Western Conference Playoff Preview

NBA Western Conference finals preview

And now, the matchup you’ve all been waiting for; The clash of the Titans; The metaphorical NBA Finals everyone has wanted to see all season is upon us. The Golden State Warriors will face the Houston Rockets in the NBA Western Conference Finals (Game 1 on Monday).

These two teams boast the best offenses in the league during the regular season. Both teams are Averaging at least 112 points per game, so casual fans can expect high scoring games and many shots to be taken. As for the diehard NBA fans, expect to watch the best offensive schemes the game has to offer. As basketball enthusiasts, we have been drooling over this possible matchup throughout the year, and we actually get to watch it, unlike in years past.

For those that need catching up on the NBA or just feel like reading for the buildup, continue reading as normal. For those that know these teams inside and out, feel free to skip the next section. WARNING: watching these two teams will feel like a school session, with the class specializing in movement off-the-ball. Take notes if you have to.

 DURING THE REGULAR SEASON

Western Conference finals preview

James Harden (Photo by businessinsider.com)

The Rockets secured the home court advantage as the top seed in the West with the best record in the league (65-17) and won the regular season series against Golden State (3-1). Superstar guard, James Harden, will probably end up the league’s MVP with the season he has had; posting numbers like 8.8 APG (assists per game), 5.4 RPG (rebounds per game), 86% FT (free throw) percentage, a league-leading PER (player efficiency rating) of 29.8, and career high in points per game with 30.4.

The question coming into this series is: Will Harden be able to lead his Rockets as the MVP past the Warriors? Or will the onslaught of Warriors’ famed “death lineup” be too much for his team to handle? While this discussion isn’t all about James Harden, he will certainly be the focusing point of this series for not just the Warriors, but for all basketball fans.

Harden will not be doing it all by himself; there are other key players he has in Houston, such as fellow guard and 9x all-star Chris Paul making his first ever conference finals (13 seasons) to help distribute the ball to his teammates and orchestrate the offense. Clint Capella has had a breakout season both offensively and defensively; second in blocks per game and first in FG% (granted most if not all of those baskets come from within five feet of the rim). And from the bench, Eric Gordon posted 18 PPG on 43% shooting. Houston have rotational players that fill the roles of deep threat shooting (Ryan Andersen and Gerald Green), defensive anchors (Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute) and size (Nene) needed to complete an NBA roster.

The Warriors dealt with injuries to Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Steph Curry throughout the season. Very rarely, did we see the healthy death lineup during the season. That apparently did not stop the Warriors being the highest scoring team in the league (113 PPG) despite having to settle for the no. 2 in the West.

Steph Curry, while injured during the final quarter of the season, still posted a good season averaging 26 PPG, 6 APG and 5 RPG. Kevin Durant posted almost identical numbers to Curry but switched the assist (5) and rebounding (6) numbers. The Warriors have utilized the veterans on the squad for rotation and that has been what has made them so dangerous in the past. From death lineup member Andre Iguodala all the way to rookie Jordan Bell and G-League call-up Kevon Looney, Steve Kerr has not been afraid to go deep into his bench this season.

HOW HAVE BOTH TEAMS LOOKED IN THE POSTSEASON?

Houston has conceded two losses thus far in the postseason (one in both previous rounds). Their versatile offense had proven incredibly difficult to defend for teams known for their defensive mindsets in Minnesota and Utah. The high pick and roll between James Harden/Chris Paul and Clint Capella/Nene has been their main staple and has usually caused defenders to switch and force mismatches. This draws attention from help defenders which can leave Houston’s shooters open for the two of the best passing guards to casually dish them the ball. And if help doesn’t come, that usually means a lob for Capella or an ISO finish from Harden/Paul.

One standout this postseason has been Clint Capella. The center is leading the playoffs in blocks with 2.9 per game and has won his matchups between Karl Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert; I am not saying Capella is by any means the second coming of Olajuwon, but his presence in the paint has been felt throughout the Rockets playoff run. Defense is what has been somewhat of a criticism of the Rockets in the past; especially with the system Mike D’Antoni has been famous for deploying. However, Capella looks to have become a major defensive catalyst for the Rockets high powered offense.

Western Conference finals preview

Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (Photo by fansided.com)

Golden State played the first six games of their postseason without Steph Curry (one series and the first game of the semifinals). The Warriors began their run by beating a Kawhi-less and partially Pop-less San Antonio in 5 games; Coach Gregg Popovich left the team indefinitely as his wife tragically died of illness during the series.

The following series they faced Anthony Davis and the red-hot Pelicans; Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo had helped Davis sweep Portland in the previous round. If the semifinals were a test, Golden State passed with flying colors conceding one loss and ending the series in five.

Steph was reinserted into the squad in Game 2 of that series and didn’t seem to have lost any of his shooting touch; at last, the death lineup was back for the playoffs. With the team seemingly now healthy and four games of being able to re-awaken their chemistry, these seem to be the championship Warriors of the past few seasons; a lot of movement away from the ball, back-door cuts, slip screens and threes… lots and lots of threes.

 

HOW WILL THE SERIES PLAY OUT?

Houston’s most effective lineup (defensively and offensively) will be Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker and Clint Capella. Eric Gordon is better coming off the bench. This allows him to be the focus of the offense when Harden or Paul needs a breather.

Harden and Paul will attempt to create switches to result in them being defended by a JaVale McGee, David West or Kevon Looney, as they are not good perimeter defenders and can be exploited with speed and finesse.

Their most effective lineup matches up well with Golden State’s death lineup in terms of size. The question will be can they keep up defensively with their movement away from the ball? Will Paul and Harden be able to chase Thompson and Curry all over the court? If they switch, what matchup are they willing to concede on that possession? This team may be able to keep up with Golden State offensively, but this series will come down to whether or not the Rockets can stop Golden State on defense.

Throughout this series, the Warriors will no doubt deploy the death lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. As we saw last season, this lineup appears unbeatable on both ends of the floor.

Green’s size and basketball IQ allow him to be able to defend almost any player on the court all while also being able to run the offense (Green is averaging close to a triple-double this postseason). Kevin Durant, while not the team’s leader, is the team’s most unstoppable force on the offensive end; the Rockets can only hope to slow down the 6’10” lanky forward. Iguodala (or “Iggy” as he is called), has been the team’s most gifted defender for the past few seasons now and can shoot from deep.

Houston will have a quite a task in stopping this team when it counts and I haven’t even talked about the Splash brothers yet; Klay and Steph have been touted by their previous coach, Mark Jackson, as the best shooting backcourt in the game’s history and don’t expect this series to be any different.

Shawn Livingston, David West, and McGee will be pivotal for the Warriors rotation in this series off the bench. One thing that will be interesting to see is if Kerr tries inserting rookie Jordan Bell to deter or hinder Capella with his heavier size and athleticism.

So, who wins? Who advances to the NBA Finals? While Houston may house the league’s probable MVP, his often-criticized individual defensive deficiencies may be his team’s undoing.

Expect the Warriors to try and get Harden to chase Klay or Steph around the court and make him expend more energy on the defensive end. What’s that Houston? You have Chris Paul now? That may be so, but this is also, for whatever reasons you want to come up with, his first ever conference finals.

Even if Houston matches up well defensively in size, that still leaves the most talented scorer in the game and his name is Kevin Durant. KD will not be stopped by any defender the Rockets have to offer as his size, ball handling, shooting and athleticism allows for him to have the advantage in nearly every situation this series could put in front of him.

And again, all of that without mentioning two of the best (if not the best) shooters this game has ever seen. Curry may not yet be completely healed from his knee sprain, but on this team, he may not have to.

The Warriors play a style that encourages individuals as much as it does teamwork, and that goes all the way to the end of the bench. The Warriors will be fresher and they have been to this stage many times in the past few seasons. Harden has disappeared in a key game in past series. Mike D’Antoni has made a conference final. What hasn’t happened are these Rockets getting past the Warriors when it matters most and don’t expect that to change.

Golden State wins in 6.

 

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Rockets Jazz preview

Rockets vs. Jazz series preview

The 2018 NBA Playoffs are off and running, and the second-round matchups are starting to take shape. There has been a mix of surprises and predictability thus far, and the second round should hold more of the same.

The second and final Western Conference semifinal round was set following Utah’s win over Oklahoma City on Friday. The Rockets have been waiting since Wednesday to see who they would be facing in the second round.

With the matchup official, here are some predictions and analysis of what this series could hold.

Houston Rockets

The Rockets made short work of the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves. Winning in just five games, Houston clearly overmatched and outclassed the Wolves.

Second halves were particularly strong for the Rockets. This includes a 50-point third quarter in Game 4. Every time it seemed like Minnesota had momentum, it was stomped out by the Rockets’ hot shooting and solid defense.

Rockets Jazz preview

Chris Paul dribbles against Derrick Rose during their first-round series. (Photo by Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports)

Only one of the five games was decided by single digits, as Game 1 ended 104-101 in favor of the Rockets. The rest were either blowouts or not hotly contested. The closeout game was decided by 18 points, which is indicative of the what the Wolves were able to muster against the best team in the NBA, in the face of elimination, no less.

The Rockets have scored an average of 110.4 points per game through their five contests. They are first in 3-pointers made and attempted, leading the second place teams by a wide margin. Despite their high-scoring ways, Houston’s field goal percentage sits at 44.5 percent. This is probably due to their offensive style of play, relying on threes rather than high-percentage looks.

The focal point of that offense, James Harden, sits at 29 points per game in the playoffs. His 3-point percentage is sky high, at 38.5 percent. Chris Paul, his backcourt teammate, is scoring at a clip of 19 points per game, while dishing out 6.6 assists. Those assists actually sit 0.8 lower than Harden’s.

Houston just keeps solidifying itself as the best team in the NBA. But with a relatively easy first-round matchup over, now the real tests begin.

Utah Jazz

One of the best stories in the 2018 playoffs has been this Utah Jazz team. Led by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, Utah took down a team led by three potential future Hall of Fame talents in the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In six games, the Jazz were able to ride their brand of defense-oriented basketball to a series win that not many saw coming. The combination of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony was supposed to be built for playoff basketball. But the team fell flat against a potential new Western Conference powerhouse.

Rockets Jazz preview

Donovan Mitchell drives against Corey Brewer during the first round of the 2018 playoffs. (Photo by Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Mitchell has been putting up numbers not seen by a rookie in the playoffs since Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Averaging 28.5 points per game while also grabbing 7.2 rebounds, Mitchell has continued his dominance. Ricky Rubio has also been playing very well, scoring at a clip of 14 points per game and dishing out seven assists. Rubio also had a triple-double in Utah’s Game 3 win in Salt Lake City.

Coach Quin Snyder’s team has arguably over-achieved this season on the back of a possible Rookie of the Year campaign by Mitchell. But their undeniable performances against Oklahoma City and their big three may paint this team in a different light. The defense is some of the best in the league, and the scoring is confusing and frustrating of opposing teams.

Utah is a team that struggles to draw free agents, but if the team continues to play like this, then Western Conference championships and NBA Finals appearances are certainly on the horizon.

Preview and predictions

Utah will be an interesting challenge for the NBA’s best regular season team. Houston has a historically high-powered offense, but NBA fans just saw the Jazz’s defense shut down some of the premiere scorers in the league in the first round.

With Rudy Gobert locking down the paint, he might neutralize Clint Capela in the post. His two blocks per game are tied for fourth in the playoffs, and he can guard smaller players as well. Rubio has never been known for his defense, but his offense has nearly matched that of Chris Paul’s lately. Plus, his passing ability rivals Paul’s own.

The matchup to watch, however, will be Harden versus Mitchell. The defensive end of the floor will be irrelevant, but the offensive show these two players can put on will be ridiculously exciting. Look for Mitchell to do his best to match Harden’s performance, while Harden looks to show up the rookie at all costs. Plus, NBA fans have seen Harden go cold in the playoffs in the past, whereas Mitchell just keeps on delivering.

In the end, though, it is hard to bet against this Houston team. Their regular season pedigree speaks for itself, and in the NBA, more so than any other sport, great offense can beat great defense.

This one will be close, and a new rivalry might be born. But expect the Rockets’ push towards the finals to continue.

Rockets in six

 

Featured image by Jeff Swinger/USA TODAY Sports

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Game 7

Playoff teams most likely to win a Game 7

“The two best words in sports,” is the cliche often used to describe a Game 7.

A winner-take-all game is always exciting. Whether it is in the first round of the playoffs, or for the championship. Whether a person considers themselves a casual or rabid sports fan, it always feels like must-watch TV. A moment that will allow you to say “I was there when…”

With the NBA playoffs heating up, and the games getting more and more important as teams climb the ladder towards the NBA Finals, it is time to take a look at the teams most likely to win those games.

Here are the teams with the rosters most suited to win a Game 7, if a series should come down to it.

Golden State Warriors

Saying the Warriors can win one game is a little like saying that the sky is blue. But for sake of the argument, let’s look at their credentials.

As the dynasty has taken shape, the Warriors have only had to play two seven game series. Back to back, no less. Both series were infamous in their own ways.

The first was in the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder, before Kevin Durant switched sides. The second was the NBA Finals, as the best regular season team of all time fell to LeBron and the Cavaliers in Game 7.

The difference here is the aforementioned Kevin Durant acquisition. The Cavaliers proved to be too much for the Warriors in Oakland in 2016, but Golden State “only” had two prolific scorers back then, not three.

Game 7

Draymond Green drives to the hoop against Manu Ginobili during Tuesday’s Game 5 win. (Photo by Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Stephen Curry is slated for a return in the second round, assuming the Warriors finish off San Antonio. With him, Durant, Thompson, Green and their fantastic bench, it is going to take a fantastic team to take them to seven games, let alone win the series.

It seems as if the Warriors and the Rockets are on a collision course for Western Conference dominance. If that happens, then a potential Game 7 would take place in Houston, as the Rockets had the best record in the NBA. Against any other team, a Game 7 would be in Oakland.

Golden State, though, had the same record at home and on the road during the regular season, at 29-12. Obviously, the Warriors would like to play in front of their own fans, but a road game does not necessarily put the team at a disadvantage.

The Warriors can beat any given team, and have. With a fully healthy squad and the multitudes of playoff experience, betting against them in a winner-take-all game might be a fool’s errand.

Houston Rockets

Speaking of the Rockets, it is hard to deny that their offensive capabilities can overtake any team on any given night.

There is one obvious and pressing question facing Houston, however. Can they shrug off the idea that they are chokers, or that they lay down when the playoffs roll around?

Game 7

Paul and Harden celebrate during a game against the Denver Nuggets. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images)

This is clearly a different Rockets team than we have seen in the past. The efficiency and shooting is off the charts, and they play legitimate defense. Chris Paul and James Harden have ditched their ball-hogging ways in favor of pacing and rhythm. Their three point shooting is historic, but does not hamstring their mid-range or low-post games.

The problem, though, is that if a team is going to commit to the jump shot, then they have to fall to stand a chance. Any and every team can go cold on a given night, and it will be especially memorable and demoralizing if that happens in a Game 7.

Houston’s home record is three games better than their road record (34-7 versus 31-10). That is good news, considering they will probably have home court advantage, regardless of their opponent.

The key to winning a Game 7 for Houston is to bury the opposing team early. As the Timberwolves have been well aware during their series with the Rockets, no lead is a comfortable one. When almost every player on the floor can score in bunches, problems arise for opposing defenses.

Riding their shooting abilities and continuing to play their brand of fast-paced basketball on both ends on the floor is their bread and butter. If the Rockets find themselves in a Game 7 situation, their opposing team will be preaching that every other statistic and record is irrelevant, and that anything can happen in a one game series.

That should not be Houston’s approach. The Rockets would need to go into that game remembering that they are the number one overall seed for a reason.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto is also on a quest to shake off some preconceived notions about their playoff performances. For the first time in franchise playoff history, the Raptors won a Game 1. So far, so good, but this team still has some proving of itself to do.

Not unlike the Rockets, the Raptors also seem to be different this year than in years past. In 2016, they lost in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2017, they were swept in the second round. Both series losses were to the Cavaliers, as they made their way to the NBA Finals.

Since 1996, the Raptors have played just two seven game series. The most recent was in 2016, as they beat the Pacers in Game 7 to earn their first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Game 7

DeRozan hangs on the rim after a dunk. (Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

This is a much, different team, though. DeRozan and Lowry are a dangerous backcourt duo when they are both on, and the role players have never been this good. Between those two and Valanciunas, Ibaka, and one of the most productive benches in the NBA, it seems as if Toronto can take on any team in the league at their best.

Coach Dwane Casey has balanced star power with fundamentals as well as any coach in the league, including Steve Kerr. Toronto rode that game plan to the East’s best record, and a chance to disprove doubters once and for all.

Toronto is much better at home than on the road. Considering they are the East’s number one seed, that should work out just fine. Unless they face a Game 7 matchup if they are able to reach the NBA Finals. At 25-16, their road record is a full nine games worse than their home record. Considering the Raptors’ rabid fanbase, that is not very surprising.

Much has been made of Lowry’s postseason struggles, and DeRozan’s feast or famine performances. But the fantastic bench and great defense can mask those issues in a single game. Sometimes, bench performance can be the difference in those games. Although, stars playing to their fullest potential is always the goal.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Here, it would probably be sufficient to write the words “LeBron James” and be done with it. But, while he is the heart and soul of the team, he is not the only player on the floor.

Cleveland’s struggles this year have largely been the focal point of the entire season. At the end of the day, though, this team can win close games.

Game 7

James embraces Love after their Game 7 NBA Finals win. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

J.R. Smith is a spotty shooter. Kevin Love essentially disappears if the team does not feed him the ball enough. Nance, Jr., Hood, and Green are all good complimentary pieces, but tend to shrivel under the spotlight. At any point, though, everyone just mentioned could play second fiddle to LeBron’s heroics. If they are all on, then teams are going to have a hard time figuring out what to do with the Cavaliers.

Lest we forget, the LeBron-led Cavs dethroned the Warriors in that historic Game 7. James also won a Game 7 against the Spurs in 2013. He is, without much argument, the best player in the world, and he can take over games at will.

Nothing would will James to a victory like a championship-or-bust one game series.

Tyronn Lue and the Cavs have beaten the best regular season team in NBA history in a Game 7. And while this iteration is much different, and not without its glaring issues, if the Cavaliers find themselves in this position again, it is hard to bet against The King.

Featured image by Ravell Call/Deseret News

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Minnesota Timberwolves

Wolves vs. Rockets: Recap

The Minnesota Timberwolves are trailing behind in the NBA playoffs. They were falling into a 0-2 deficit against the Houston Rockets because Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns hadn’t shown up to play for the past two games. Finally, the Wolves responded back with a 121-105 victory on Saturday. The question is, can they do it again?

Wolves turning Things around

The two superstars finally woke up and put on a show at home in Game 3. Butler led the way, coming out in full beast mode throughout the whole game. For the first half, he had 11 points, shooting 5-8 of his shots. He then ended the night with 28 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Jimmy Butler pulls up shot. April 21, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Earlier in the series, Butler only averaged 12 points for the first two games of the series. Towns finally got past Houston’s double-team defense and had a breakout game as well. For the first two games of the series, he was locked down against Houston’s defense, being double-teamed and was only scoring single-digit numbers.

This was very rare for a player who averages 20 plus points per game since 1979. In the game, on Saturday, Towns didn’t score until the second quarter. He finally broke loose after dunking over Rockets’ center Clint Capela. Towns finished the night with 18 points shooting 5 for 13, but it still wasn’t one of his best games.

Five Wolves Scored more than 17 points

These two superstars weren’t the only ones who contributed to the win. They had help throughout the whole game. Andrew Wiggins has been the main standout throughout the whole series, scoring 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in Saturday’s game. Former Cleveland Cavalier, Derrick Rose provided assistance for the Wolves coming off the bench. He finished the night with 17 points in 21 minutes.

Point guard, Jeff Teague was also on fire Saturday night penetrating the basket and shooting from the perimeter and making an and-one floater in the fourth quarter to keep Minnesota in the lead. After that, Butler followed behind with a three-pointer, stripped Rockets’ superstar, James Harden, and then passed it to Teague to score another three. This was the first time the Timberwolves had won a playoff game since 2004.

Keys for Game 4

The Timberwolves spotted Houston’s defense and began to strategize to pull off a win to hold on in the series. They shot 50 percent from the floor and went 15 for 27 from three-point range. This could give Minnesota the spark that they needed in order to win the next few games to knock Houston out of the playoffs. If the Rockets play with intensity on offense like they have been in the regular season, and re-strategize their defense in order to shut down Towns, then they should be able to finish off the Timberwolves.

Minnesota Timberwolves

James Harden playing defense on Towns
(Houston Chronicle)

Harden went 9 for 21 in Saturday’s game; this was a sloppy game for the MVP runner-up. For the first two games, he had a total of 56 points, leading the Rockets with the help of Chris Paul. Paul only had 17 points and six assists on Saturday. If this dynamic duo plays smart on offense, then they will lead their team to the next round. Game 4 will be at Houston on Tuesday, April 23rd.

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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.

 

Featured image by ClutchPoints

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Non-star difference makers

LeBron James. Kevin Durant. James Harden. These are all names that most households around the world are familiar with or, if not, have at least heard once or twice. They are the best players on their respective teams, and their teams have legitimate shots at a championship partially due to their excellence and presence on the court.

But if you took any of these players and all the supporting cast out of the equation, none of these guys could win a single game one-on-five, no matter how good they are. Everyone on the basketball court needs help in one way or another, and often times these supporting cast players appear to make the studs better. Here we will talk about the non-stars who are making a difference so far this postseason and how they could possibly lead their contending team to a championship.

Photo source: www.fivethirtyeight.com

JaVale McGee

After averaging less than 10 minutes per game and not even five points or three rebounds in his limited playing time, JaVale McGee has come alive in the playoffs as the Warriors starting center. He propelled them to an early lead in Game 1 against the Spurs and was solid in Game 2 as well. His two-game playoff averages are currently at 12.5ppg on 71 percent shooting, 5.5rpg, 1.5s, and 1.5b in just 17.5 minutes.

These per-minute numbers are just phenomenal and could get more minutes if 1) he didn’t make simple mistakes and 2) fewer teams went small against the Warriors.  He is a great defensive presence and has helped the Warriors in a great way so far in this series.  If Zaza comes back, I think Javale deserves the starting role and most of the minutes at the five regardless of his return.  Finals MVP?

Clint Capela

Sticking with the theme of important centers, Clint Capela was huge in the Rockets’ Game 1 win over the Timberwolves, racking up 24 points, 10 boards, a steal and three blocks in the dominant performance. Chris Paul and James Harden both said great things about him after the game, calling him dominant and describing his energy as “contagious”.

One of the most important takeaways from this is that he did it against Karl-Anthony Towns, who is a fairly decent basketball player.  He truly held his own and outscored the starting All-Star center by 16 points, which speaks wonders. Harden and Paul’s elite passing abilities do make Capela’s offensive job a bit easier, but he takes all credit for his tough defense.  We’ll see what kind of game he and Towns have in Game 2.

Photo source: www.raptorshq.com

Delon Wright

This is a very non-household name, but Wright leads the way on the best bench in the entire league. The Toronto Raptors have a couple stars, a few other solid starters, and the rest of them are just very consistent contributors off the bench. Wright and other bench guys like Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, C.J. Miles, and Pascal Siakam have all been a great part of Toronto’s first-seed berth this season.

Wright has averaged 14.5 points in two games so far in these playoffs, helping the team go up 2-0 on the Wizards. While the points are important, the defense he brings to the table is something else, already averaging three steals and a block and a half in his two playoff games.  Wright and the rest of the bench have a great chance of assisting in taking the Raptors far in this race for the championship, and I think they could surprise some people.

Terry Rozier

Ever since Kyrie Irving went down, Terry Rozier has been fantastic for the Celtics, especially in these playoffs. Once again, this is not necessarily a household name for most NBA fans. Heck, not even his current opponent Eric Bledsoe knows who he is. When asked how personally he takes the matchup with Rozier, Bledsoe said: “I don’t even know who the f— that is”.  Granted, this was not the nicest thing Bledsoe could have said after the loss, but Charles Barkley said it best:  Rozier is the guy who is “kickin’ yo ass”.

Excuse the profanity, but Chuck isn’t wrong here. Rozier has led Boston to a 2-0 lead over Giannis and Milwaukee behind averages of 23.0ppg on 47 percent from the floor, 3.5rpg, 5.5apg, and 1.0spg. He has defied all expectations, and while he is no Kyrie Irving, he should be huge for this team’s playoff run. Bledsoe, meanwhile, is sitting at just 10.5ppg on 36 percent shooting, 5.5rpg, 4.0apg and not much else. To add to the embarrassment, Bledsoe is averaging three turnovers per game, while Rozier hasn’t committed a single one this series.

Conclusion

There is plenty of media and talk about the studs that carry their respective team and have great nights consistently, but some guys truly don’t get enough credit. Despite not even hearing about some of these names in an average basketball-related conversation, their opponents have heard plenty about them, and are vital to the success of their respective teams.  A lead role is nothing without his supporting cast members, and some of the support these stars have been getting has exceeded all expectations for fans and teammates alike.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Featured image by Ravell Call/Deseret News

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Rockets Timberwolves preview

Rockets vs. Timberwolves 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.

An eight seed has upset a one seed in the first round only five times in the history of the NBA. The Timberwolves are hoping to make it six after breaking their 14-year playoff drought. The Rockets, however, are looking to continue their winning ways as they have their eyes on a title.

Here is a summary of the first round series between the No. 1 seed and the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.

Regular Season Summary

Houston Rockets

The Rockets finished the 2017-18 season with the best record in the league, at 65-17.

Their offense was nothing short of prolific as they made their way to clinching the West’s top seed. Houston was first in 3-pointers (both attempted and made), second in points and second in free throws made per game, despite their jump shooting ways.

James Harden, the probable NBA MVP, played out of his mind this season. He collected 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. Not to mention he owns all of these stats despite missing 10 regular season games due to knee soreness. The assists are especially surprising because of the addition of Chris Paul, who is one of the premiere passers in the NBA.

Paul and Harden proved any doubters that this combination could not work laughably wrong. Worried that two ball-dominate guards could not operate in the same system, NBA pundits thought the experiment would go horribly wrong, as neither would be able to get enough shots to be productive.

Rockets Timberwolves preview

Harden and Paul congratulate each other mid game. (Photo by Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)

Paul got his, however. He averaged 18.6 points, 7.9 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game, all while missing 24 games due to a multitude of injuries. The third piece of this puzzle, Clint Capela, averaged a double-double. Eric Gordon, Gerald Green and Trevor Ariza also averaged over 10 points per game in support of the Rockets’ big three.

Houston’s defense was no slouch either. The Rockets rank sixth in defensive rating, with a fifth place finish in steals. They also were in the top half of the league in blocks, opponents’ points off turnovers and opponents’ second chance points.

Being the No. 1 with the best record in the NBA does not lend itself to having many exploitable weaknesses. The most glaring issue, though, is Houston’s reluctancy to share the ball.

The Rockets are 26th in assists, which is decidedly bad. Obviously, it has not hurt them too much, as most every player on the floor can score at will. But the playoffs will test a team’s weaknesses in a way the regular season cannot. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but Houston’s main hurdle between them and a trip to the NBA Finals is Golden State, a team that shares the ball more than any other in the league.

Overall, coach Mike D’Antoni’s group has overachieved and then some. The main pieces are all healthy at the right time, and the stage is set for the Rockets to shake the woes that follow them into every NBA playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota, as previously stated, has broken their 14-year long drought, landing the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs. They had to do so by winning an instant classic, win-or-go-home overtime game against the Denver Nuggets. It is only fitting that in a playoff race as wild as the West’s was this year that the last game of the season would decide the eighth seed.

But the Timberwolves’ season was pretty wild before that last game.

Sitting as high as the fourth seed at the All-Star break, the wheels seemingly came off of Minnesota’s wagon as the rest of the Western Conference gained steam. As they started losing, the rest of the West had no problem racking up their wins and climbing up the standings.

The biggest harbinger of the Timberwolves’ disappointing second half was the loss of Jimmy Butler to a meniscus tear. Butler, at the time of his injury, was averaging the most minutes of any player in the entire league. He ended the season with an average of 36.7 minutes per game.

The problem for Minnesota was that with those minutes, came production. Butler scored 22.2 points per game on the season, almost six points above his career average. He was also the team leader on the defensive side of the court. As a result, the Timberwolves suffered on both ends of the floor when he was not playing.

Karl-Anthony Towns continued to be the brightest spot on the roster. He averaged a double-double at 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game. Towns continues to get better defensively, although that is not really saying much as of now. He also posted an impressive 54.5 field goal percentage while shooting 42.1 percent from three.

Rockets Timberwolves preview

Jeff Teague shoots over James Harden. (Photo by Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press)

Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson contributed well, despite their age, and were continuously counted on as huge pieces of the team. The rest of the roster, though, did not impress. Gorgui Dieng and Andrew Wiggins’ numbers were down from their career averages, and Jeff Teague was good while he was healthy, but was forced to take a backseat to Butler and Towns.

Finishing seventh in offensive rebounds per game and second in free throw percentage, the Timberwolves proved tough, even when overmatched by more complete teams. They also did not turn the ball over much, at just 12.5 times per game, which was also second-best in the league.

The defense was lackluster at best in Minneapolis. The team’s defensive rating landed them in the bottom 10 at 23rd overall. Cycling through the defensive statistics and seeing where the team finished in each paints a picture of an inconsistent defense. This is exceptionally rare for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau.

More pressing than any other issue that plagued the team throughout the season, though, was the awful bench play.

Minnesota finished dead last in minutes, points, rebounds, blocks, offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. They also were in the bottom six in assists, steals and offensive rebounds. This is incredibly bad. The Timberwolves’ starters played more than any other group in the NBA, and it is easy to see why.

Even so, the drought is over, and the Wolves have been playing playoff-type basketball for the entire month of April. They may be tired, but they are ready to give Minnesota fans something to cheer about.

Breakdown and Prediction

Breakdown

Jimmy Butler will have his hands full guarding James Harden, but he may be one of the only defenders in the league who can do so efficiently. Clearly, no one is taking Harden out of a game completely, but he faces one of his toughest matchups here in the first round. This will be the biggest thing to watch as the series progresses.

Houston’s main goal should be to stop Karl-Anthony Towns from putting up the points. It would be a smart bet to take that the Wolves will run their offense through him, playing an inside-out game. Clint Capela will not be able to match his production, with Harden and Chris Paul taking the bulk of the shots. Defending Towns will be their only option in the paint.

Paul versus Jeff Teague is interesting, as both have different preferred scoring methods. Paul favors the mid-range game, while Teague likes to slash to the hoop. The points here should be a wash, but the edge still goes to Paul because of his incredible passing ability.

Wing play favors Houston heavily. Almost everyone on the roster can shoot from distance, and Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, Joe Johnson and more will be waiting to pull up. The bench matchup is also a no-brainer. Considering that the Timberwolves have far and away the least productive bench in the NBA, all Houston’s players have to do is show up for the game and they already have the Timberwolves’ bench beaten.

Prediction

The Houston Rockets are a buzz saw, and the Timberwolves, regardless of how great their story is, are on the conveyor belt headed towards it.

Rockets Timberwolves preview

Butler may be one of Harden’s biggest playoff challenges. (Photo by Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press)

Even if they were not one of the best NBA offenses ever, or slacked on the defensive end of the floor, the Timberwolves are an incomplete team. Thibodeau has always ridden his starters harder than any other coach in the league, but it is a different story when he has no choice but to.

Towns, Butler and the momentum that Minnesota has going into this series will be enough to carry them to one victory. The Rockets, however, seem like an unstoppable force, and it is going to take more than five players to beat them.

In the end, the Wolves’ drought is over, and that is something to celebrate. This team is probably trending upwards, too, if they can pull in some free agents. But the Rockets have their eyes on the prize, and this one should be over shortly.

Rockets in five

 

Featured image by Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

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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.

 

Featured image by ClutchPoints

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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.

 

Featured image by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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