warriors.

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are showing their age, and the absence of Kawhi Leonard is glaring. Even the Warriors’ bench is looking to be too much for San Antonio. The Spurs have lost both games by 21 and 15, respectively.

first round

McGee and Thompson both go up for a block on Dejounte Murray. (Photo by Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

They allowed Durant and Thompson to score over 30 in Game 2. Their only real scoring threat on a consistent basis is LaMarcus Aldridge. Even so, the Warriors can allow him to score whatever he wants as long as they continue to lock down the rest of the offense.

Meanwhile, the Warriors are playing so well that they have managed to take over the series despite just one double-double from any player in either game (Draymond Green, 12 points, 11 assists). Steve Kerr and this Warriors team are not only accustomed to the playoffs, but they have grown used to playing without Curry. Playing without the two-time MVP may not even cost them a game in this round.

The Warriors might perform sweeps of the Spurs in back to back years. Their only hope of salvaging a game is hoping Aldridge can keep repeating his 34 point, 12 rebound performance he put up in Game 2. Along with that, they will need Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili to score 15 or more while playing good defense.

Other than that, all the Spurs have to look forward to is the trip home, where they play well. But it is very likely the advantage will not mean much.

Rockets vs. Timberwolves

Game 1 of this series saw what is probably the closest the Timberwolves will come to snatching a victory away from the best team in the NBA.

Losing by only three points, the Wolves lost their chance to tie on an abysmal final possession that ended with Andrew Wiggins losing the ball out of bounds with less than a second remaining on the clock. Minnesota played well, and Houston played as poorly as they are going to, and it still was not enough.

James Harden went off for 44 points, as he essentially scores at will. Only Capela and Paul could muster offense worth mentioning, as Harden was option number one, two and three for the Rockets.

Burgeoning star Karl-Anthony Towns only took nine shots in the entire game, making three of them. That is not winning basketball for the Wolves. It seems as if their only hope is to overpower the Rockets with Towns in the paint, as Capela makes his shots, but gets no plays ran for him.

Game 2 was the kind of blowout one might expect for the one seed versus eight seed matchups.

The Rockets won by 20, and only needed 12 points from James Harden to do it. Chris Paul was the standout in this game, backed up by Gerald Green. Only three Wolves scored in double-digits, none of them scoring 20 or more.

Frankly, the Timberwolves are outmatched and outclassed. As the series moves to Minneapolis, a crowd that has not seen a playoff game in 14 years may shake the Rockets enough to allow Minnesota to steal a game away, though.

It is going to take more than 6.5 points per game from Towns to do it, though.

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Trail Blazers Pelicans preview

Trail Blazers vs. Pelicans series preview

The NBA playoffs are finally here. After a tumultuous regular season defined by injuries and shake-ups, we are bringing you some playoff previews before the first round begins.

Here we will examine one of the most evenly matched first-round series. The Pelicans and Trail Blazers match up well on paper, playing contrasting styles of basketball. It will likely be one of the more hotly contested series, as Anthony Davis and a fantastic Portland backcourt face off.

Here is a summary of the series between the No. 3 seed and No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.

Regular season summary

Trail Blazers

Portland’s road to the third seed was paved by the scoring prowess of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Fourth-year center Jusuf Nurkic was also small revelation, as he continues to improve.

According to NBA.com, the Trail Blazers sit just outside of the top half of NBA teams in their offensive rating. They land there despite a fantastic scoring offense due to their assist problems. The Blazers are dead last in assists per game, and 28th in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Despite the selfish play, Lillard scored at a clip of 26.9 points per game, and McCollum added 21.4 points per game while playing in 81 of 82 regular season contests. Nurkic was good for 14.3 points, and almost averaged a double-double, with nine rebounds per game.

Trail Blazers Pelicans preview

Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard during a game against the Nuggets. (Photo by Jack Dempsey/Associated Press)

The bench was less productive, however, despite having some talented players. The bench ranked 28th in points per game with 27.7.

A major strength of the team during the season was their underrated defense. Portland’s defensive rating puts them in the top 10 in the league. The Blazers’ defense tallied 5.2 blocks per game, which was seventh in the NBA.

Shockingly, the Trail Blazers are also in the top 10 in opponents’ points off of turnovers, even though they ranked in the bottom three in assist-to-turnover ratio. That stat speaks to a team that is not afraid to make mistakes, as they can rest easy knowing their defense can bail them out.

Overall, Portland has to figure out a way to break out of their iso-ball identity if they are going to advance very far in the playoffs. But the scoring of the Blazers’ three stars and great team defense can and will win them games.

Pelicans

The real story of New Orleans’ season has been Anthony Davis’ continued emergence as a bona fide superstar. Davis put the entire team on his back and carried the Pelicans to a playoff berth.

DeMarcus Cousins’ injury was supposed to spell doom for New Orleans in a brutal Western Conference. Averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, matching Cousins’ production is a tough hill to climb. Davis took that challenge in stride though and ended his season at 28.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.

With eight games with at least 40 points that all came with double-digit rebounds, Davis was nearly unstoppable this year, especially after Cousins went down. It is no secret that the entire offense runs through Davis, which will have to continue into the playoffs if New Orleans wants the wins to keep rolling in.

Trail Blazers Pelicans preview

Anthony Davis blocks Portland forward Maurice Harkless. (Photo by Steve Dykes/USA TODAY Sports)

The rest of the offense functioned well throughout the season as well. The Pelicans ended the season third in assists per game, which contributed to their top-10 offensive rating. However, the bench was 26th in scoring and 28th in rebounds. The bench does not get much time though, with 16.9 minutes per game.

New Orleans does not quite lack defensively, but the impressive stats do not add up to a fantastic defensive rating.

Sitting at third in blocks per game at 5.9 and eighth in steals per game at eighth, one would expect their ranking to sit higher than 13th. But this can be attributed to lackluster team defense. The Pelicans allowed the second most points and second most offensive rebounds to opposing teams.

Again, the key to success here is Anthony Davis. He has to play well, and receive some vintage play from Rajon Rondo to have any semblance of hope in the playoffs.

Breakdown and Predictions

Breakdown

The name of the game for Portland is stopping Davis, as previously stated. That will fall to Jusuf Nurkic, who is talented defensively. Davis is going to get his, but Nurkic has to stop the bleeding.

The backcourt matchups definitely tilt in favor of the Blazers. Rondo and E’Twaun Moore will have the unenviable task of keeping Lillard and McCollum off of the 3-point line. Rondo is starting to show his age, and Moore is more of a scoring guard, so they will have to keep a fantastic backcourt tandem from matching and raising Davis’ totals.

Benches tend to come alive in the NBA playoffs, so expect to see more production out of both benches now that the regular season is over. New Orleans had just a slight edge in the regular season, so it will be interesting to see which one can contribute more.

Again, if the stats are to be believed, it will be Portland who wins the rebounding battle. New Orleans is a smaller team than fans might think, and Portland has length coming off of the bench in Meyers Leonard and Pat Connaughton. Creating second chances and robbing a team of theirs is paramount to playoff success.

Trail Blazers Pelicans preview

McCollum and Davis both go for a rebound. (Photo by Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports)

With surprisingly similar 3-point percentages, those numbers will likely lean towards the Trail Blazers. The quickness of the wing players, in contrast to the more methodical approach that the Pelicans take, will swing it their direction.

New Orleans quite clearly has an advantage when it comes to ball movement. That will be a major problem for a Portland team that struggles to share the ball. Leaning on iso play will be hard with Davis guarding the paint.

Prediction

The smart money is on Portland here.

The Blazers have three different players that can hurt you, while the Pelicans have one. Not only do they only have one, they have made it clear that they will not be getting away from that style of play anytime soon, if their last month is to be taken as an example.

It will not be a sweep, and Davis will put up some eye-popping numbers while making Nurkic look silly more than a couple of times. But without another legitimate scoring option apart from scoring by committee, the Pelicans are looking at an early exit.

Trail Blazers in six

 

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NBA MVP candidates

2017-18 NBA MVP candidates

Another wonderful NBA regular season is in the books, and with the Golden State Warriors appearing to be a bit more vulnerable heading into the postseason, unlike recent years, the playoffs should be a joy to watch.

Wednesday’s slate of games gave us a good mix of drama and history. The Minnesota Timberwolves edged out the Denver Nuggets in overtime, 112-106, to clinch their first playoff berth since 2004. They will take on the Houston Rockets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

NBA MVP candidates

Why not average a triple-double for the second consecutive season? (Photo from ESPN)

Markelle Fultz, whose shot appeared to be broken during his rehab, became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. At 19 years and 317 days old, Fultz tallied 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in just 25 minutes. The 130-95 win over Milwaukee was the Sixers 16th straight victory. Philadelphia owns the third seed, and will take on the Miami Heat.

Russell Westbrook became the first player in history to average a triple-double in multiple seasons. Heading into Wednesday’s finale needing 16 boards, Westbrook corralled 20 and also added 19 assists. Whether his teammates let him get a few extra boards or not, this is quite the achievement for The Brodie.

Although most would say the Thunder underperformed considering it took them until Game 81 to clinch a spot in the playoffs despite being relatively injury-free the whole season, they finished as the fourth seed and will take on the Utah Jazz. This means that, for the first time since 2012-13, Carmelo Anthony will be back in the playoffs. In 66 career playoff games, Melo is averaging 25.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists. While he may look a tad washed up, “Playoff Melo” could surprise some people.

There are a lot of great storylines heading into the postseason, but today, we will be focusing on the NBA MVP candidates. Let’s take a look back at their seasons and what this past year meant for their overall careers.

James Harden

The overwhelming favorite, James Harden looks to finally win his first MVP trophy. He led the Houston Rockets to a 65-17 record, and scored a league-high 30.4 points per game. His field goal percentage was his best since 2013-14. Harden had the highest win share, which, according to Basketball Reference, is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player. This is the second year in a row in which Harden led the NBA in this category, and the third time in four years.

Harden joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant and Rick Berry as the only players to average 30 points, five rebounds and five assists while shooting 85 percent or better from the free-throw line. The addition of Chris Paul was obviously huge, as the Rockets finished with the 11th highest rated offense in NBA history.

This season marked Harden’s sixth in which he averaged at least 25 points, five assists and four rebounds, while shooting at least 84 percent from the line. This puts him ahead of Jordan for the most all-time. Below is a table which illustrates the top players in this particular category.

NO. OF SEASONS AVERAGING 25 POINTS, FIVE ASSISTS, FOUR REBOUNDS, WITH A FREE-THROW PERCENTAGE HIGHER THAN 84 PERCENT

PLAYER NO. OF SEASONS
JAMES HARDEN 6
MICHAEL JORDAN 5
LARRY BIRD 4
OSCAR ROBERTSON 4
STEPHEN CURRY 3
KEVIN DURANT 3

Harden is on a Hall of Fame pace, but needs to show up in the playoffs, as he has tendencies to shrink under the big lights. Only time will tell. Houston has a tough task ahead of them in the first round against the Timberwolves with a healthy Jimmy Butler.

Lebron James

NBA MVP candidates

Bow down to the King. (Photo from NBA.com)

For the first time in his legendary career, LeBron James played all 82 games. The King led the league in total points, field goals made and minutes during his 15th season at age 33.

 

His 9.1 assists per game were the most in his career, eclipsing last year’s average of 8.7. James also averaged 8.6 rebounds, which is tied for the most he has ever averaged in a season.

James became the first player ever to average 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on 54 percent shooting or better. He had 10 triple-doubles in which he shot 50 percent or better, which was more than anyone in the league.

2017-18 was The King’s 14th season in which he averaged 25 points, six rebounds and six assists per game. The next closest is Oscar Robertson with nine. Michael Jordan only had three seasons.

NO. OF SEASONS AVERAGING 25-6-6

PLAYER NO. OF SEASONS
LEBRON JAMES 14
OSCAR ROBERTSON 9
LARRY BIRD 4
MICHAEL JORDAN 3

While he may not catch Jordan in titles, James, by the numbers, is clearly the best basketball player to ever walk the planet. When you think of a complete player, you want someone who can efficiently score, pass and rebound the basketball.

Below is a table of players who, while shooting 50 percent or better, averaged 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists across an entire season. No one else in the history of the sport has done this more than once, and James just did it for the fifth time.

NO. OF SEASONS AVERAGING 25-7-7 ON 50 PERCENT SHOOTING OR BETTER.

PLAYER NO. OF SEASONS
LEBRON JAMES 5
LARRY BIRD 1
MICHAEL JORDAN 1
OSCAR ROBERTSON 1

Anthony Davis

When DeMarcus Cousins went down, it appeared the Pelicans’ playoff chances were in jeopardy. Instead of panicking, New Orleans went 48-34, which was their best record since the rebrand. They finished the season strong, winning nine of 13, and earned the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

Davis, for the third time in his six-year career, led the NBA in blocks per game with 2.6. He averaged a career-high 28.1 points, and tallied along 11.1 rebounds with 2.3 assists. Davis also shot 82.8 percent from the charity stripe, joining Bob McAdoo as the only two players in NBA history to average at least 28 points and 11 rebounds while shooting better than 80 percent from the free-throw line, as well as posting a field goal percentage of at least 50 percent.

Below is a list of players who averaged at least 24 points and 10 rebounds, with a field goal percentage of 49 percent or better, and a free-throw percentage of at least 75 percent.

NO. OF SEASONS WITH AT LEAST 24 POINTS AND 10 REBOUNDS PER GAME WHILE SHOOTING AT LEAST 49 PERCENT FROM THE FIELD AND 75 PERCENT FROM FREE-THROW LINE

PLAYER NO. OF SEASONS
KARL MALONE 5
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR 4
ANTHONY DAVIS 4
CHARLES BARKLEY 3

Although he has yet to win a playoff game, Anthony Davis is on a historic pace to be one of the best bigs of all time. The Pelicans face the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.

 

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NBA Western Conference Playoffs

Why each Western Conference team can and can’t win the NBA Finals

It truly is the “Wild Wild West” when it comes to the hunt for the NBA Finals.

We are only six days from the start of the playoffs, and seeding is anything but concrete. Every team, with the exception of the top two, could potentially end up anywhere. The third-seeded Trailblazers and the Nuggets, the first team out, are only four games apart.

Regardless of seeding, however, every team that makes the playoffs has the same goal: becoming NBA champions.

Knowing that the seedings can, and probably will change over the remaining two to four games for each potential playoff contender, it is time to take a look at what can propel them towards or keep them from winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.

No. 9 seed (first team out) – Denver Nuggets

While the Nuggets may be on the outside looking in for now, it is worth mentioning that they would safely be a playoff team if they were in the East.

Alas, they are not, and Denver is fighting for its playoff life with every game.

The Nuggets young core of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic are electric, and can be good for a very long time. Their positioning in some of the most important basketball stats is eye-opening.

Denver is sixth in points per game, seventh in rebounds per game (thanks to their fantastic length and speed) and fifth in assists per game. This makes them a scary matchup if they do claw their way into the postseason. Being able to score, rebound and share the ball consistently will make it hard for any team to dig its way out of an early hole, if they find themselves in one.

The youth and athleticism will also wear opposing teams out in a seven-game series. The Nuggets love to turn the transition game into a track meet after a steal, but also excel in post-up situations if it is called for, thanks to Jokic’s talents.

For all of these reasons, and the fact that some higher-seeded teams could overlook Denver due to their late season struggles, they could surprise the NBA all the way to the finals. Once the finals roll around, anything can happen, especially if a plucky eight seed manages to punch their ticket.

What will keep them from achieving those dreams, however, is their lackluster defense. With a defense good for 24th in the NBA, that probably will not translate well to the playoffs. As impressive as a sixth-ranked points per game offense is, it does not mean much if Denver cannot stop the best teams in the league from scoring.

The Nuggets certainly cannot go shot-for-shot with the Rockets or the Warriors, and the inability to overpower these teams defensively could spell an early exit.

No. 8 seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves’ season has been a bit of a roller coaster. At times, they have seemed like not only locks for a playoff spot, but true contenders. At others, they have massively underachieved, falling to legitimately bad teams.

Surprisingly for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, the offense has been the strength for Minnesota. They are ranked seventh in points per game and leaning heavily on the bona fide stardom of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Towns can score inside, outside and distribute the ball well. Jamal Crawford has seemingly tapped into the fountain of youth to become an important part of the team. Before his injury, Jimmy Butler was averaging the most minutes per game in the NBA, and backing up that playing time with some fantastic numbers.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

Karl-Anthony Towns will have to keep up his dominant performance if the Wolves hope to win a title. (Photo by Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

Their star power is where their title hopes live and die. The Wolves are well-coached, and they have the ability to take over any game at most any moment. If Butler gets his pre-injury step back, then his iso scoring ability will be too much for almost anyone guarding him. Odds are, opposing teams will have to create a mismatch elsewhere on the court to stop him, which the Timberwolves can and will take advantage of. If they can find a way to make that work over multiple series, then there is no reason Minnesota cannot take everyone by surprise and walk home with the title.

Again, this Thibodeau team surprisingly goes heavily against the mold previously casted by his other teams. Normally known for their shutdown defense, this Thibodeau team is flat-out average defensively. Barely outside the bottom 10 in terms of defensive ranking, mediocre defense is not something to get excited about in the playoffs.

In a case of strengths also being weaknesses, pure star power alone cannot get the job done for an average rebounding and defensive team. Add the fact that their bench ranks dead last in court minutes and offensive production, and leaning on Butler and Towns at (hopefully) full strength will be Minnesota’s option.

The Wolves can absolutely get out of the first round if they do not have to see the Rockets, but even that would require immense luck and unbelievable game planning. Sustaining a playoff run on two players and no bench does not make a true finals contender.

No. 7 seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

If it has been said once, it has been said a thousand times: The “OK3” have the ability to take over any game.

However, the Thunder have been underwhelming this season. It is hard to come up with a legitimate argument for why Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony could not figure it out and combine for 70-plus points on any given night. While Melo has lost a step and struggles to move without the ball, he can still fill it up. George’s defense has overshadowed his offense, which is impressive. And Westbrook is Westbrook, no explanation needed.

This team was not built for an 82-game season, it was built for the playoffs. It is important to remember that none of their big three have won a title, and they would all love nothing more than to check off that particular box. With Adams as a reliable rebounder and scorer in the paint, the Thunder even have a bail-out option if George and Anthony’s floor spacing is not working well and Westbrook’s lane to the hoop are clogged.

Their ability to win a title rests solely on their potential. It has been a potential that NBA fans have not seen. But again, this team screams, “NBA Finals contenders” on paper. With good game plans by Scott Brooks, they can absolutely reach that peak if it all finally comes together in the playoffs.

Similar to the Timberwolves’ problem, though, the Thunder’s bench is bad. Oklahoma City will absolutely have to ride the three big names through the playoffs. If we see more of what we have seen over the regular season in the playoffs, then a disappointing end to the season is inevitable.

Their defense is 10th in the league, mostly thanks to George and Westbrook’s ball-stealing abilities. Oklahoma City will be rolling the dice to see if they can rob enough possessions to win games. Many teams they might play throughout the playoffs will be teams that play fast and are not too worried about turnovers because of their scoring ability. Those steals will have to turn into points, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

No. 6 seed – San Antonio Spurs

Two words sum up the reason the Spurs can win the 2018 NBA Finals: Gregg Popovich.

That is an oversimplification, but it is not necessarily completely untrue. Popovich has never had less to work with as the Spurs streak of 50-win seasons will be coming to a close after 18 seasons.

With a 40-year-old Manu Ginobili, a Tony Parker that just cannot do what he used to and no Tim Duncan, the Spurs sit at the sixth seed. This without even mentioning the never-ending Kawhi Leonard saga that has plagued the team.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

It looks like Greg Popovich and the Spurs will be advancing to the playoffs for 21 straight seasons. (Photo by Jim Cowsert/Associated Press)

The defense is some of the best in the league, and the 3-point percentage is excellent due to disciplined shot selection. Popovich can outcoach almost anyone in the league with just about any roster. That kind of thing is a huge difference maker in the playoffs. The Spurs do not need to win every game, just four out of seven. That is more than doable. With their winning culture and fantastic pedigree, if the Spurs reach the finals, it would be hard to truly see them as underdogs.

The age here is huge though. The team is old, and the young players are inexperienced. Their biggest playoff x-factor would be LaMarcus Aldridge, and teams have been able to shut him down in the past.

The Spurs were swept last year in the conference finals without Leonard. While it seems as if they have found an identity without him this year, it is going to be hard to make a meaningful finals run without the two-way superstar. Teams simply are not scared of the Spurs this year, and intimidation was a big part of their game.

San Antonio will have no choice but to overachieve if they want to win it all.

No. 5 seed – New Orleans Pelicans

Speaking of overachieving, the Pelicans are doing a whole lot with very little.

After DeMarcus Cousins went down with an achilles injury, most NBA fans left the Pelicans for dead. But Anthony Davis has put the team on his unibrow and taken the team to new heights. Averaging 28.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, with multiple 50-point games mixed in, the identity of this team is clear. The Pelicans want to give Davis the ball and figure it out from there.

New Orleans has fantastic shooting stats, stemming from their ability to pass up good shots for great ones. Their 3-point percentage ranks in the top half of the league, but they do not take very many, which lends itself well to high percentages. The defense is also good. The balance of this team spells hope for a run to the NBA Finals.

But Davis alone will not be enough to carry them to the finals, let alone win them. All an opposing team has to do is find a way to take him out of the game. This is no easy task, but these will be the best teams in the NBA the Pelicans will be playing against.

The fundamental basketball is sound, but pairing it with the run-and-gun offenses they will be facing will surely overpower New Orleans. If the Pelicans still had Cousins, this would be a completely different story. But as the team stands now, they might have the least chance to win the Finals, regardless of their fifth seed.

No. 4 seed – Utah Jazz

The defensive prowess of this team is their strongest suit. The defense of the Jazz alone can get them out of the first round.

With a scoring threat led by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell and the improved shooting stroke of Ricky Rubio, Utah is a scary matchup. Coupled with their late season push, this team is coming together at the right time.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell has been a driving force in Utah’s playoff push. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)

The passing and ball movement is fantastic. They have a great inside-out game, and they will be counting on teams underestimating them once the playoffs roll around. It was not too long ago that the Jazz were on the outside looking in. Now in the fourth spot in the West, they have legitimized themselves and are forcing teams to take them seriously.

The core might just be too young to make a deep run though. Leaning on defense is a tough sell when matching them up against the Rockets or the Warriors. Teams with their jump-shooting abilities thrive on finding the holes and exploiting them constantly.

Regardless of where they sit when the playoffs begin, the first-round matchup featuring the Jazz will be must-watch basketball for any NBA fan. This could be the beginning of something special, even if they do not have the juice to win it all.

No. 3 seed – Portland Trail Blazers

CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard combine for one of the best backcourts in the game right now. The emergence of Jusuf Nurkic as a rock-solid post player has given the team a great option down low. The bench is fantastic and the wing players are some of the best three-and-D men in the NBA

One could accuse the Trail Blazers of playing above their ceiling, but that is a hard argument to sustain given their records against the other best teams in the league. The defense is also playing nice, making Portland a complete team.

Being fourth in rebounds per game also guarantees them enough possessions to get their shooters going, which is essential in their offense. Portland can shoot themselves out of almost any kind of deficit they find themselves in. That kind of pedigree can win a title in any era.

However, playoff basketball is about adjusting when other teams take away their strengths.

The Trail Blazers are dead last in assists per game. It has not hurt them too much in the regular season, but if opposing defenses can take away their iso scoring game, then they are going to try to force the ball into tight spaces, resulting in turnovers.

Selfish basketball can win a team their division, or even their conference, but it does not lend itself well to winning a playoff series or a title. Portland will have no choice but to work to break themselves of that identity and find ways to move off the ball if they want to make it out of the Western Conference.

No. 2 seed – Golden State Warriors

The only thing more well-documented than Golden State’s struggles in the 2017-18 season is their dominance over the past three years.

Banged up, reeling and playing uncharacteristically down to their opponents’ level, the Warriors have let their death grip on the West slide. But this does not spell disaster for Golden State.

Until further notice, they are still the reigning Western Conference champions with a great coaching staff and four All-Stars in their starting five. It looks like the Warriors should be at full strength by the second round of the playoffs.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

The Warriors might have to play the first round of the playoffs without All-Star Stephen Curry. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

If Stephen Curry comes back at full strength and Kevin Durant continues the current tear he is on, then the Warriors are still the scariest team in the West. Much like the Spurs, Golden State is coasting on reputation until they have to back it up once the playoffs start.

This roster, including a great bench, can own any team at a moment’s notice, no questions asked. They also know their opponents well enough to expose any weaknesses at any position. No one in the NBA community is going to be surprised if they represent the Western Conference for a fourth straight year. The Rockets will probably be their toughest test, so if they do make it to the NBA Finals, expect the dynasty to be official and unequivocal.

However, Houston is the tallest of orders for this team right now. Golden State has made it known that they are vulnerable. Again, the banged up roster could be a problem for the team. Sharing the ball is key to the Warriors’ success, and without shooters like Curry, an extra pass could lead to a turnover. It could also lead to missed shots, which is more of a problem this year than it has been in previous years.

This is because their defense has gone downhill in the worst kind of way. As far as points allowed goes, Golden State is 17th in the league.

Giving opposing teams confidence is the very last thing the Warriors want to do. Golden State thrives on putting their boot on teams’ necks early and applying pressure with a barrage of made shots.

They are not done until they are done, but the playoffs will undoubtedly be more of a test this year than they have been. And the NBA is all the better for it.

No. 1 seed – Houston Rockets

The offensive juggernaut that is the Rockets has earned the top spot through some amazing play. They deserve the home-court advantage and then some.

They are second in points per game, first in 3-pointers made, and their defense ranks in the top 10 in terms of points allowed. The Chris Paul and James Harden experiment has paid off handsomely, and the bench is rallying around the exciting brand of basketball that Houston plays night in and night out.

Even if the defense was truly awful, it would not matter due to the Rockets’ 3-point shooting abilities. Clint Capela also collects enough offensive rebounds to solidify himself as a legitimate playoff threat.

This team can dethrone the Warriors. They have beaten them in the regular season, even when the Warriors were at full strength. If Paul, Harden and Capela are on the floor, the Rockets cannot seem to lose. If they do make the finals over Golden State, go ahead and place your bets, because they can run away with it.

The only real problem with this team is their reliance on jump shooting. For Houston to thrive, shots have to fall. Any NBA fan knows that teams have nights where the ball just does not go in the basket. It is hard to believe that the Rockets would fall victim to enough of those games to remove them from title contention, but it is entirely possible.

If the Rockets can get the Warrior-sized monkey off of their backs and shake their reputation of fizzling out in the playoffs, the NBA Finals may very well be theirs to lose.

 

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James Harden MVP

The NBA MVP is Harden’s to lose

It is not a secret that James Harden is the clear frontrunner for the NBA MVP award. Other names are inevitably mentioned throughout the season, but Harden’s has been the mainstay.

Tuesday’s matchup between the Trail Blazers and the Rockets may have been his victory lap. A 42-point performance against one of the hottest teams in the league solidified his campaign, especially considering Portland’s team features some of the best guard play in the league.

Harden has been a man on a mission this season. After coming second in MVP voting twice, he has been out to show the NBA he is more than just a runner-up. He is an unstoppable force that will go down as one of the best multifaceted offensive players in league history.

Here is an in-depth look at his rise to glory during the 2017-18 season and why he is a virtual lock to take home the trophy.

Stats

After Tuesday’s 42-point performance, Harden’s stats stand at 31.2 points, 8.7 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game.

His player efficiency rating is an NBA-best 30.67. A stat like that is not only a testament to what he brings to his team, but also a comment on the success of the Rockets’ analytics-based team-building strategy.

James Harden is also shooting almost 47 percent from the field in his last 10 games, and 45.2 percent on the season. Considering the amount of jump shots he takes, that number is sky high. He is also shooting 86.7 percent from the free-throw line, slightly higher than his 85.5 career percentage.

James Harden MVP

James Harden during his 60-point triple-double performance against Orlando. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

At 37.5 percent, his three-point percentage may seem weak compared to the NBA’s best percentage, 44.7, held by Darren Collison. But, on average, he takes 7.3 more threes per game than Collison, meaning he hits more threes per game this season than Collison even attempts.

What should not be overlooked here is the assists. Harden is playing with Chris Paul, one of the best assist men in NBA history. He is actually averaging almost an entire assist more per game this season than his own point guard. Even with a prolific passer running the offense half the time, Harden still has the ability to distribute the ball and find his shots.

This is exemplified by his 27 double-doubles and three triple-doubles. Included in those is an NBA-record 60-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist performance that was good for the most points ever scored in a triple-double.

All of those are MVP-level stats, regardless of one’s feelings about the current “offense over everything” identity of the NBA.

Praise

Harden’s incredible season is garnering a lot of attention from players and coaches alike.

Of course Harden’s own coach is going to laud his abilities, but Mike D’Antoni took his praise to the next level.

Calling someone “the best offensive player I’ve ever seen” is a very big deal, especially coming from D’Antoni, who has been coaching professional basketball for almost 30 years.

Considering he has coached some of the biggest offensive names in basketball during his coaching tenures, such as Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash, it takes the praise even further.

Harden’s main competition in the MVP race, Anthony Davis, is a fantastic young player who has put the Pelicans on his back after DeMarcus Cousins’ injury. But even his coach, Alvin Gentry, said the race is, “not even close,” in an interview with The Houston Chronicle.

Eric Gordon, Harden’s teammate, has stated that he can’t imagine anyone else being the MVP this year. Chris Paul has gone on record saying the MVP voting will take care of itself.

The Beard himself, however, has been hesitant to talk about a possible MVP award. Again, he’s been in the conversation for the past five years, and come in second place twice. One of those second place finishes was against Russell Westbrook’s triple-double season last year. That is the very definition of running into a buzzsaw.

All of that aside, it seems as if his time has come this season. He has only one true competitor, and many sports news outlets are starting to ask if he can be the second unanimous MVP. He certainly deserves it, yet it’s likely some votes will swing to Davis, considering he is single-handedly keeping the Pelicans afloat in the playoff race.

Defense

The only thing that could possibly stand between James Harden and the MVP is his defensive shortcomings.

Harden has been the butt of many jokes regarding his effort on the defensive end of the floor. The internet is littered with GIFs of him barely running down the court, or simply clearing the lane completely when a player is driving towards him.

The Houston Rockets’ system has found a way to mask these issues though. With the offensive capabilities of the team, defense is not the focus so much as matching the other teams’ shots. If there is anything Harden can do, it’s go shot-for-shot with anybody in the NBA.

James Harden MVP

Harden guards LeBron James. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

Even so, his defensive stats are up slightly from his career average. His steals are up 0.3 per game, and his blocks are up 0.2 per game. Now, these numbers aren’t huge, but consider that if there is a steal made, Harden is usually the one running up the court instead of holding the ball. And guards’ blocks are simply a luxury item, not to be compared to the importance of forwards’ block numbers.

Any coach or player will tell you that defense matters, and it does. But when a team puts up almost 114 points every single night, it can be allowed to take a back seat. Harden’s defense might be another reason he may not be the second-ever unanimous MVP, but it won’t lose him the award by any means.

With Lil B’s curse lifted once and for all, it is finally Harden’s year.

 

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playoffs

Predicting NBA playoff seeding

The NBA playoffs are almost upon us. Scheduled to start on April 14, the playoff picture is anything but concrete.

Injuries, fatigue, rest and a general agreement that seeding doesn’t really matter once the playoffs start, are all signs that anything could happen. The top two teams in each conference are surely safe, but the three through eight seeds are most certainly up for grabs.

With that in mind, here are some predictions on how the playoff seeding might shake out.

Eastern Conference

No. 8 Seed – Miami Heat

Eight seeds are the hardest to predict, for obvious reasons. The Heat, however seem as if they’ll wrap up a spot in the playoffs.

playoffs

The Miami Heat are an unexpected playoff contender this year. (Photo by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports)

Their closest competition is the Detroit Pistons. Considering both teams’ remaining schedule is very comparable, the safe bet here is Miami. They are a more complete team with a battle-tested coach.

The Pistons would have to win all 10 of their remaining games against teams with losing records, and chalk up some upset wins, too. Even then, the Heat would probably have to drop some games they’re supposed to win. It seems as if the Blake Griffin pickup won’t be enough this year.

No. 7 Seed- Washington Wizards

The Wizards are a solid team, featuring fundamental play and a tough coaching matchup. They currently sit as the East’s fifth seed, but their schedule is ridiculously difficult down the home stretch.

11 of the Wizards’ 17 remaining games come against teams with winning records. With star point guard John Wall still potentially up to four weeks away from returning to the lineup, the Wizards are going to drop games. Washington is 10-6 since Wall had knee surgery.

Bradley Beal can certainly pick up some slack with his fantastic shooting ability. But the Wizards will need more help than that to stay in the fifth slot, or rise in the standings.

No. 6 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

With a pretty even schedule against winning and losing teams remaining, the Bucks should sit in the seven seed.

playoffs

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks look for a second straight playoff berth. (Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

The young team, led by the Greek Freak, has been a mini-surprise in the 2017-2018 season. The Bucks fired their head coach in the middle of the season, causing some to leave the team for dead. But under interim head coach Jon Horst, they have found an identity.

That identity is give the ball to Antetokounmpo at every opportunity, sit back, and watch the fireworks. If teams find a way to guard Giannis, their three-point game is solid enough to rack up the wins necessary to play some springtime ball.

No. 5 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers, who had the most games in the NBA after the All-Star break, still have 19 games remaining.

Their path to the playoffs, however, is shockingly easy. Only six of their next 19 games come against teams with a winning record. With the youth on this team, fatigue will more than likely not be a problem down the stretch.

One thing to keep an eye on, though, is the inexperience and injury history on the team. The major pieces on the 76ers have never played a minute of playoff basketball. The players who have been to the playoffs are veterans, which is a nice way of saying that they’re old.

But these are mainly problems they’ll face once the playoffs roll around. The push to secure seeding shouldn’t be an issue for Philadelphia.

No. 4 Seed – Indiana Pacers

There’s no reason to think that the Pacers can’t continue to surprise the league. Their schedule is undeniably tough going forward, but the team has continued to manufacture wins.

Victor Oladipo is the focal point here. His meteoric rise during the 2017-2018 campaign is the largest part of the team’s success. Bogdanovic, Turner and Jefferson are all solid role-players, but Oladipo’s 24 points per game are still catching opposing teams off guard.

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

playoffs

LeBron James and the new-look Cavaliers made it to the 2016 NBA Finals, despite not being the top seed. (Photo by Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

When discussing why the Cavaliers won’t fall in the standings, it would suffice to just write the words, “LeBron James.”

Apart from James, though, the new pieces are fitting nicely in Cleveland. They have not lived up to the sky-high expectations formed just before the All-Star break, but that would have been nearly impossible. But, the team has been, without question, an upgrade from the previous iteration.

Cleveland’s schedule is fairly even going forward. Judging from their tumultuous season so far, the Cavs will probably lose some games they are supposed to win, and win some games they might be slated to lose.

With their experience, drive to prove themselves, and The King, the third seed is more than likely where they will stand going into the playoffs.

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

The Celtics have the best coach in the league, by almost anyone’s measurement. Kyrie Irving is having a fantastic season, and their roster is complimentary to the team’s play style from top to bottom.

Offense has been a huge issue for Boston, recently. They currently sit at 16th in NBA offensive rankings. That’s hardly what one would expect from the team with the East’s second best record. But these shortcomings speak to the Celtics’ strengths more than anything.

The defense is fantastic. When watching Boston play, the team defense is undeniable. Coach Brad Stevens has a real commitment to the little things that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. That is what will keep Boston at the second seed.

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

playoffs

DeMar Derozan has led the Raptors to the East’s best record. (Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

The decision on who would hold the Eastern Conference’s number one seed came down to who would win the remaining matchups between the Celtics and Raptors. The race for the top spot going into the playoffs could very well come down to those two games.

But, more faith needs to be put in the resume Toronto has built during the season.

The Raptors own the NBA’s fourth best offense and the third best defense. Coach Dwane Casey has clearly reached a new level. He’s reached these players and motivated them in a way that’s evident during every game.

The stars, Derozan and Lowry are clear leaders. Serge Ibaka has accepted his role as a third option. The bench is deep, and dangerous.

The schedule is tough, but the Raptors are tougher.

Western Conference

No. 8 Seed – Denver Nuggets

Yet again, the decision here came from examining remaining strength of schedule. The Los Angeles Clippers the Utah Jazz lose that particular race.

playoffs

The young core of the Denver Nuggets has been incredibly effective this season. (Photo by Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports)

Not to sell them short, however, the young talent on the Nuggets has definitely impressed. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic create a solid core that can keep them in any given game.

A paint-focused offense, and a serviceable defense should secure them a spot in the playoffs. It doesn’t hurt that Los Angeles has experienced roster shake-ups, and Utah is one of the streakiest teams in the league.

No. 7 Seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota was once as high as the number three seed. But losing Jimmy Butler to a meniscus injury has plunged them into a potential bubble team. Being that the West is so highly contested, that has proved to be a killer.

Butler was averaging the most minutes in the NBA, contributing 22.2 points, 5 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game. Having a star go down with an injury would be a problem for any team. But it seems like this particular loss couldn’t have come to a more impactful player at a more important time.

The Timberwolves should have him back by the time the playoffs roll around, which is great news. Thibodeau and the Timberwolves need to keep the ship afloat until then, however.

No. 6 Seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have been trending downwards in the past 10 games. They are 6-4 in these contests, needing a 43-point performance by Westbrook in a come back win against the lowly Phoenix Suns.

playoffs

The “OK3” have underachieved, but they can all still be a force to be reckoned with. (Photo by Layne Murdoch Sr./NBAE via Getty Images)

Having them at the sixth seed is merely a belief in their defense and star power. The “OK3” are a force to be reckoned with in any game. George, Anthony and Westbrook hardly ever all contribute at a high level within the same game. But, all three of them are capable of going off, even if it is at the expense of the other two’s stat line.

Billy Donovan, once a scapegoat for the team’s unimpressive showings, has seemed to figure out the right balance. The bench is irrelevant here, as having three Type-A personalities in the same starting lineup dictate how the contest will be played.

Faith needs to be put in these three players, as none of them will accept missing the playoffs entirely.

No. 5 Seed – New Orleans Pelicans

Anthony Davis has been an absolute assassin in recent weeks. He’s had six 40-plus point performances since the beginning of February. All six of those games featured 10 or more rebounds.

Since DeMarcus Cousins went down, it’s no question that Davis has accepted is role as the number one, two and three options for the Pelicans. But it is a little ridiculous to think he can keep putting up these kinds of numbers every night.

If he has an off night, it’s hard to trust Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to will New Orleans to a win by themselves. With the kind of drive he’s been showing, however, Davis can keep them no lower than the number five seed.

No. 4 Seed – San Antonio Spurs

Similar to the Cavaliers, all one needs to say here is, “Gregg Popovich” to inspire confidence in the Spurs.

playoffs

Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich will no doubt be the determining factors regarding the Spurs’ seeding. (Photo by Darren Abate/Associated Press)

Kawhi Leonard has only played in nine games since the beginning of the NBA season. He said in an interview on Wednesday that he hopes to return to the lineup this season. When asked for a specific timetable, he only said that he wants to return “soon.”

Soon means nothing, but if he does get the opportunity to return, don’t expect he’ll need an adjustment period. Kawhi is a premiere two-way talent that has been focused on playing since he left the lineup.

Airing on the side of a hiccup-less re-introduction to the starting lineup, the Spurs can hold their ground and even rise in the standings.

No. 3 Seed – Portland Trailblazers

Damian Lillard is now in the MVP conversation. CJ McCollum is capable of scoring 50 points if he has the ball enough. Aminu and Turner are solid wings that the team can lean on in the case of a shooting drought.

Portland notably upset the Warriors right before the All-Star break. They lost the first meeting, though, and have not been able to beat Houston yet. Anyone else in the league is on notice when playing the Trailblazers. The offense is great, the defense is quick, and the schedule is manageable.

No. 2 Seed – Houston Rockets

The Rockets embody the hope of every team that the Warriors can be overtaken in the Western Conference playoffs. And they still can.

The strength of schedule is, again, what makes the difference here. The Rockets play 12 teams with winning records, to the Warriors’ 11. Both teams play 7 teams with losing records. Since the schedules are so comparable, the trust has to be put in the defending champions.

Houston has an incredible three-point game, and the rest of the offense is only slightly less polished. The addition of Chris Paul has been revelation, and Clint Capela has risen to new heights. James Harden is running away with the MVP race.

But over their remaining games, the four Warriors All-Stars will intimidate opposing offenses slightly more.

No. 1 Seed – Golden State Warriors

As stated above, intimidation is the main reason the Warriors will probably sit in the West’s top spot heading into the playoffs.

Golden State are champions until they lose, and losing is the only thing at which the NBA can count on the Warriors being bad. Thinking that this particular team has grown complacent and aren’t concerned with owning the one seed, is a mistake.

playoffs

Golden State still has the most impressive roster in the NBA, regardless of their record. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

All four of the team’s superstars are hyper-competitive, and Houston taking away their spotlight has surely made them hungrier to assert their dominance over the conference. The Rockets and Warriors are certainly on a collision-course, but the Warriors will probably still own the regular season.

Featured image by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports

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NBA All-Star Game format a hit

This year had to be different. With the recent All-Star games in the NBA, fans were getting disinterested, as it was just a prolonged dunk contest. It failed to truly showcase how great the players partaking in the game were. NBA Commisioner Adam Silver and team captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry all stepped up to make the new NBA All-Star Game format work.

The Draft

2018 NBA All-Star Draft

All-Star Draft (Photo by: express.co.uk)

One conference playing another in any All-Star game was a great idea, before interleague play started happening in every professional sport. It allowed room for debate of who had the better players and which conference was better overall. It solved the great unknown questions of the era.

Those questions are, for the most part now answered.  Now teams get to play each other multiple times a year in the NBA and the Western Conference is deeper than the Eastern Conference. Players no longer take pride in their conference, but rather in their specific teams and themselves. The change to a draft format was necessary.

James and Curry treated the draft the right way, with James selecting Kevin Durant to start off the selections. Both tried to field teams that could win rather than picking players they were close with. Curry was unable to get his teammate, Durant, and James didn’t pick his teammate, Kevin Love, early at all.

The draft itself helped create some interesting matchups and combinations that fans now wonder about. James and Durant, the two best players in the league, were on the same team. James was reunited with teammate Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook and Durant were on the same team for the second straight season after Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder.

As for matchups that were created, Dwayne Casey coached team LeBron and against his own players, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Westbrook and Irving got to match up with Curry and Harden in a battle of the best guards in the league. When Team LeBron went small late in the game James got the pleasure of guarding Joel Embiid that created some great sequences.

The Effort and motivation

2018 NBA All-Star Game

Photo by: fatmouthsports.net

All the players had a lot to play for, as the winning team would get $350,000 to charity, while the losing team gets $150,000. While these aren’t great personal stakes, it gives the players something to take pride in.

This also helped create a sense of competitiveness around the game. The minutes weren’t split evenly as in past years. James played 31 minutes (as opposed to just under 20 in 2017), while Curry accumulated 26 minutes. Al Horford logged only 12 minutes and Goran Dragic was in for 11 minutes. (LaMarcus Aldrige played four minutes due to injury and Jimmy Butler sat out with sickness). While the West gave a lot of playing time last year to it’s starters, the East did not give anyone more than 24 minutes.

Not only were there more minutes played for the stars (overall), than most years, but they were on the court when it mattered. Team LeBron had their starters (with a minor concession of subbing Anthony Davis out for Paul George) on the floor at the end. Team Stephen put in Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green in at the end of the game in an effort to get a stop. Both teams gave themselves a chance to win because they put their best players on the court (or tried to) for whatever situation came up.

Another surprise was, players actually fouled to prevent baskets rather than running out of the way. There were 16 personal fouls in 2017. This year there were 26. That’s a perfect mix of making sure no one gets hurt from crazy fouls and actually trying for an All-Star Game.

The main thing that made this work was the defensive intensity. Last year there were 374 total points scored. This year the teams’ defense stepped up and only 293 total points were scored. Curry was held to 27% shooting from deep, while Harden was even worse at 15%. Staples Center did have some pretty stiff rims, but the defense was also a cause of the low shooting percentages this year.

The Finish

When it came down to the last quarter, it was apparent that both teams were actively trying to win, which isn’t always the case in an All-Star game. Timeouts were called to set up plays and, as mentioned before, the best lineups were put in for the best results.

At the very end it was Team LeBron storming back to take the lead 148-145. They needed a defensive stop against a team that was loaded with some of the best three point shooters in history. To end the game, James and Durant were able to trap Curry in the corner and prevent him from getting off a great shot.

That play capped of the best NBA All-Star game in years. If that wasn’t enough for fans, Adam Silver announced that the same format will be used next year, but that the draft will be televised. This should just generate more interest and competitiveness between players.

For once fans can get excited about All-Star weekend again.

 

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NBA All-Star

NBA All-Star Game predictions

You either love the NBA All-Star game, or you’re completely uninterested in it. There’s no real in between, and it’s not hard to understand why. Watching super-rich athletes engage in playground basketball with their friends is either exciting or nauseating.

NBA All-Star

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks during the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. (Photo by Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports)

In the past, it’s basically been a continuation of the dunk contest. Once the player is past half court, the lane clears, and the man with the ball gets to show off. Last year’s All-Star game ended in a 192-182 victory for the West. To put that into perspective, the average score of a game last season was 105.6 points. That’s how little NBA All-Stars are interested in guarding their man.

Now, be well aware that these are the best scorers in the league, in most cases. And defense is not only less exciting than offense, but it takes more effort. The All-Star break is a rare occasion that these star players can get meaningful rest, it is what’s paramount to a successful back end to a season, and playoff runs. So working hard on the defensive end of the floor doesn’t quite make sense for them.

The problem is that the game doesn’t mean anything. There’s no competition because bragging rights are essentially irrelevant to these players. They have already proven they’re the best in the game by being chosen, so why try?

The new draft format and $100,000 cash prize are attempts at trying to remedy this issue. It’s unclear whether or not these changes will make any difference in competitiveness. But before evaluating and predicting, let’s look at the updated rosters.

Rosters

Team LeBron: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Bradley Beal, Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook

NBA All-Star

Westbrook and Durant will be on the same All-Star team for the second year in a row. (Photo by Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Team Curry: Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar Derozan, Joel Embiid, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Al Horford, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns

Worth mentioning here is the fact that LeBron’s squad has lost four All-Star selections to injury. In the first year of the draft format, that’s not good. It’s especially bad considering all of the injuries came from the same team.

Also worth noting is that Westbrook and Aldridge missed four games between them in the last week. They will be ready for the All-Star Game, but that’s two more question marks for Team LeBron.

The replacements for injured players were not conference-specific. While in the past, someone from the same conference would have had to be chosen, this time it’s simply overall vote-getters. This probably led to the continued snub of Lou Williams, and Dragic sneaking his way in.

Team Curry

With all of his original players still in the lineup, Curry’s team has to be the favorite.

With Antetokounmpo, Derozan, Horford, Embiid and Towns, the team has tremendous length. And those of them who can’t slash to the bucket can certainly handle themselves around and beneath it.

Add in Curry and Harden, and that should be all the shooting they need. But, still, they have Butler, Lillard, Lowry and Thompson to pick up the slack. All of them can also get to the hoop, as well. But with the length on display, expect to see a lot of three-pointers from this team.

Team Curry is also being coached by Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets. The Rockets have the best record in the NBA, and the most potent offense in the league. Not that a team of this many great players will need much coaching, but expect D’Antoni to draw up offensive set pieces consistently and try to win this game with 150-plus points.

Team LeBron

Again, this team has been decimated by injuries. Four have been replaced, and two more are reportedly not at 100 percent.

Those replacements have been: Paul George for DeMarcus Cousins, Goran Dragic for Kevin Love, Kemba Walker for Kristaps Porzingis and Andre Drummond for John Wall.

NBA All-Star

Kristaps Porzingis won’t participate after tearing his ACL on Feb. 6. (Photo by Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports)

These injuries have made the team markedly smaller. Porzingis’ and Love’s replacements cost the team almost two feet of length. Having Drummond in for Wall stops the bleeding a little, but Drummond is not effective more than five feet from the basket. Kevin and Kristaps are both big men who can shoot from anywhere, and rest assured they would be if they were playing.

Some NBA fans might like the current lineup better for one reason or another. The point of All-Star selections is that they are subjective. And in just one game, the pieces don’t necessarily have to fit perfectly to win. But, losing four bonafide All-Stars for players that were “the best of the rest” shouldn’t inspire confidence.

LeBron’s team is being coached by Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors, who have the best record in the East. A no-nonsense defensive coach is a definite shake up for the All-Star Game. If Casey holds the other squad to less than 140 points, he will have lived up to that reputation.

We all know that LeBron is tired of losing, but we’ll see if he can will his team to that $100,000 prize.

Effort

Speaking of $100,000, does it really matter to some of the richest athletes in the sport? These players not only have massive contracts, but they’re all so good that they have deals and endorsements and appearances to help bolster their bank accounts.

What many fans might not know, is each member of the losing team will get $25,000. So that narrows the net winnings to $75,000. Sure, it would be life-changing money for most people in the world, but is that $75,000 worth the effort to these players?

Players don’t want to sound ungrateful, or out of touch with the rest of the world. So odds are, all 24 of them would answer with some form of, “yes, of course it matters.” And I’m sure it would be nice to have $75,000 more than you had yesterday. Especially if you receive it for playing a game you play every single night. But the fans will never really know how interested the players are. It’s an exercise in futility to read into it too much. The players will give however much they want to on the court, end of story.

LeBron will be out there trying his best to win. Curry will, too. They did put these teams together, after all. They want to be seen as a better “fantasy” manager than the other. But with the injuries, LeBron’s team has an excuse if they lose, and Curry’s team has a small incentive to take things easy on defense.

NBA All-Star

Curry and James picked the All-Star teams, and will go head-to-head again in 2018. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

With the new format, this should be a more competitive game. It will still be high scoring, and there will still be more joking around than defensive pressure. But the winning team won’t be eight points shy of 200 this year.

Prediction

Team Curry wins, 163-148

This was an easy call to make. The shooting and athleticism on Curry’s team is overwhelming. LeBron’s team will show more effort, and with Coach Casey on the sidelines, will be more engaged on the defensive end. But in the end, the shooting is what will matter.

People will clear the lane for Antetokounmpo, Harden and Curry will take 15 three-pointers each, and Embiid will trash talk his way either into or out of America’s heart.

Featured image by Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

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