Cavaliers

Cavaliers’ blueprint to beating the Celtics

The Cavaliers are down 0-2 to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. With Game 3 looming, the Cavaliers have some adjustments to make if they want to secure LeBron’s eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

Game 1 ended in a veritable blowout, as the Celtics won by 25 points. Game 2 was not much better, as Boston put together another double-digit victory.

As history has taught us, going down 0-3 is a virtual death sentence. Teams that have accrued a 3-0 lead are 131-0 in the history of the NBA playoffs. In only three cases have the teams in the three-game hole forced a Game 7.

Those stats make this Game 3 a must-win for Cleveland. Here is how LeBron and company can potentially right their ship and get back into the series.

Someone help LeBron

In Game 1’s 108-83 drubbing, four Cavaliers scored in double digits. The Celtics somehow held The King to only 15 points, leaving Kevin Love to outscore him by two points. Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood added 11 and 10 points respectively.

While all evidence points to the opposite, James is only human. It is absolutely going to take more of an effort from the supporting cast to beat the supremely well-coached Celtics. Especially if LeBron has an off game.

In Game 2, only three Cavaliers scored in double digits. LeBron had a 42-point triple-double performance. Kevin Love added a respectable 22 points, and Korver fulfilled his duties by putting up 11 points.

Cavaliers

LeBron drives to the hoop against Aron Baynes. (Photo by Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports)

Outside of every performance mentioned above, every other Cavalier has failed to put up more than eight points in this series. That simply is not going to get it done, even against this banged up Celtics roster.

It’s hard to tell which is more egregious; the fact that Cleveland cannot muster enough offense to win when James scores 42, or that they cannot pick up any kind of slack when he scores under 20.

J.R. Smith has only scored a total of 4 points against Boston. Tristan Thompson has only been good for eight points in each game. The trade deadline acquisitions of Nance, Jr., Clarkson, Hood and Hill have put up a combined 31 points in both games put together. Clarkson did not even see the floor in Game 2.

LeBron James can propel the Cavaliers to victory, but he cannot do everything alone. It is simply not too much to ask for just a little help from the rest of the team. The one upside is, though, if the Cavaliers make it to (or win) the NBA Finals, this postseason performance will only further immortalize James.

Tyronn Lue

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue has the unenviable task of going against the best coach in the NBA. Usually, the word “arguably” precedes a statement like that, but with the evidence mounting, it seems almost disingenuous to qualify his status as “arguable.”

Stevens has done more with this banged up roster than most NBA coaches could have done with a full-strength Celtics team. As such, they find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals, up 2-0, without their two best players.

Enough cannot be said about what Stevens can do. But what can be said is what Lue can do against him.

Giving LeBron the ball and seeing what happens can work early in games, and late in games. But James cannot try and iso his way to a win against this team, while all of the other Cavaliers wait outside the three-point line just in case he passes the ball.

Cavaliers

Lue coaches LeBron mid-game. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Lue needs to trust his guards in Hill, Smith and Hood. Primarily because that is probably the last thing Stevens (and any NBA coach, player or fan, really) expects the Cavaliers to do. Plays need to be drawn up for Thompson and Love. LeBron moves well without the ball, too, so let him make cuts to the basket.

All in all, the offense needs to change, because the Celtics’ defense is still as good in the playoffs as it was in the regular season. Most importantly though, Stevens knows he cannot stop LeBron, so attempting to limit him and smothering the rest of the roster is his only option.

If Lue dips into his coaching bag, though, he may be able to take Boston’s players by surprise. Even if he probably will not ever be able to catch their coach off guard.

Three-and-D

Of the teams remaining in the playoffs, Boston has the highest three-point percentage at 35.8 percent. They also are besting the Cavaliers in defensive rebounds, blocks and steals per game.

It is well-known that the Cavaliers were in the bottom five in defense all season, and their lackluster effort has carried into the playoffs. Also lacking is their three-point game. They sit at 33.6 percent from distance, which is third-worst ahead of Golden State.

Taking and making threes while LeBron puts on a show in the lane has been Cleveland’s identity throughout their three straight trips to the finals. This goes back to Tyronn Lue, but more plays need to be run to get shooters open. They seem to be last-ditch efforts when someone meets LeBron in the lane, forcing him to pass.

If the Cavaliers can get J.R. Smith going, while leaning on Korver and Love until he’s white-hot, then they can shoot Boston out of the gym. This will be because of the sheer volume of the shots they are taking and making. Boston will almost certainly not attempt to match them.

The defense is the real problem. It is often said that the best offense is a good defense. But Cleveland needs to try and flip that old adage if they want to win the series.

Cavaliers

Marcus Smart and J.R. Smith got into a shoving match in Game 2. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Cleveland’s defensive talent is just simply not there. The players are not defensively-minded, and, even if they are playing well on that end of the court, the Cavs cannot expect it to show up consistently.

Adding on, and defensive work the Cavaliers can do will almost certainly be canceled out by Stevens’ defense over the course of 48 minutes.

Steals and points off turnovers are where LeBron and the Cavs can do some damage to the Celtics. With their carousel of players at the point guard spot, the Celtics can be prone to turnovers if Hill or Hood can overwhelm them. With their pace of play, the Cavaliers can also push the ball up the court quickly and turn those into points.

Cleveland’s offense needs to defend them, though, as stated earlier, and throughout this article. The blueprint to beating Boston is simple: Score and keep scoring.

Featured image by Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

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0-3

Inside the NBA’s 0-3 conundrum

The NBA playoffs have already yielded one sweep in the first round. Two more semifinals series are on the verge of ending in just four games.

It is well known that the NBA is the only one of the three major American sports which feature playoff series that has never seen an 0-3 comeback. The NHL and MLB have both had this unlikely event happen at least once.

Most intriguing is that this kind of comeback seems more likely in the NBA than either the NHL or MLB. The NHL relies on physicality, goal scoring and goalie play, one of which can usually stay consistent to complete a series win. The MLB, as any sports fan will tell you, is impossible to predict on a game-to-game basis. Momentum plays a huge roll and the team in the 0-3 hole has a massive task robbing the opposing team of it. On top of that, pitching and hitting needs to be near flawless for four games straight.

In the NBA, however, teams can flat-out go cold from the floor. A defense can be exploited, and shots falling can rattle even the best teams. As Brad Stevens of the Celtics has proven, a solid game plan can defeat better talent.

Here, we will take a look at the teams that are currently up 3-0, how they got there, and what the road to history looks like for the teams trying to claw out of that hole.

History

In the history of the NBA playoffs, teams up three games to none are 129-0 in their series.

0-3

Antonio McDyess and P.J. Brown meet at the rim during the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals (Photo by Getty Images)

In those 129 series, only nine of them have seen the team down 0-3 get to a Game 6. Of those nine series, only three of them have gone to a Game 7. The most recent example is the 2007 Bulls-Pistons semifinal round when the Bulls forced a Game 6 after going down 0-3. The last forced Game 7 was back in 2003 when Portland came back against the Dallas Mavericks. Portland eventually lost by 12 points in the winner-take-all matchup.

Teams winning series after being down three games to one is much more common. In fact, in the 2016 NBA playoffs, it happened twice. The Golden State Warriors came back on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. In the NBA Finals, that same Golden State team blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So where is the disconnect? Why is it so hard to win four NBA games in a row?

Common sense would say fatigue.

Of the three series that have gone to Game 7 after a team went up 3-0, the average margin of defeat in that Game 7 has been eight points. That stat suggests the losing team had enough to give to keep it close, but had spent enough to lose the hustle battle.

As stated earlier, game plans can beat talent. So playing a single team seven times in a row can allow either team to cancel out certain strategies. It is likely that this would come into play in a winner-take-all game more so than the games leading up to it.

Simply put, a lot of factors go into winning four games in a row. Defense, the ability to make shots, hustle plays and coaching. Coming back from an 0-3 deficit is not an impossibility, and the NBA will eventually see this kind of come back. It just simply has not happened yet.

0-3 Teams

In the semifinal round, both the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers are up on their opponents 3-0.

Boston, without its two best players, has bested the younger Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. All but written off, regardless of their second seed, this injured Boston team has proved NBA pundits wrong at every turn. In my series preview, I even picked the Sixers to win in six games.

0-3

Dario Saric after the Celtics lost Game 3 in overtime. (Photo by Getty Images)

In a postgame interview on Saturday night, Stephen A. Smith of ESPN alleged that Brett Brown has lost the 76ers all three of these games. The latest mistake being unable to run a play in overtime that did not involve Joel Embiid being near the top of the key. On the inbound play, down by one, the Sixers had the ball stolen by Al Horford, which demanded free throws be taken to increase the Celtics’ cushion to three points.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are up by three games on the best team in the East, the Toronto Raptors. This is due to the ageless LeBron James, and some remedying of problems that plagued the Cavs in their seven-game series against Indiana.

James has scored 26, 43 and 38 points in the first three games respectively. This includes another incredible buzzer beater in Game 3. The Raptors have a reputation of falling apart against these Cavaliers, as they have lost to Cleveland in the last two NBA playoffs.

While the Cavs can become a steamroller during the playoffs, this Raptors team is definitely stronger than past iterations. They have a great bench, two legitimate stars and two great role players. While the Raptors lifted their Game 1 woes during their series against the Wizards, it seems like Cleveland may really be their kryptonite.

Road to Game 7

While a series win is obviously the goal, first these teams will have to reach Game 7. According to history, only 2.3 percent of teams down 0-3 have reached that point. Then, they have to win that game, which no one ever has.

For the 76ers, the road starts with finding better plays in late game situations. Embiid may be their best player, but he is not their only solid option. Belinelli was clutch in Game 3, with a buzzer-beating shot to send the game to overtime. His 3-pointer to try to tie the game in the closing seconds of overtime was almost good, too. Ben Simmons is struggling, and he is a terrible shooter anyway. But he does not need to be inbounding the ball on the final play. He should be cutting to the hoop or ready to pass.

The 76ers also blew a 22 point lead in Game 2. So saying that the Sixers need to build a lead is not enough. Their foot needs to stay on the gas, and they need to forgo the early shot clock jumpers that built them the lead. The Celtics are too well coached to be out of any individual game. Both teams play great defense, but Philly’s offense has been their Achilles’ Heel.

0-3

Valanciunas goes to the floor during the Raptors’ Game 2 meltdown against the Cavaliers. (Photo by Nathan Dennette/Canadian Press via AP)

If they can find a way to stop their own bleeding and get out of their own way, they can make a comeback. As far as Game 7 goes, the Celtics will be formidable, as Brad Stevens’ game plan will almost assuredly be better than Brett Brown’s. But the Sixers have the raw talent necessary to maybe surprise everyone.

Speaking of getting out of their own way, the Raptors have to have some serious conversations with themselves about their identity if they don’t want to get swept out of this second round.

As the East’s top seed the Raptors were supposed to be the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. As it stands now, it seems as if history is doomed to repeat itself. The last two years have seen Toronto be a stepping stone on Cleveland’s path towards the NBA Finals. Shockingly down 0-3, they must not only erase their own history but make NBA history in the process.

The key is to stop LeBron James. This is possibly the toughest thing any team in the NBA could be asked to do, but it is truly the only way. James is currently averaging 34.8 points per game in the entire playoffs and 35.7 points in the series. DeRozan was benched in the fourth quarter of Game 3 due to lack of production, which cannot happen again, because Lowry and DeRozan need to be the ones to stop that bleeding.

Kevin Love is averaging 13.9 points per game, as Cleveland’s second best scoring option. If Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas can play up to their potential, that would cancel out Cleveland’s small, but important, safety valve. Past that, VanVleet, Anunoby and the rest of the role players just need to contribute consistently on both ends of the court.

The formula is deceptively simple for Toronto to find their way to Game 7. If that should come to pass, then they will have to get past elimination-game LeBron, who is, somehow, even better than the LeBron they have been seeing the past three games.

Summary

In conclusion, these will probably not be the series where the NBA finally sees an 0-3 comeback. It will eventually happen, just as a 16 seed upsetting a number one seed finally happened in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but the two teams that find themselves up 3-0 are too talented and driven to lose to their opponents.

Toronto may be able to force a Game 6, as they will pull out all the stops to halt LeBron’s historic performances, but James, as he always does, will eventually get the best of them.

Philadelphia is showing its youth. The coaching is simply not good, Simmons is playing horribly and teams cannot win against a Stevens-led team with just a center and some backup wing players. The injured Celtics will continue to defy all expectations and knock them out. As far as forcing a Game 5 or 6, the 76ers may be able to pull out a close one, but do not count on it.

Featured image by Getty Images

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playoffs

Raptors vs. Cavaliers series preview (after Game 1)

The NBA playoffs feature some great second-round matchups. But perhaps more exciting than any of them is this Eastern Conference Semifinal round featuring Toronto and Cleveland.

The Toronto Raptors finally own the East’s number one seed, while fourth-seeded Cleveland needed all seven games to get past the Indiana Pacers. 2018 marks the third year in a row that these two teams have met in the playoffs.

According to sources from Sports Betting Dime, Raptors are the favorite to win (-260) against the Cavaliers (+220).

The regular season and roster point towards the Raptors. The recent history favors the Cavaliers. Here is The Game Haus’ analysis after a closely contested Game 1.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs’ up and down season carries over into the playoffs and continues to give Cleveland fans everywhere palpitations.

Coming off of a grueling seven-game series against the scrappy Indiana Pacers, the Cavaliers now face the top team in the Eastern Conference. No easy task, but Cleveland has clawed its way past the Raptors in the past two NBA playoffs.

After Sunday’s Game 7 win over Indiana, LeBron James said he was tired and, “ready to go home.” This may be the very first time in James’ quest for eight straight finals appearances where he has admitted fatigue.

playoffs

LeBron James recorded his 21st playoff triple-double in Game 1. (Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

It makes sense, though, considering all four wins in the first round series came by only 14 points combined. If that does not paint a picture of a hard-fought series, nothing does. Add on that James had the entire roster on his back through all seven games, even rabid LeBron haters would say he deserved the rest.

Through eight games, LeBron is averaging 33.4 points, 8.4 assists and 10.1 rebounds. He has climbed to number two in the all-time playoff triple-doubles, with 21. This includes a triple-double in yesterday’s Game 1 overtime win.

Those 33.4 points per game are good for first among all playoff scorers. To put into perspective just how much The King is willing his team to victory, the next closest Cleveland player is Kevin Love at number 62.

With Game 1 decided by just one point in overtime, it is clear that the Cavaliers will have their hands full yet again. LeBron must keep scoring in bunches, and Kevin Love cannot keep disappearing if they want four NBA Finals in a row. Taking James out of the game is nigh impossible, but Cleveland struggles when he gets no help. Getting players not named LeBron should be their focus from here on out, because The King will get his.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto may have more to prove than any other team in the playoffs. They are a perennially good team, but have never advanced past the Eastern Conference Finals in franchise history. With this core, a fantastic bench and great coaching, it seems like this should be their year.

In their seven games, their All-Star backcourt of DeRozan and Lowry are scoring at a clip of 26 and 17.3 points per game, respectively. The team is scoring 109.6 points per game, which is fifth among playoff teams. Their defense is allowing 108 points per game to opponents, which is good for sixth best.

Their previous series against the Raptors came in six games. The first round series was full of double-digit wins for both sides. It seems as if when a team gives the Raptors trouble, they really give them trouble. That has been the story of the Raptors and Cavaliers history of late.

playoffs

Valanciunas and Lowry after missing several potential game-winning shots in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter. (Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

As previously mentioned, the Cavs have ousted Toronto during the previous two playoffs. This time, though, the Raptors clearly have the superior roster and the better regular season record.

But their old ways reared their head again. “The North” blew a 10 point lead with less than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

The Cavaliers have beaten Toronto in nine of their last 11 playoff matchups. It seems as if LeBron is truly their kryptonite. Their path to victory narrows with every shot he makes. The game plan for them, here should not be to take him out of the game. It should be making sure that the rest of the Cavaliers’ roster continues to play as poorly as they have been during these playoffs.

A one-point overtime loss in game one after having and missing eight second-chance opportunities in the last five minutes is debilitating, to say the least. But if they are going to advance further in these playoffs, it is poetic that they must go through the Cavs.

All in all, Toronto needs to be confident in the fact that their roster is better, and try to forget Game 1 and the past two years. This Cavaliers team is vulnerable, and coach Dwane Casey needs to exploit their weak spots.

Preview and Predictions

Although it seems like the Raptors should be the ones worrying, it really should be the Cavaliers’ lack of production that will be the focal point of this series.

The bench matchups here are what Toronto can win, and win big. Cleveland uses so many different lineups because they are unsure what will work on a nightly basis. Toronto does not have that problem. Their bench is one of the best in the NBA and they can absolutely dominate these haphazard Cavs lineups.

Since they are playing the best player in the league, DeRozan and Lowry will both have to show up every night. One needs to cancel out LeBron’s points, while the other pads the lead.

Serge Ibaka will win his matchup against Love if he can deny him the ball. Love tends to fade into the background if he does not get going early enough. Tristan Thompson is mired in off-court controversy, but he is playing some great basketball. If this trend continues, he can overshadow a clearly superior center in Valanciunas.

A prediction here is hard because so many things come into play. Including and especially recent history. Toronto has to do everything in their power to put the Cavaliers away early. Cleveland panics when down too much and takes ill-advised shots. If the Cavs can keep it close, though, it is very much LeBron time, which will probably win them the game.

If this series goes the distance, the Cavaliers will probably walk away victorious. However, faith needs to be put in the Raptors that they want to shake off the “chokers” label they have amassed through the years.

Raptors in six

Featured image by John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports

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Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover Who: Exploring Football Coverages

Unless you have experience playing football or study it intensely, you probably are stumped when you hear football commentators say things like “base cover two”, “nickel package” or “cover zero”.  The average fan probably shrugs it off when they hear this kind of terminology.

But, as far as the different coverages are concerned, it’s really quite understandable material, albeit wordy.  All of these coverages can be applied to either the 4-3 or 3-4 defenses.

Here is an overview of the primary football coverage schemes that defenses utilize.

Key: FS = free safety, SS = strong safety, C = cornerback, SAM/MIKE/LB = inside linebacker, WIL/LB = outside linebacker

Cover 1 (man coverage)

Cover 1 may sound foreign but hopefully “man coverage” gives you an intuitive grasp.  The premise of this coverage is simple: The cornerbacks and one of the two safeties are playing man coverage with the outside wide receivers or slot receivers.  This means that wherever the receivers go, the defensive backs follow.

The cornerbacks and the safety, typically the strong safety or nickel corner – nickel translates to “third” – lock in at reading where the receivers go, not the quarterback.  The outside and inside linebacker(s) are usually covering tight ends or running backs.  So, every defender that isn’t on the defensive line, is shadowing or trailing an offensive receiver except for the other safety, usually the free safety, is playing deep as the last line of defense.  Simple enough, right?  Here’s a visual to help process the assignments:

football coverages

*4-3 defenses contain one middle linebacker while 3-4 defenses have two.

Cover 2

This is a very standard, basic defense that all defenses should be familiar with.  You may hear someone say “Tampa two” and that is a reference to the cover 2 defense that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers employ.  Unlike cover 1, cover 2 does not involve any man coverage; it is all about zone coverage.

The cornerbacks have flats this time, which are the sideline zones about 5-10 yards off the line of scrimmage.  The outside linebackers drop into their “hook to curl” zones, a dropback coverage that first takes away the “hook” or shallow middle routes, usually where tight ends go. Then the “curl” or routes that trail off towards the sidelines.  The middle linebacker has the biggest pressure on him because at times he must help out the safeties deep while also being responsible for any short to intermediate patterns over the middle.  The safeties have got to be ball hawks as well as strong hitters to close the gap on the deep ball.  Essentially, the safeties split the deep portion of the field in half so they’ve got a lot of ground to cover between the two of them.

I like this visual because it indicates with a yellow circle the soft spots in this coverage. Though cover 2 is built around athleticism and is a base defense against the run and the pass, there are a few areas of the field that the offense can exploit.

The obvious first weakness is the deep middle of the field. With each safety occupied in open space, responsible for each half of the deep field, the middle is this sort of flex spot or zone that lies in between safety responsibilities.  This is why a strong cover 2 defense requires a fast middle linebacker who can cover. A good middle linebacker must drop back deep to help make the quarterback hesitant of throwing the ball down the middle. If there is a shallow crossing route, hitch pattern, or something of the sort, then the middle linebacker must come up and collapse on it, even if they only surrender a few yards.

Cover 2 shouldn’t be concerned of underneath routes as much as protecting the deep middle of the field.  The second weakness of the cover two defense is the intermediate zones in between the cornerbacks and safeties’ responsibilities.  Just like the middle linebacker, the cornerbacks should drop back deeper rather than shallower to help close the gap between them and the safeties.

football coverages

Cover 2 Man (2 Man Under)

Cover 2 man is a hybrid between cover 1 and cover 2.  The cornerbacks and outside linebackers/nickel/dime (fourth cornerbacks) are playing man coverage with the outside and inside receivers.  The middle linebacker plays middle zone but, whether he’s deep or shallow usually differs from team to team.  I’m okay with the middle linebacker playing closer to the line of scrimmage because he’s able to help take away the slants and crossing routes if the receivers get an inside release.  Plus, everyone who is playing man coverage has got help over top in this coverage because the safeties split the field in half, just like in regular cover 2.

Bottom line: If a team has excellent man to man cornerbacks, this is a great coverage to deploy.  I always love playing in this coverage as a cornerback because I know that even if the receiver I’m up against blows by me that I have deep safety help.  This coverage also works well in the dime defense (four cornerbacks and only one linebacker).football coverages

 

 

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playoffs

Celtics vs. 76ers series preview

The NBA playoffs roll on, and so does The Game Haus’ coverage. Spring basketball has not disappointed thus far, and the games will only get more contentious as teams chase a championship.

Monday will hold the first game between the second-seeded Boston Celtics and the third-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. While the 76ers took care of the Miami Heat in just five games, the shorthanded Celtics needed all seven games to get past the Milwaukee Bucks.

Despite their contrasting attitudes on the court, these two teams match up well. Assuming both teams play to their fullest potential, this could be a classic semifinal round. Here is some analysis and a prediction of what this series could hold.

Boston Celtics

Milwaukee gave Boston all they could handle until Game 7.

In the winner-take-all contest, the Celtics did not quite run the Bucks out of the gym, but came out with a convincing 14-point win. As these things usually do, the game came down to coaching and defense. Brad Stevens’ game plan may not have come to full fruition, as Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe had 22 and 23, respectively. The eternal shooter Khris Middleton also added 32.

playoffs

Tatum and Brown celebrate against the Nuggets. (Photo by Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)

Minus their star Kyrie Irving, the Celtics’ balanced attack overshadowed the young Bucks’ star power. Boston had three players with 20-plus scoring numbers, while three were in double digits or within one bucket.

All the games were closer than some of their scores might indicate. The Celtics needed overtime to stop Milwaukee in Game 1, and Game 4 and Game 5 were won by a combined total of seven points. The fact that Boston came out with a series win should be a jolt to the team because they have proven they can stop a legitimate superstar with a banged-up roster. It also solidifies Stevens’ place as the best coach in the league.

In their seven games, Boston has scored an average of 102.4 points per game, while holding the Bucks to 101.9 points. This is due to the double-digit losses the Celtics took in two of their three losing efforts. The defense is still good, but that offensive total will have to rise if they hope to beat the 76ers.

The three-point shooting has been shaky, at just 35 percent, which is only good for fifth worst out of all playoff teams. The only stat in which the Celtics claim a top-five ranking is turnovers. Obviously, the team has played well enough, but the real credit goes towards the coaching of Stevens in late game situations.

The 76ers should present even more of a challenge to them going forward.

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers and their “process” came away with a series win in five games against the Dwayne Wade-led Heat. The firepower coupled with the brand of bully-ball that Joel Embiid plays were too much for this Miami team that was seemingly without an identity.

The one game that Erik Spoelstra’s Heat managed to steal, was a 10-point win in Philadelphia. It took a vintage Dwayne Wade and five other Heat players to have double-digit scoring nights to do it. That is actually a good sign for Philadelphia. If a team has to have an incredible night to beat you, then that is nothing to hang one’s head about.

In that game, five 76ers also scored in double digits, as well. But shots were not falling at opportune times as Wade took over.

playoffs

Embiid celebrates after hitting a three in his infamous protective mask. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Their four winning games came by margins of 27, 20, four and 13, respectively. Great news, considering offense was the main concern of this team going into the playoffs. The 76ers currently rank first in points per game in the playoffs at 114.2. They also hold the top spot in rebounds per game and are second in steals per game.

It seems as if the regular season was not a fluke for this ridiculously young team. The offense and defense have carried over from the regular season to the playoffs. Embiid is not letting his orbital fracture get in the way of his play. Ben Simmons also continues to pad his stat-line without hamstringing the rest of the team.

There is no way to tell whether this is an NBA Finals caliber roster just yet, but there is certainly plenty to be excited about in Philadelphia.

Preview and Predictions

As stated before, the attitudes of these teams contrast, but their style of play is largely similar. Both teams like to score in the paint but do their best to take advantage of open jump shots, rather than pass them up for tough low-post shots.

The most interesting player matchup to watch during this semifinal series will be Embiid versus whomever Stevens wants guarding him. It could be Jayson Tatum, who has the same quickness, but neither the length nor defensive prowess of Embiid. It might also be true center Al Horford, who overmatches Embiid in defensive experience but might struggle to score against him. Keep in mind, also, that Horford can stretch the floor, as well as Embiid, can.

Ben Simmons will likely walk all over whichever Celtic guards him. Rozier is playing fantastic basketball, but the likelihood of him guarding a 6-foot-10 point guard with any kind of efficiency is low. Smart can also pick up the slack, but double-teaming Simmons will leave his passing lanes wide open.

Small forward matchups will mostly be a wash, considering the length and shooting ability of all parties. The bench matchup will likely be won by Boston, because of the brilliance of Brad Stevens and his game planning.

In the end, Philadelphia seems like a team on a mission. Their on-court presence is just as boisterous as it is off-court, and they want to prove to the NBA that “The Process” is officially complete.

76ers in six

Featured image by Michael Perez/Associated Press

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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

 

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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.

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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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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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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

 

Featured image by Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports

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