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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Warriors Pelicans preview

Warriors vs. Pelicans series preview

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

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

Golden State Warriors

Warriors Pelicans preview

(Photo from www.bluemanhoop.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Orleans Pelicans

Warriors Pelicans preview

(Photo from www.fansided.com)

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

Prediction: Golden State in six

 

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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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Warriors vs. Spurs series preview

In a match-up that some would expect to come in the conference finals, the second-seeded Golden State Warriors are taking on the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs. This is a rematch of last years’ conference finals, in which the Warriors swept the Spurs after a Kawhi Leonard injury. The Spurs will be looking for payback but will have to do so without their best player.

Warriors:

Photo Credit: Sfgate.com

You know you’ve made it as a team when a 58 win season and the second seed is a letdown. But such is life after three straight finals appearances, including two wins. Everyone knows what the Warriors are made of.

This season was about two things, staying healthy and continuing to build chemistry among the big four. In that regard, this season was a letdown. Durant, Green and Thompson all missed extended periods for one reason or another, but as of now, they are a go for the playoffs. The same can’t be said to Stephen Curry.

After a knee injury caused by the clumsiest big men in the league, Zaza and Javale, the Dubs’s star has missed just around 30 games. Any Warriors’ fan will tell you the team just hasn’t been the same since Steph went down. Whether it was the team missing their two-time MVP or them simply not caring, it was still disheartening to watch.

The team lacked consistency and shooting. Regardless, most other teams would kill for a 58 win season. One bright spot: Quinn Cook. Going from a two-way contract to a bonafide bench piece is nothing short of remarkable. Cook had bounced around the league, never finding any footing. He has now with the Warriors. With Curry and backup PG Shaun Livingston missing extended time, Cook came up big more than once. The Warriors were able to find a diamond in the rough with Cook.

Spurs:

Photo Credit: thedenverpost.com

If Golden State’s season was a let-down, then the Spurs’ was a disaster. For the first time since the Nintendo 64 was a premium gaming console, the Spurs were in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. They didn’t because of that Pop magic. But still. Big deal.

The issue with the Spurs all season has been one thing: no Kawhi. The star small forward for the Spurs only played nine games this season due to a right quad injury. That’s not the only bad news. There have been reports that Kawhi and the Spurs have clashed, including a players-only meeting to discuss why he’s still out or Tony Parker saying his injury was “100” times worse than Kawhi’s.

The team simply NEEDS Kawhi if they have any chance in the playoffs. He’s arguably the best perimeter defender and a top-tier scorer. Those are hard to come by. Despite all the rumors and injuries, the Spurs were able to make it as a no. 7 seed, because you should never bet against Pop.

Warriors-Spurs analysis:

This series isn’t nearly as fun as it should be. On one hand, the Spurs are missing their best player and the games’ best all-around player in Kawhi, while the Warriors are missing their two-time champ and MVP in Curry. Warriors’ fans will tell you, Durant might be the better player, but Curry is the backbone of the team and it’s most important piece.

The difference between these two teams: the Spurs without Kawhi have one all-star (LaMarcus Aldridge) while the Warriors have three (Thompson, Durant and Green).

Simply put, the Warriors out man and out gun this Spurs team. However, the Spurs still have Pop, so it’s hard to say outright that the Warriors are gonna run through this Spurs’ team like tissue.

But that ‘s basically what I’m saying.

With no one to guard Durant, the Warriors have a huge advantage. The Spurs will counter with Aldridge, but Draymond Green will help equalize that.

The Spurs will need their bench of Patty Mills, Rudy Gay and Manu to step up big in this series if they hope to have a chance. A slow paced Spurs team, running their offense through Aldridge and using every single possession could wear down the Warriors, who are susceptible to getting cold and even sloppy.

Overall though, there is too much talent on this Warriors’ team, so I’m going with them.

Prediction:

Warriors in 5.

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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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The inevitable Western Conference Finals: Matchups by position

Before you know it, the NBA playoffs will be underway and in full swing, full of close games, upsets, buzzer-beaters and anything you could want out of basketball. It’s the best time of the year for NBA fans, and this year is as competitive as ever, especially in the Western Conference. In fact, seeds three through eight are separated by just three and a half games, with teams like the Clippers and Nuggets fighting for a spot with a chance of doing so.

And then we have the top two seeds: the Rockets and Warriors, who are a full ten and 14.5 games ahead of the three-seeded Trail Blazers, respectively. They have been absolutely dominant, and think it is safe to say, barring serious injuries, that the only competition these two face is each other. For that reason, I think it is almost certain that these two teams will meet up in the penultimate step before the NBA Finals. Below I will analyze each matchup, by position, in what should be an inevitable Western Conference finals.

Photo source: www.clutchpoints.com

Point Guard

Stephen Curry (GSW) vs. Chris Paul (HOU): What a great place to start. Steph Curry was just diagnosed with an MCL sprain after returning from an ankle injury, and will be reevaluated in three weeks. For the sake of this piece, I will assume that he misses one or two rounds of the playoffs, and is healthy in time for this matchup.

Curry and Paul could not be any different in terms of playing style. Curry is a shoot-first three-point threat, the biggest one the league has ever seen, and will rightfully never turn down a shot that is even close to open. Paul, on the other hand, is a pass-first point guard and will always rack up the assists, but on a team that shoots and scores as much as Houston does, we have seen a lot more aggression from him in terms of scoring the ball. While CP3 is a superior defender and could do a good job against Steph, I’d have a hard time giving any point guard an advantage over Steph’s dribbling, underrated passing and of course deadly shooting. In terms of advantage, I’ll take Steph here.

Shooting Guard

Klay Thompson (GSW) vs. James Harden (HOU): Another great matchup with very different players, which is another reason why this conference finals matchup could be so fun. Klay was almost strictly a shooter, but has proved to everyone in his last couple of seasons that he can drive and get to the line as well.

James Harden, the most probable MVP winner this season, has so many tools in his arsenal that I truly don’t know how anyone successfully defends him. If he drives, he’ll probably score or go to the line, and if you give him space, he’ll drill the outside shot. With averages of 30.9 points, 5.3 boards, and 8.6 assists, the numbers tell the story on their own. He is also shooting a fairly efficient 44.8 percent from the floor, which is highly impressive given the high volume of shot attempts and ball-handling he is responsible for. At this point, there is not a single person to whom I would give an advantage over Harden here. Sorry, Klay.

Small Forward

Kevin Durant (GSW) vs. Trevor Ariza (HOU): Finally, we have a matchup that is quite a bit in favor of one team over the other. Kevin Durant is one of the best players to ever play the game, and will be considered one of the greats when all is said and done.

I am a huge Trevor Ariza fan, and while his Laker days of being a great scorer have come to an end, he’s still a great “three and D” guy and a vital piece to Houston’s success over the past few seasons. However, there is exactly one person I’d place over Kevin Durant, and his name is not Trevor Ariza.

Photo source: www.nydailynews.com

Power Forward

Draymond Green (GSW) vs. Ryan Anderson (HOU): Once again, we see a matchup with guys that really couldn’t be more different. Green was the defensive player of the year just last season, and has been in contention for it since the Warriors have been winning games. He has been labeled the Warriors’ most valuable player by many, which is quite the feat when you’re playing with guys like Steph and KD.

Ryan Anderson, on the other hand, plays little to no defense, and hasn’t blocked a shot since the Mesozoic era (jokes aside, he actually has three of them since March 17, but none the whole month prior to that). He spreads the floor perfectly for this team, and since Houston doesn’t play much defense anyway, he is pretty much the perfect guy at that position. However, Draymond still takes the cake in this matchup due to his versatility alone.

Photo source: www.bleacherreport.com

Center

Zaza Pachulia (GSW) vs. Clint Capela (HOU)

This one is fairly obvious, as Zaza often gets less than 20 minutes a game, and if he doesn’t injure the other team’s best player in that span, the Dubs usually go with a smaller lineup. Clint Capela is in the midst of his coming-out season, and is thriving in a fast-paced offense that has two guys in Paul and Harden that are phenomenal at throwing lobs to the big man. Clint wins this one by a landslide.

Bench

While the starters are not the entirety of the team and its success, most of them will be playing heavy minutes because of the competitive nature of the playoffs. The bench is vital as well, of course, and while both teams are fairly deep, I give the Rockets an advantage in this sense with guys like Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker contributing key minutes and stats.

Conclusion

I would be immensely surprised if we saw two other teams from the Western Conference meet in its finals, and Houston and Golden State deserve every part of it. Some matchups are too close for comfort, and others are not, but all in all these teams are both incredibly full of talent that it is so difficult to tell who will be representing the West in the Finals. It could be a phenomenal series and one of the best we’ve seen, and only time will tell what could happen. Playoffs can’t come soon enough.

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NBA Finals

Potential NBA Finals matchups and outcomes

The NBA Finals are mere months away. The playoff picture has yet to be set in stone, but there are clear frontrunners in each conference.

Odds are, it would take some massive upsets to see any other teams playing on May 31 than the five we’re about to discuss. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but considering records and reputations, it’s unlikely.

With that in mind, here are the most likely 2018 NBA Finals matchups.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors (Part IV)

Let’s get this one out of the way first.

This season has been a roller coaster for Cleveland. There has been disappointment, turmoil, turnover, redemption and mediocrity. In their last 10 games, they have come away with five wins. In the midst of a brutal six game road trip, they seem to either thoroughly impress, or inspire no confidence whatsoever.

The Warriors have had their own struggles this season. Although the word “struggles” should be taken with a pound of salt. Golden State’s “struggles” don’t even amount to the worst teams’ best nights.

NBA Finals

A fourth straight finals matchup between Cleveland and Golden State is still possible. (Photo by Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports)

Stemming from technical foul trouble, injury woes, and running into what amounts to complacency, this Warriors team seems less inspired than previous iterations. It has even reached the point where coach Steve Kerr let the players coach during a game against the lottery-bound Suns.

When playoff basketball arrives, however, it’s simply unwise to bet too much money against LeBron James or a team with four All-Stars. They could feasibly be bound for yet another clash in the NBA Finals. If that happens, it would be reasonable to expect the series could be the best yet.

Both teams have breezed through the playoffs in the past three years. But the targets on their backs have never been larger than they are now. Chinks in the armor have formed, and the other teams in the playoffs will do their best to exploit the weaknesses.

If they do meet, though, expect the series to be sloppier than the previous three. Expect it to be more defensively oriented, with less scoring and chippier play. It will also probably go the distance, as Cleveland and LeBron aren’t going to want a repeat of last year’s five game showing.

In the end, though, the Warriors’ four All-Stars and their chemistry will be too much for the new-look Cavaliers. The coaching and cohesiveness of the offense and defense will win a one game series, as we’ve seen in the regular season over and over again.

Prediction: Warriors in 7

Finals MVP: Kevin Durant

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Houston Rockets

Again, this potential matchup is predicated on LeBron James’ ability to will the Cavaliers to the finals. An historic eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals will silence even some of his most vitriolic haters, especially with this roster.

Houston’s path will undoubtedly go through Golden State, seeing them achieve their ultimate goal of dethroning the Warriors.

Cleveland has dealt with the incredible offensive capabilities of Golden State three years in a row, but that experience won’t amount to much if this matchup comes to fruition. Add in the confidence Houston will bring into the series having defeated a juggernaut, and the Rockets will be a completely different animal.

Houston has come out on top of both of the regular season games against the Cavaliers. If they are healthy going into the NBA Finals, there is no reason to expect that trend won’t continue. The three-point abilities of this team are like nothing the NBA has ever seen. The Cavs won’t be able to defend the arc enough to make a difference, and they certainly cannot match the barrage of long range shots the Rockets will put up.

LeBron certainly won’t let his team be swept, but all of his effort will simply result in yet another finals loss on his resume.

Prediction: Rockets in 5

Finals MVP: James Harden

Toronto Raptors vs. Houston Rockets

These are two teams whose styles couldn’t contrast more starkly.

Toronto has earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference through defense and fundamental play. Their offense features plenty of mid-range and low-post shots, going to the three-pointer only when it’s there for the taking. Coach Dwane Casey is the frontrunner for Coach of the Year due to his ability to keep his message and style fresh through the 82 game season.

Houston, obviously, is the most offensive-minded team in the league. Chris Paul, James Harden and Eric Gordon always have a green light behind the three-point line. Coach Mike D’Antoni does not pull his punches flexing the team’s shooting strengths. The Rockets play almost no defense, but it’s essentially irrelevant considering their ability to score.

This would be the most fun NBA Finals matchup to watch for hardcore fans. Contrasting styles don’t always make for the best games in other sports. Consider the 2014 Super Bowl featuring the NFL’s best offense (Denver Broncos) getting smothered by the best defense (Seattle Seahawks) in the league, for example. But in basketball, it just means either philosophy could prevail during any given game.

A Raptors-Rockets finals series would more than likely go the full seven games. The Raptors seem like one of the only squads in the NBA that could halt the Rockets’ attack with regularity. So, again, it comes down to a one game series.

In one game, though, bet on the Rockets’ shots to fall, and bet on the Raptors playing hard but ultimately failing to match the offensive production. It would be close, but James Harden and Chris Paul would finally get the playoff monkey off of their backs.

Prediction: Houston in 7

Finals MVP: James Harden

Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors

Two terrific defenses coming out on top of their respective conferences would be a shocking turn of events considering the NBA’s current identity of offense over everything. But that’s exactly what this matchup would feature.

While Golden State’s defense has taken a step back this season, they are still ranked within the NBA’s top-10 defenses. Toronto’s defensive rating has fluctuated from game-to-game, but they have been solidly within the top-5 all season long.

NBA Finals

Kyle Lowry blows by Stephen Curry. (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)

This series would come down to coaching. Steve Kerr vs. Dwane Casey doesn’t sound like the most exciting storyline, but for old-school NBA fans, it would be a welcome change from the hero-ball driven games to which the league has become accustomed.

Given that take, one could expect the coach with the longer playoff resume to come out on top. However, Casey wouldn’t be an easy out. This Raptors team would make life difficult for these Warriors. Frustration and contested shots would be deciding factors in every single game.

The Raptors’ bench is also on par with, if not better than, Golden State’s. That wouldn’t be a huge issue considering the Warriors’ fantastic starting lineup, but, contrary to popular belief, they actually do rely on their bench’s offense.

These finals would be hotly contested, and would be some fantastic television. It would also undoubtedly end in another rivalry being formed regardless of the outcome. In the end though, the surprise factor of the Raptors can steal enough possessions and sink enough mid-range shots to dethrone the champions.

Prediction: Raptors in 6

Finals MVP: DeMar DeRozan

Boston Celtics vs. Houston Rockets

Another matchup featuring contrasting styles, a Boston-Houston NBA Finals could go many different ways.

Boston’s defense is superb, led by coach Brad Stevens’ commitment to that end of the floor. The Celtics are a long team, concerned with blocking low-post shots and challenging everything. The offense is a different story, however.

Kyrie Irving has been fantastic in his ability to create and make shots. Irving cannot play every minute of every game however. Rozier and Smart have been serviceable during his minutes on the bench, but it’s hard to match that kind of production without another superstar on the team. Matching the Rockets’ offense is a very, very tall order for Boston.

NBA Finals

James Harden upset about a call during the most recent Celtics-Rockets matchup. (Photo by Michel Dwyer/Associated Press)

If the team defense and coaching isn’t rattled by Houston’s ability to put up points in a hurry, then Boston can absolutely steal a game or two. But star power often wins out in the NBA, even if smart money is on defense over offense. That would make it the Rockets’ series to lose.

Prediction: Rockets in 6

Finals MVP: James Harden

Boston Celtics vs. Golden State Warriors

Brad Stevens is semi-arguably the best coach in the NBA. Steve Kerr is probably one of the most progressive coaches in the game today. This series would truly be a meeting of the minds; a scheme vs. scheme matchup that could go either way.

Kevin Durant and the Golden State offense won’t be as baffled by Boston’s defense as some other teams would. By the same reasoning, Horford and the Celtics’ defense wouldn’t be as rattled by Golden State’s offense.

This is would be a very even matchup, regardless of Boston’s offensive shortcomings. Stevens is one of the only coaches in the NBA that could make the Warriors play the Celtics game, rather than trying to match theirs. Not to say that would completely baffle Golden State’s “big four,” but, frustration would come into play.

If the Warriors have one weakness, it’s the fiery attitude of their lineup. Durant, Green, Pachulia and Young all have type-A personalities that Stevens can exploit to his advantage. These attitudes, however, are also a strength that helps the Warriors win close games.

NBA Finals

Brad Stevens and Steve Kerr coached against each other in 2017’s NBA All-Star Game. (Photo by NBAE via Getty Images)

Either team could win this particular series. If it comes to be, the Warriors would probably be underprepared, looking past this Celtics team due to their offensive struggles. Coming down to the wire, though, the smartest choice is taking the experience over the ifs buts and maybes.

Prediction: Warriors in 7 (in OT)

Finals MVP: Stephen Curry

Featured image by John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports

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playoffs

Predicting NBA playoff seeding

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

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

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

Eastern Conference

No. 8 Seed – Miami Heat

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

playoffs

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

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

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

No. 7 Seed- Washington Wizards

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

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

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

No. 6 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

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

playoffs

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

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

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

No. 5 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

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

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

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

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

No. 4 Seed – Indiana Pacers

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

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

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

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

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

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

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

The schedule is tough, but the Raptors are tougher.

Western Conference

No. 8 Seed – Denver Nuggets

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

playoffs

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

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

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

No. 7 Seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

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

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

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

No. 6 Seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

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

playoffs

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

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

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

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

No. 5 Seed – New Orleans Pelicans

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

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

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

No. 4 Seed – San Antonio Spurs

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

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

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

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

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

No. 3 Seed – Portland Trailblazers

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

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

No. 2 Seed – Houston Rockets

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

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

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

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

No. 1 Seed – Golden State Warriors

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

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

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

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

Featured image by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports

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rivalry

Ranking today’s best NBA rivalries

Rivalry, whether friendly or not, is integral to every sport. Duke vs. UNC. Packers vs. Bears. Frazier vs. Ali.

The 2010s have brought on a new era of NBA basketball. And with a new NBA come new rivalries.

Essentially gone are the days of low-post elbow throwing and using the three-pointer as a last ditch effort. Assists and 30-foot shots are the order of the day for the best teams in the league. Feeding the post is an afterthought.

“Hero Ball” hasn’t completely disappeared, though. We see people like James Harden and Anthony Davis come up with 50-point performances seemingly at will. But as we saw with Allen Iverson during his time with the 76ers and LeBron James during his first finals run with the Cavaliers, that kind of play can’t hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

So in the spirit of recognizing that we are living in a new era, here are the NBA’s most prominent rivalries as they stand today.

5. Joel Embiid’s Twitter account vs. Everyone

It’s no doubt that every era of NBA basketball has had its fair share of huge personalities. With the advent of social media, fans are treated to the intricacies of player personalities in a way they’ve never been.

Joel Embiid embodies this in a way few other pro athletes could ever hope to. The 23-year-old uses his social media presence to hit on celebrities, grow his personal brand and, of course, get under other players’ skin.

rivalry

Joel Embiid hyping up the crowd during a game. (Photo by Steven M. Falk/Philly.com)

He has tweeted asking Ben Simmons to dunk on Lonzo Ball so hard that his dad (LaVar Ball) will run on the court to save him. During the preseason, he started beef with Hassan Whiteside, saying that they had to take him off the floor so he wouldn’t foul out trying to guard him. After a win against the Timberwolves, he effectively destroyed Karl-Anthony Towns in the comment section of his Instagram post.

Embiid has a backlog of tweets asking Rihanna out on dates. He manufactured a fake retweet of President Donald Trump voting for himself to be included on the All-Star roster. TJ McConnell, his own teammate, said he’ll never play PlayStation with Embiid again, due to his trash talk. McConnell said it was so brutal that he wanted to throw his controller.

No one is safe from Embiid’s crosshairs in this rivalry. Not even his own teammates.

And these are just some highlights of Embiid’s young, but already prolific, trolling career. If practice does indeed make perfect, then Joel Embiid may end up being the best NBA trash-talker of all time.

4. Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors

Daryl Morey, GM of the Rockets, has made no bones about what their goal for the 2017-2018 NBA season is. He said on a December 21st appearance on ESPN’s The Ryen Russillo Show that the team was, “basically obsessed with [the question] ‘How do we beat the Warriors?'”

The Warriors knocked the Rockets out of the playoffs in 2015 and 2016. That, alone, is enough to give birth to a rivalry. But an explicit statement by one of the most powerful people in the organization that his team’s main goal is to beat one specific team is a thrown gauntlet.

Seeing as Houston won the season series against Golden State 2-1, the plan is coming into fruition. Of course, it doesn’t mean much until the teams meet in the playoffs. But by adding Chris Paul, the Rockets have a fantastic offense that looks built to hang with the vaunted Golden State attack. James Harden seems to be on a mission, as he’s running away with the MVP race. The role-players on the team fit the system perfectly, and the addition of a veteran like Joe Johnson bring an air of confidence to their play.

It’s safe to say that, whatever happens in the playoffs, this rivalry is here to stay. Win or lose, the Rockets will still have the Warriors in their sights while trying to dominate the Western Conference.

3. Zaza Pachulia vs. Everyone’s ankles

It may seem silly to count this as a rivalry, but with the evidence mounting, it has to be discussed.

On May 14, 2017 during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, Pachulia fell on Kawhi Leonard, causing him to aggravate an existing ankle injury. Leonard would miss the rest of the series as the Warriors swept the Spurs in four games.

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Kawhi Leonard lies down in pain directly after the infamous Pachulia closeout. (Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

During February 24th’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Warriors center executed another questionable fall on top of Russell Westbrook. He claimed his leg was hooked by Nick Young, but it seemed as if the fall was aimed as he landed on the reigning MVP’s legs.

Stephen Curry, Zaza’s own teammate, had to leave Friday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks after accidentally stepping on Pachulia’s foot, causing him to injure his ankle.

Now, that last one obviously wasn’t intentional. Who in their right mind would want to hurt their own teammate? Especially considering Curry is one of the three best players in the league. It seems to fit the narrative that Pachulia puts forth, of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But true accidents aside, one cannot deny that Zaza has a reputation of being one of the dirtiest players in the league.

Reputation and the “Pachulia Rule”

Zaza used his back to slam Nikola Mirotic to the ground during a playoff game during his time with the Bucks. He tried to trip Udonis Haslem while playing for the Atlanta Hawks. Pachulia even got into a heated exchange with his current teammate, David West, after some questionable elbow movement while he was a Maverick. And those are just some of the transgressions in which he’s been implicated during his 14-year NBA career.

It’s hard for someone to truly deem every one of these actions “dirty.” Most of us have never played a minute in the NBA. So how could we speak to his intentions during every questionable play?

For fans of the sport, the old adage of “I know it when I see it,” applies here. Since every conceivable angle of every play is covered, it is easy to make a judgement call from the couch. But watching them over and over, and in slow motion, solidifies whatever opinion one may have already formed. But, again, with this mountain of evidence, it’s a no-brainer to think his intentions are questionable at best.

The NBA has even instituted a rule, dubbed the “Zaza Pachulia Rule,” which allows referees to call a flagrant foul if a closeout during a jump shot is deemed too extreme. This was due to the aforementioned Kawhi Leonard controversy. The Westbrook fall, however, did not fall under that purview. The NBA deemed the fall legitimate, and no action was taken.

This didn’t stop people like Kyrie Irving from calling the play “unacceptable.” His teammates stood behind him, but it seems as if most NBA players and fans agreed that it was unnecessary. And thus, a rivalry between a mediocre center and the rest of the league rages on.

2. Players vs. Officials

The relationship between NBA players and officials has never been as contentious as it is this season. Players are constantly berating the officiating, regardless of whatever fines may incur. Officials are exasperated with the constant barrage of claims that they aren’t doing their job well enough.

Technical fouls have experienced a massive spike during the 2017-2018 season. Draymond Green leads the league with 14, while other hard-nosed players like Dwight Howard and Russell Westbrook aren’t far behind. A surprising stat, however, is that Kevin Durant currently sits at third-most in the NBA with 12 technicals. He’s certainly a competitive, fiery player, but he’s not known for behavior worthy of a technical.

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Shaun Livingston of the Golden State Warriors butts foreheads with a referee on his way to an ejection. (Photo by Joe Skipper/Associated Press)

Over the All-Star weekend, there was a summit between NBA referees and players, intended to patch relations between the two parties. Although there is no official transcript of the meeting, it is said that frustrations by both sides were vented.

The “Respect the Game” rules instituted by the NBA about eight years ago were mentioned heavily. In-game communication was also a focal point, as some officials felt as if explaining certain decisions would only make things rougher on them. Fans will never know everything that was discussed, or how heated the exchanges were, but as the season goes on, we will see how effective the meeting was.

Seeing as how players and officiating are the two most important parts of the game, how this rivalry shakes out will have an impact on the sport at every turn.

1. Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

How about a good, old-fashioned team rivalry for the number one spot?

Of course this is the best rivalry in the NBA. These two teams have met in the last three NBA Finals, which is a record. We all know this history behind this historic three year stretch. It’s not news to anyone except the completely uninitiated.

With Cleveland’s struggles and midseason roster shake-up, it seems as if the Eastern Conference might be up for grabs again. While, in the West, the Rockets have their aim firmly on halting the dynasty.

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Cleveland and Golden State in a heated mid-game exchange (Photo by Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports)

If these two teams meet again in the 2018 NBA Finals, it will be because they both earned it. Not because they coasted through the playoffs like they have the previous three years. That will automatically make it more exciting than last year’s finals. The Cavaliers might have a chance to even up the finals series, which would completely alter how we view this juggernaut Warriors team in the future.

Cleveland cannot seem to get it together against the Warriors in the regular season. In their eight tries since 2015, they have only pulled out one win against Golden State. But that seems irrelevant viewed through the prism of another potential finals matchup.

The Warriors have something to prove, too. Signing Kevin Durant was, and still is, seen as the rich getting richer. Winning two titles in a row, and three of the last four, will hush (but not silence) these sentiments.

NBA pundits spend so much time talking about Cleveland and Golden State because they are the league right now. No matter what fans think, it quite literally cannot be covered enough, because, until further notice, they are the reigning conference champions.

This is the most exciting rivalry in sports right now. And now, with new layers and new challenges, things can only get more exciting from here.

Featured image by Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group

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NBA All-Star

NBA All-Star Game predictions

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

NBA All-Star

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

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

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

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

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

Rosters

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

NBA All-Star

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

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

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

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

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

Team Curry

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

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

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

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

Team LeBron

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

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

NBA All-Star

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

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

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

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

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

Effort

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

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

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

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

NBA All-Star

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

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

Prediction

Team Curry wins, 163-148

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

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

Featured image by Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

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