Celtics Cavaliers preview

Eastern Conference finals: Celtics vs. Cavaliers preview

It was nearly a month ago that NBA fans were predicting a Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers Eastern Conference finals. The Raptors were supposed to be a legit No. 1 seed and put their postseason struggles behind them. The 76ers were coming in hot with the longest winning streak in franchise history.

The Cleveland Cavaliers were too inconsistent and struggling defensively. The Boston Celtics were too banged up. There was not much of a chance either of these teams were getting past the first round.

Well, here we are. The Cavaliers and Celtics will be facing each other in the Eastern Conference finals for a second straight season, defying all odds and proving that the regular season is meaningless when talking about the playoffs. LeBron James has continued his postseason dominance, and Brad Stevens is making his case as the NBA’s top coach.

Here is a look at both teams as they prepare to face off for a shot at the NBA Finals.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs have had a very interesting postseason to say the least. After surviving a series against the Indiana Pacers that went to Game 7, they swept the No. 1 seed Toronto Raptors.

What changed for the Cavs? LeBron James got some help. In the Indiana series, James averaged 34.4 points per game with the second highest average being 11.4. In the Toronto series, James averaged 34, but Kevin Love averaged 20.5, and Kyle Korver, JR Smith and Jeff Green each averaged over 12.

Celtics Cavaliers preview

(Photo by Getty Images)

Indiana was a tougher matchup defensively for the Cavs. They held the Cavs to 94.9 points per game on 43.4 percent shooting. They were much more physical than Toronto, and Lance Stephenson was doing everything he could to get in the Cavs’ heads. In the end, James proved why he is the league’s best player, and a nice boost from Tristan Thompson and George Hill in Game 7 helped push the Cavs to the semifinals.

Toronto was no match for Cleveland. For the third straight season, the Cavs eliminated the Raptors’ in the playoffs. The Cavs swept the Raptors and averaged 14.1 more points per game than them in the process.

Overall, Cleveland is averaging 103.5 points per game and allowing 102. The offense is not quite where it was at in the regular season, but the defense has really improved. The Cavs held Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to just 34.6 points per game combined.

Most importantly, LeBron James is dominating the postseason once again. Overall, James is averaging 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, nine assists, 1.5 steals and a block per game. He is shooting 55.3 percent from the field and nailed two buzzer beaters in the Toronto series.

The matchup against Toronto really helped the Cavs come together as a team and figure things out. However, despite missing Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, beating the Celtics will be no easy task.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics were doomed from the start of the season when Hayward went down with an injury in the season opener against the Cavs. Their chances of postseason success were shattered when Irving went down with an injury in early April.

At least, that was what was supposed to happen. Players like Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum have really stepped up for the team in the absence of their stars.

Celtics Cavaliers preview

(Photo by Stuart Cahill)

Like the Cavs, the Celtics struggled in their first-round matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo and company took the No. 2 seed in the East to seven games. Home-court advantage proved to be a key factor as the home team won each game in the series.

Boston advanced to face the 76ers, who were hot coming in, but still inexperienced. To the surprise of many, Boston beat Philly in five games. The biggest key for Boston was shutting down rookie sensation Ben Simmons. Simmons was held to just 14.4 points per game and turned the ball over 24 times, which was by far more than anyone else in the series.

Tatum, who has also made noise as a rookie, led Boston in scoring in the series with 23.6 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting. Rozier contributed 19 points and 7.2 rebounds. Jaylen Brown added 15.3 points and five rebounds, and Boston’s lone All-Star, Al Horford, contributed 15.4 points and 8.6 rebounds in the series.

Overall, the Celtics are averaging 104.1 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting and allowing 102.5. They will be making their second straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals. A starting lineup that features Tatum, Brown, Horford, Rozier and Aron Baynes will not scare too many people.

However, you have to look at who is leading this team. The only explanation for how Boston has made it this far is Brad Stevens. Stevens has been making his case not just for Coach of the Year, but also for why he may be the NBA’s best coach. Not many coaches could get this far without their two best players.

Analysis

This will be the third time in the last four years that the Cavaliers and Celtics have met in the playoffs. It is a matchup most predicted at the start of the regular season, but not at the start of the postseason given the circumstances of both teams.

Really, there is not much that separates these teams statistically. Boston averages 3.9 more rebounds per game, 0.6 more points, 1.5 more assists, 0.3 more steals, 0.9 more blocks and 0.9 percent more shooting from three. The Cavs shoot 2.1 percent higher from the field, turn the ball over 0.2 times less, force 0.2 more turnovers and allow 0.5 points per game less.

The Cavs have more star power, although Kevin Love has struggled overall this postseason. He is averaging just 14.7 points per game on 39.4 percent shooting, but is still contributing 10.1 rebounds and shooting 38.5 percent from three.

However, the Celtics appear to be more balanced. Boston has six players averaging at least 10 points per game this postseason compared to just four on Cleveland. None of those six players on the Celtics really struggled offensively in the first round like the players on the Cavs. However, Indiana played much tougher defense than Milwaukee at the same time.

Prediction

This matchup is closer than people might think. Ultimately, it is going to depend on which version of the Cavs shows up this series.

Cleveland will be the toughest defense Boston has faced this postseason, while Boston will be in the middle of the pack for Cleveland. Boston was able to fluster a young player like Ben Simmons in the semifinals, but it is going to be tougher to do that against a veteran team like the Cavs.

Boston has home-court advantage for this series, but there is a three-day break between Game 2 and 3. An older team like Cleveland could really benefit from this break. If Cleveland can take one game in Boston, they can return to Cleveland fully charged and potentially jump ahead 3-1 when returning to Boston for Game 5.

Prediction: Cleveland in six

 

Featured image by Michael Dwyer/AP

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Inside the NBA’s 0-3 conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

Common sense would say fatigue.

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

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

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

0-3 Teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road to Game 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

Featured image by Getty Images

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Celtics vs. Bucks series preview

It appears the Milwaukee Bucks like their chances against the ailing Boston Celtics. They got smoked against Philly–riding a 16 game win streak, in their last game of the year. This is an intriguing matchup, Boston without its star Kyrie Irving, while the Bucks are at full health and with a star of its own in Giannis Antetokounmpo. It will be a high contested closely matched series the entire way through.

Regular season summary

Boston Celtics

Celtics vs. Bucks series preview

Jayson Tatum (Photo by bostonherald.com)

Given all of the injuries Boston had to deal with, they faired very well in 2017-18. They were in first place for a good portion of the season, but with a few key injuries and the stellar play of Toronto, dropped to the number two seed. Gordon Hayward went down in the first game of the season, and we recently found out that Irving would miss the remainder of the season.

Jason Tatum would shine in his rookie season and Jaylen Brown has developed nicely. It will be interesting to see how Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin fill in for Kyrie. Al Horford will definitely have a favorable matchup against the underweight John Henson. Marcus Morris has been playing lights out the tail end of the year and with the coaching of Brad Stevens we are in for a competitive series. Boston will remain in games because of their team defense, which was the fourth best in the league.

Milwaukee Bucks

Celtics vs. Bucks series preview

Giannis Antentokounmpo (Photo by thecomplex.com)

The Bucks have proven all season that are capable of beating any team, but at the same time can lose to any organization as well. Issues that plague Milwaukee are overall defense and a big man to go up against other big men.

Giannis is constantly improving and Khris Middleton is the best mid-range shooter in the league. Eric Bledsoe has come on strong towards the end of the year and had a stellar overall year. Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova are returning from injuries that have hurt them towards the end of the year. Jabari Parker coming off the bench and staying healthy is a huge piece of their equation; he must play well for the Bucks. The offense has been there all season for Milwaukee, but will their defense show up in the playoffs? Time will tell.

Prediction

The Bucks will end up prevailing in five games. They will split the first two games in Boston, which will set them up for a finishing game in Boston. A missing Kyrie Irving greatly impacts the outcome in this one, otherwise, Boston would take the series in five. It’s impossible to replace a team player of his greatness and with Hayward out as well, it’s extremely impressive they remained the number two seed. How much game do Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier have in them?

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Three teams you do not want to face in the playoffs

The chances of an upset in an NBA playoff matchup is dependent upon various things, inclusive of matchups, recent play, and countless other numbers that only the tip-top analysts understand how to compute. But, with the off chance that there is an upset, it is always a ton of fun to try and figure out who is capable of it and who could possibly fall victim to it. Below I will look at three playoff teams capable of an upset and how they could possibly outperform their higher-seeded opponents.

Photo source: www.ftw.usatoday.com

Washington Wizards

The loss of John Wall for a couple months definitely hurt the Wizards here, but his return to action can only help the Wizards succeed in the playoffs. He looked a bit rusty in his last game with just nine points and eight turnovers, but he and his Wizards still have four more chances this regular season to shake off any rust.

If you recall last year, Washington competed with the first-seed Boston Celtics in a thrilling seven-game series and had every opportunity to overtake them, but ultimately fell short. This season, they have the same starters, with Kelly Oubre contributing key plays and numbers when teams decide to go small. Bradley Beal was finally an All-Star, Markieff Morris has been pretty good, and John Wall could be ready to return to his high-speed self.

The Wiz are in a three-way tie for sixth in the Eastern Conference with the Heat and Bucks, and any of these three teams could end up in any of those slots. If the Wizards fall to the eighth seed, they face a Raptors team that has yet to see Kyle Lowry be himself in the playoffs. If they fall to the seventh seed, it’s time for redemption as they will face the short-handed Boston Celtics, who they are definitely capable of beating with their current squads. The sixth seed would give them LeBron and the Cavs or Joel and the Sixers in the first round, which wouldn’t necessarily be the best case scenario. Keep in mind the Sixers have won eleven straight (a few without Embiid), and the Cavs have a player named LeBron.

I think the Wizards upsetting either the Raptors or the Celtics could definitely happen here, with the Celtics being their most probably victim. Regardless, whatever first-round matchup involves Washington should be a fun one.

Denver Nuggets

Denver is a team that has faced plenty of injuries this year as well, but they approach a playoff run with a fairly healthy and very deep squad. They have guys at literally every position that can produce crucial plays and numbers to the game, including guys like Will Barton and Trey Lyles who can get hot as soon as their shoes touch the hardwood. They have some phenomenal defenders in Millsap, Harris and Murray, and plenty of offense run through Nikola Jokic. Paul Millsap recently returned from injury, but the team is still without Gary Harris.

The Nuggets have not been at full strength yet this year, and it looks like they will be when the playoffs approach. They currently sit in the ninth seed, so the playoffs are not a sure bet. However, with the fourth-seed Jazz and Spurs just two games ahead of them, they could knock anyone out of the playoffs with a nice run.

We could see Denver playing anyone, like the Rockets, Warriors, or Blazers. While it is doubtful that any team will get past Houston or Golden State except themselves, a Denver-Portland first-round match would be a very exciting one, with the Nuggets having as good of a chance as anyone.

Photo source: www.detroitbadboys.com

Utah Jazz

With plenty of weapons for success, Utah is slowly becoming that one team that no one will want to play in the first round. They have gone 7-3 in their last ten, including three straight victories, and are seeing plenty of guys contribute. Similar to the Nuggets, this is a pretty deep team, with guys like Jae Crowder and Dante Exum stepping up while the starters take a break.

The story for Utah here, however, is the starting lineup. Joe Ingles is a playmaker and a huge three-point threat, and his uptick in minutes sans Gordon Hayward have thrust him into an important role for this team. Ricky Rubio has had his ups and downs this season, but his 31-6-8 line against the Lakers Tuesday night leads me to believe the past is behind him. Donovan Mitchell is the stud that he has proven to us and is ready to lead this team despite only being able to legally drink a beer as of last September.

The Jazz are in the fourth seed right now, so them remaining here wouldn’t be considered an upset, but no one knows what is happening in the Western conference right now.  I truly believe that they can handle almost any team in the West, excluding the Rockets and Warriors, and could make a decent run in this thing.

While the playoffs are crazy and nothing is set in stone, upsets are something that all fanatics of the game love to see.  These three teams I have discussed have just as good of a chance, if not better, to upset their higher-seeded opponent, and it should be interesting to see how it plays out. April 14thsure cannot come soon enough.

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

The NBA Finals have seen the same two teams duke it out for supremacy three years in a row. With legitimate threats to both reigning conference champions on both sides, the landscape of the playoffs already seems different.

Every playoff team has the same goal entering spring basketball, the legitimacy of each team’s claim to the throne has to be weighed because they all do have a shot at the title, however long or short it may seem.

Here are the reasons each Eastern Conference team can and cannot win the 2018 NBA Finals.

No. 8 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee has a young core centered around Giannis Antetokounmpo that has the ability to take teams by surprise. Their offense relies heavily on slashing to the basket, which translates to an extremely high field goal percentage.

Antetokounmpo is a certified superstar in the making, and he has the ability to put the team on his back if the jump shots aren’t falling. The other side of that particular coin involves the shooting talent around him being able to bail him out if he is, somehow, guarded successfully.

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Antetokounmpo is the focal point of Milwaukee’s offense and title contention hopes. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/AFP Photo)

What will hold them back from title aspirations is their defense. For every impressive offensive stat, there is a disappointing defensive one.

Their opponents are shooting almost 47 percent from the floor, and 37.1 percent from three-point range. Couple that with the lack of bench depth and inexperience, and the playoffs will be a tough hill to climb.

No. 7 Seed – Washington Wizards

The Wizards are perennial playoff contenders with a very talented roster. John Wall and Bradley Beal make up an impressive backcourt combination, and Marcin Gortat has the rebounding and put back abilities to make things interesting. The wing players, while prone to underachieving, also have high ceilings when they play well.

They are well-coached by Scott Brooks and, hopefully, entering the playoffs at full strength. The Wizards could be a dark horse betting candidates to make a deep playoff run. With enough confidence and momentum behind them, it is not out of the realm of possibility for Washington to compete for a title.

There has been turmoil in the locker room, however. John Wall is just now returning to basketball activities, so the Wizards’ best player will have significant rust to shake off.

That is not a good thing, considering they have to shoot themselves out of deficits more often than they would like. This is due to the same kinds of issues that Milwaukee has had to deal with. Impressive offense is only impressive if a team can keep themselves above water defensively.

No. 6 Seed – Miami Heat

Erik Spoelstra is proving four straight trips to the NBA Finals had more to do with him than NBA fans like to think. Many attribute those accolades solely to having James, Wade and Bosh leading the way.

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Erik Spoelstra and Goran Dragic are big reasons the Heat are back in the playoffs. (Photo by Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

This young team, though is rising above expectations sooner than expected. Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo are an excellent frontcourt tandem. The Heat are finding their identity in the paint and riding the shooting of Wayne Ellington and experience of Dwayne Wade back to a playoff berth. Spoelstra has clearly found out the right way to utilize these talents.

Young teams can give more experienced teams fits in the playoffs with their athleticism and timing. Miami also has the third-highest scoring bench in the league at 39.6 points per game. Add that to Spoelstra’s overachieving, and they could be a team to watch out for in the relatively weak Eastern Conference. Like the Wizards, the Heat can ride momentum all the way to finals contention.

Shy of Ellington, though, shooters are hard to come by in Miami. They rely on a post-heavy offense, which doesn’t necessarily hold up as well in a seven-game series as it does in an 82-game season.

Their defense is good, sporting the fifth-best opponents’ field goal percentage in the league. But they will be playing against some of the best and most dedicated jump-shooting teams in the league. If their looks start falling, that spells doom for Miami.

No. 5 Seed – Indiana Pacers

Victor Oladipo will undoubtedly win Most Improved Player this year, after showing the league what he’s made of after the Thunder traded him away in the Paul George deal. His points per game average this year is up six points. He is also collecting more assists and rebounds than he ever has.

Oladipo is the secret sauce to a Pacers finals run. He and Myles Turner have put Indiana on their backs this year, and few have been able to contain both of them at the same time. If teams do manage a strategy to keep them both in check, they will have to do it over a series of games, which is no easy task. If these two players can keep digging into their bags, then the Pacers are a team no one would truly want to face.

Again, though, the problem here is lackluster defense. At 18th in the NBA in opponents’ field goal percentage, the Pacers simply let their opponents score too much. Their three-point shooting abilities are good, but almost all of the teams above them in the standings are in the Eastern Conference.

The bench does not give the Pacers many minutes, at less than 17 per game. They are in the bottom five in that category and the bottom ten in bench scoring. So Oladipo and Turner truly have to carry the team if they want to be playing in June.

There is simply too much that can go wrong to call them a true NBA Finals contender. But given Indiana’s identity over the course of the season, that is probably exactly how they like it.

No. 4 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers have taken the NBA by surprise this season. A trip to the NBA Finals would cap off “The Process” and prove the brutal teardown and rebuild to be worth it.

Philadelphia is inundated with youth. Ben Simmons is one of two potential Rookie of the Year candidates and continues to dish out triple-doubles. Markelle Fultz is, surprisingly, playing this season, and if he can figure out his shot, it only creates another weapon. Robert Covington and J.J. Reddick are veteran leaders that seem to be drawing off the energy of the young core.

And then there is Joel Embiid.

While currently out due to surgery on an orbital fracture, he has been giving teams trouble all season. Both on and off the court. The trash talk is already legendary, and he has the play to back it up. Embiid averages a double-double at 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. We have even seen him step outside the arc when the opportunity presents itself.

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Embiid could miss some playoff games after undergoing surgery for an orbital fracture. (Photo by Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

If he can get back in time for a second-round series, this team could legitimately take over. They have been too much for opponents all season, and there is no reason to think that will stop when the playoffs start.

The young squad will be fired up and eager to prove themselves. With their inside-out offense and some of the best defense in the league, they are a legitimate title contender, because they match up well with any team. Including and especially the two favored to be in the Western Conference Finals.

Ironically, though, their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness.

Youth means inexperience. Inexperience means being able to be taken advantage of. Meeting a veteran team like the Cavaliers, who know what it is like to play for and win a title, could be their undoing.

It cannot go without being said that the cockiness of this team is some of the most outspoken in recent memory. Philadelphia knows it is good, which might create a glare that makes them look past other opponents.

Either way, “The Process” will officially undergo its first test on April 14.

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

The rollercoaster that has been the Cavs’ regular season is finally coming to an end.

After blowing up their roster before the All-Star break, the Cavaliers are sitting pretty as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. As we know, seeding is little more than a formality, as far as LeBron James is concerned.

The new-look Cavs are more youthful, better defensively, and seem less complacent than the pre-trades roster. Their NBA Finals hopes are renewed again after finally finding a formula that works after a multitude of injuries and locker room finger-pointing.

Do not kid yourself, though. The Cavaliers are coasting on reputation more than anything. They have been in the past three NBA Finals, thanks in large part to having the best player in the world on their team. They are the (wine and) gold standard of the Eastern Conference until further notice.

Intimidation will play a factor here, and so will their offense that can adjust to any opponent. Lue’s offense works in such a way that it, if a team’s defense takes something away, the Cavs can simply move on to another facet of their game with just as much success.

With Nance Jr. and LeBron James holding down the paint, and shooters to stretch the floor, defense still will not matter much to Cleveland, as they can go point-for-point with the very best teams out there, even on dysfunctional nights.

This particular Cavaliers iteration, though, is still relatively new. Jordan Clarkson has not quite figured it all out, and George Hill is showing his age next to the ageless wonder, LeBron James.

The problem, also, with playing no defense, is that shots do have to fall. Sure, the Cavaliers can make them, but as everyone knows, sometimes the ball just does not go in. If Cleveland has a couple of bad shooting nights, they will get blown out due to lack of defensive commitment.

Unlike the past three years, Cleveland has to prove themselves and play to their highest level to reach the NBA Finals. Then, after three hard-fought series wins, they will have to face the best of the other conference.

No easy task.

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

Boston has the best coach in the NBA. That is enough of a reason why they can win the Larry O’Brien trophy, but let us explore some more anyway.

Brad Stevens has the ability to make something out of nothing. The Celtics, right now, are a team with unbelievably bad injury luck at the worst time, and they are still winning.

That is due to the incredible bench play and next-man-up strategy that the Celtics employ. Their offense is weak, but their defense is the best in the league. The system is flawless, and almost every team in the league would fall victim to it at least once in a seven-game series.

Owning an opponents’ field goal percentage under 44 percent is no joke. Boston ranks tenth-best in turnover ratio, and the rebounding is just as impressive. Surprisingly, even though their offense can be a bit anemic, they are second best in three-point percentage at 37.9 percent.

It defies logic, but even without Irving, Brown, Smart and Hayward, this team has steadfastly held the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. And they are only going to get healthier from here. If anyone can beat Golden State at its own defensive game, or hold the fast-paced Rockets offense in check, it is the Celtics.

They can, and just might win the whole thing.

But before one gets too high on Stevens’ ability to will his team to victory, it is important to remember that their returning players will, like Wall, have severe rust to shake off.

finals

The Celtics could be without Irving for the first round of the playoffs. (Photo by Brian Babineau/Getty Images)

Irving is coming off of a knee surgery, and his game hinges on his quick legs, handles, and iso scoring ability. That will not be easy to return to during his first minutes on the floor. Smart cannot return until May if Boston is still playing. And there is no telling who might go down in the meantime, with the Celtics’ luck as of late.

The key to a title for Boston is its defense. So, if a team can somehow figure out how to get the better of it for four games, then it is a wrap for this team. They do not have the firepower necessary to go shot-for-shot with some of the offensively-minded teams in the NBA like the Cavaliers can.

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

Toronto owns a top-five offense and a top-five defense. They have the probable coach of the year, in Dwane Casey. They have DeRozan, who is only getting better. Lowry and Ibaka are still reliable, and they have the deepest bench in the entire NBA.

Opposing teams have to pick their poison with the Raptors, and even then, still might not get what they chose. They can beat you with their smothering team defense, or their ability to match points on the outside or the inside.

Toronto owns the best record in the East for a reason. They also own a massive home court advantage, and as the locked-in, one seed will keep it throughout the playoffs. This more driven and focused Raptors team will be a legitimate force in the playoffs, and it is almost assured that a number two or three seeded teams will have to be the ones to take them out if they do not reach the finals.

As far as winning it all goes, this might the only team that can beat the Houston Rockets by locking down their shooters. The communication on the floor is excellent, and the Rockets only go as their three-point shooting does. The Raptors perimeter defense not only can win them the title but can do it in less than seven games.

Unlike Cleveland, however, Toronto’s reputation is working heavily against them.

The Raptors have fizzled out in various rounds of the playoffs for years, and they will need to get that monkey off of their backs, both with their play and with their overall mental position. Toronto has, perhaps, more to prove than any other Eastern Conference team in the playoffs, regardless of owning the top seed.

They will still have to earn any respect they feel they deserve, which will either fuel them to a title or be what burns them yet again.

 

Check back here on Saturday for the reasons each Western Conference team can and cannot win the NBA Finals! 

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Celtics

Celtics’ depleted roster presents challenges moving forward

Point guard Kyrie Irving will be out the Celtics’ lineup for up to six weeks.

The All-Star and former NBA champion underwent a minor knee procedure on Saturday. The surgery was to remove a tension wire in Irving’s patella, placed there after his kneecap was repaired in 2015.

Irving has already missed the Celtics’ last five games due to knee discomfort. The rest didn’t improve his situation, leading to an expedited surgery timeline. The surgery was originally going to be scheduled for after the season.

With Irving officially sidelined, Boston’s roster keeps getting slimmer and slimmer. And with the playoffs on the horizon, the Celtics’ ability to field a team that can compete for the NBA Finals has been officially called into question.

Here is a look at the Celtics’ immediate future, regarding injuries, schedules and expectations.

Injury report

Irving is slated to be out of commission for anywhere from three to six weeks. The soonest he can return is April 14, the day the playoffs begin. If his return is pushed to six weeks, he could possibly not return until the Conference Semifinals.

Boston will be missing 24.4 points, 5.1 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game without Kyrie. Not to mention serviceable defense and some of the very best ball-handling and iso scoring skills in the league.

Fellow point guard Marcus Smart is also out after undergoing thumb surgery. He has been quoted as saying that he is eyeing a return sometime in May. The bulk of the point guard duties will fall on Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin in their absences.

Celtics

Daniel Theis grabs a rebound against John Collins. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Rookie Daniel Theis is out for the remainder of the season after tearing his meniscus on March 11th. He has already undergone surgery, and is expected to return to the Celtics next season.

Jaylen Brown is aiming to return to the lineup on Sunday night, after being in the NBA’s concussion protocol since March 8th. The Celtics have been extremely careful regarding Brown’s injury, and his potential return will be a game-time decisions.

Of course, Gordon Hayward is still out after suffering a broken leg in the first game of the season. Coach Brad Stevens has adamantly stated that Hayward will not return, but the reports are not uniform. Hayward himself has not ruled out playing again this season, saying, “the hope is still there.”

Hardship Exemption

On March 23rd, it was reported that the Celtics are filing for a Hardship Exemption from the NBA. It is defined as follows by SB Nation:

“The Hardship Exemption is a tool that allows NBA teams that are hit hard by injuries to continue to field a deep enough roster to both practice and play games. In order to qualify, teams must have at least four players out for at least three games to petition. As soon as one of the injured players is ready to return, the team must drop back into compliance with standard roster size.” (Keith P. Smith, SB Nation)

If granted, this could be potentially huge for the Celtics’ playoff seeding hopes. It would allow them to sign players that fit Brad Stevens’ system in an effort to win the necessary games to secure home court advantage.

However, dropping that player could be potentially problematic, especially considering some returning players present question marks moving forward. Utilizing previously dropped players, though, would give a chance for that individual to showcase his skills as a form of tryout, which would be useful for all parties.

Stevens has been quoted as saying that Boston would target a perimeter player, if the exemption is granted. With a big chunk of their outside and mid-range shooting on the bench, this seems like the best fit.

Remaining schedule

The Celtics only have 10 games remaining on the season. Five are against lottery teams, four are against playoff contenders, and one comes against a potential playoff team (Utah Jazz).

Their schedule is obviously favorable. The lottery teams will be all but trying to drop these games against Boston. It is not an exaggeration to say that Boston’s bench alone could beat them.

Of their remaining five games against playoff teams, though, four are on the road. Two of those are against the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors (one at home, one on the road). These games are huge trouble for the second place Celtics.

Celtics

DeRozan dribbles against Celtics’ Jaylen Brown. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

The third place Cleveland Cavaliers are winners of four in a row, and their schedule is equally favorable. If the Cavs can stay hot and the Celtics start dropping games, they could easily be overtaken for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

The good news is that even if they dropped all 10 games, they would still be a playoff team, albeit with a significant disadvantage. How far the Celtics go in the playoffs, however, is completely dependent upon when their injured stars can return and contribute at a high level.

Expectations should be leveled going forward. It would be a win for the team if they can go 5-5 in their last 10 games, which would probably keep them in second place. There is not a huge difference between the two and three seed in the NBA. If Boston wants a spot in the Conference Finals, though, they’ll need every home court advantage they can get.

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injury

Playoff contenders’ injury roundup

Injury woes are piling up in the NBA. That’s a given near the end of an 82-game season.

This year, though, the teams bearing the brunt of the misfortune are those expected to be solidly in contention for the NBA title. None of these teams are expected to miss the playoffs because of the absences, but these storylines are put under a magnifying glass as they prepare to play their most meaningful basketball.

Almost every playoff team is missing some pieces, but here is a roundup of the injuries that could hamstring contenders with their eyes on hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Boston Celtics

Kyrie Irving

Irving is currently listed as Day-to-Day, and has missed the last two games due to a knee injury. He broke his kneecap during the 2015 NBA Finals, which still appears to be giving him trouble. Celtics GM, Danny Ainge, has said that Kyrie will probably have some minor surgery in the offseason to “clean up” lingering issues, but that he will be ready for the playoffs.

Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart had surgery on a torn ligament in his thumb on Friday. The most optimistic projections have him returning in six weeks, making a playoff return possible. It is possible, however, that his season could be over if any complications arise.

Jaylen Brown

Brown suffered a concussion during March 8th’s game against the Timberwolves. Brad Stevens commented on his status Friday, saying, “his headache was resolved.” He will be reevaluated next week, but the Celtics are keeping him out of the lineup, as per the NBA’s concussion protocol.

Gordon Hayward

injury

Gordon Hayward suffered a fractured ankle during the first game of the season. (Photo by Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

After breaking his ankle in the first quarter of the season, Hayward refuses to rule out a return this season. Brad Stevens, however, was adamant that he would not see the floor, in an attempt to protect his future. We know that players want to play, so it’s not totally shocking that Hayward says he can return, but the smart money is on him not playing another minute this season. Furthering that sentiment, Danny Ainge reported that Gordon had a “setback” in his rehab about a month ago. He did state that the small forward is back on track. Hayward’s return has been the story that just won’t die this season, so fans will have to wait and see how risky the Celtics are willing to be.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Rodney Hood

Hood is listed as day-to-day with a back injury. He did play 18 minutes in the Cavaliers’ loss against the Trailblazers on Friday. It does not seem as if the injury will continue to sideline the shooting guard, but the team will keep an eye on it going forward.

injury

Kevin Love injured his hand against the Pistons on Jan. 30. (Photo by Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

Kevin Love

Still recovering from a broken left hand, Love has been out of the lineup since January 30. According to sources close to the team, he is aiming for a return on March 23rd, against the Suns. Considering the original prediction was every bit of two full months, it seems as if Love’s injury is healing ahead of schedule. He has not yet played with the Cavs’ revamped roster.

Kyle Korver

The Cavaliers’ veteran sharpshooter did not play in Saturday’s game against the Bulls. The team is chalking the absence up to a “personal matter,” although the specifics have not been released. It’s unclear how long Korver will be out of the rotation, but he should return soon.

Golden State Warriors

Kevin Durant

Durant underwent an MRI on Friday that revealed a rib fracture. He will be out for at least two weeks. Apparently, this injury dates all the way back to March 11th’s game against the Timberwolves. As Durant drove to the rim against Karl-Anthony Towns, he felt the injury happen. Not seeking medical attention, though, the injury became inflamed as Durant kept playing. The timeline here should stay right at two weeks if everything goes according to plan.

Stephen Curry

Curry tweaked an already oft-injured ankle while accidentally stepping on teammate Zaza Pachulia’s ankle on March 2. He has missed the Warriors’ last four games, and will likely miss four more. He is scheduled for a reevaluation on March 20, but the team believes he will remain out of the lineup until April.

Klay Thompson

The third Warriors All-Star to appear on the injury report, Thompson has a fractured thumb. Already missing two games, he won’t be assessed again until March 22. When the injury was announced, Golden State expected him to miss at least seven games. There is no timetable for his return, but he should be ready for the playoffs.

injury

Omri Casspi rolled his ankle Friday against the Kings. (Photo by Ben Margot/Associated Press)

Omri Casspi

During Friday’s game against the lowly Sacramento Kings, backup forward Omri Casspi rolled his ankle after making a shot in the second quarter. He did not play on Saturday against the Suns, but there is no information on how serious the injury is. Considering Durant is also sidelined, this presents problems for Golden State’s front court depth.

Houston Rockets

Ryan Anderson

Anderson has not played since February 25 while dealing with a hip injury. He returned to minimal action Saturday against the Pelicans, but expect the Rockets to play it safe with the 29-year-old forward. Considering the Rockets’ early-season injury woes, they will want to minimize the risk of their roster being thinned out going into the playoffs.

Clint Capela

Although he has not missed time because of it, Capela is nursing a sore thumb. Such an integral part of the Rockets’ lineup will be watched carefully, but sitting him out of the lineup is unlikely unless he aggravates the injury.

Toronto Raptors

Norman Powell

Bench forward Norman Powell has sat out Toronto’s last two games due to a tweaked ankle. He is currently day-to-day, and the Raptors will continue to play it safe, as they have already clinched a playoff spot and are on an 11-game win streak.

Kyle Lowry

The official reason for Lowry’s absence in Toronto’s win against the Mavericks was rest, due to  back-to-back contests. Considering Lowry’s injury history however, this is something to watch in the future. In part because other integral pieces of the Raptors’ rotation have not missed time due to rest.

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Making the case for every fringe playoff team

The NBA season is halfway over, which means it’s time to start evaluating potential playoff teams.

The top four seeds in each conference are virtual locks, due to overall talent and coaching. The fifth-seventh seeds will do some changing around as teams jockey for their playoff seeding. Although, close followers of the NBA probably wouldn’t be surprised if the Pistons or the Trailblazers fell out of the playoff picture after overachieving slightly in the first half of the season.

As with any sport’s playoff, however, the most interesting storylines are the ones involving the teams on the bubble.

With that in mind, let’s look at each conference’s eighth seed and first two teams on the outside looking in.

Eastern Conference

Indiana Pacers (21-19, No. 8 seed)

The Pacers have been just fine without Paul George. Victor Oladipo has been playing close to his ceiling, although they’re still overpaying for him. The other piece of the trade that sent George away, Domantas Sabonis, has also been playing nicely. He’s two rebounds shy of averaging a double-double, and will probably end up setting career-high averages in every meaningful category.

While their offense has been clicking, their defense is some of the most below average in the Association. Not awful, just very mediocre. Their offense alone can win the Pacers enough games to keep them in the 8th spot. Lack of defensive consistency will have been their downfall if they fail to make the cut.

Philadelphia 76ers (19-19, first team out)

Philadelphia is one of the most exciting stories in the NBA this season. The “process” seems to have finally come to fruition, and we are finally seeing glimpses of what this long and arduous rebuild has wrought.

Even though the 76ers are a .500 team, don’t be fooled. They’re currently first in the league in rebounds per game, second in assists resulting made field goals, and sixth in points. A rested and re-energized team could ride that kind of momentum to a playoff spot after the All Star break. Plus, their first overall draft pick hasn’t even played five games yet.

NBA Playoffs

Embiid scores on Whiteside. (Photo by: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

What will keep them out of the playoffs is their youth and inconsistency in their game to game performances. As the season drags on, the young players might start to slow down, which will only exacerbate their inconsistency issues. Those red flags usually mean a .500 team will stay a .500 team, but playing in a weak conference will definitely help.

New York Knicks (19-21, second team out)

The Knicks are a force to be reckoned with in the paint on both ends of the court. They are ninth in points in the paint and second in points allowed in the paint. Yes, we’re talking about the New York Knicks.

The team is huge, size-wise. Porzingis, O’Quinn, Kanter and Noah are all either over or close to 7-feet. That length pays dividends over a long regular season, but could actually be a problem if they sneak into the playoffs. The East is full of jump shooting teams, which will stretch New York’s strengths too thin to make them truly effective.

Western Conference

New Orleans Pelicans (20-19, No. 8 seed)

New Orleans might very well be a better team than their record indicates. They’re second in points in the paint thanks to Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. They’re also second in the NBA in assists per game thanks to some great guard play both from starters and off the bench. Not to mention they have the second toughest schedule in the NBA (according to 2016-2017 team records).

Team defense leaves a lot to be desired for the Pelicans. Bottom five in opponents points in the paint per game doesn’t make a lot of sense considering the front court they have. They also give up the third most points in the league per game.

NBA Playoffs

Davis and Cousins during a game against the Spurs. (Photo by: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

It’s an especially strange case on New Orleans’ part. The chemistry and coaching is clearly there, as evidenced by the assist totals. But the defense is nowhere near where it should be, in spite of Cousins and Davis. Remember that Alvin Gentry was brought on to be a defensive mastermind, and the roster has only gotten better since he came to town. Maybe look for a coaching shake-up if the Pelicans miss the playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers (18-21, first team out)

Doc Rivers’ team is hurting out west. The Clippers have been a staple of the Western Conference playoffs for the past six years, but the days of Lob City have finally come to an end. Chris Paul’s departure marked a culture change for the Clips, and the team has not found its stride just yet.

Los Angeles still has a great 3-point game. Beverley, Williams, Rivers and even Griffin can all pull up from distance. They also have great personnel for man-to-man defense. Those two things are golden in NBA playoff basketball. But, yet again, team defense is going to be the main hurdle between them and their playoff streak.

Utah Jazz (16-24, second team out)

The new look Jazz are in a soft rebuild. After losing their number one scorer in Gordon Hayward, the Jazz were almost certainly take on a new identity. But picking up Ricky Rubio and finding a steal in Donovan Mitchell should have stopped the bleeding more than it has.

Their defense is some of the best in the NBA, all around. In fact, the Jazz are top 10 in almost every meaningful defensive category under Quin Snider. Against the trend, the offense is what will probably keep Utah out of the playoffs this year. Although, again, this is a new look team. And offense almost always comes together more quickly than defense. If they can keep up the defensive dominance, they won’t be out of the playoff picture for long.

 

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Donovan Mitchell

Why everyone is talking about Donovan Mitchell

Donovan Mitchell was truly torn between staying at the University of Louisville and declaring for the draft. It seems as if he’s made the right choice.

The rookie sensation is on his way to a special first season. He is a go-to scoring option, and he can hold his own on defense. There aren’t very many things he hasn’t shown the NBA he cannot do, and the season is not quite halfway over.

Here are some of the reasons why the NBA is officially on notice.

Rookie of the Year candidacy

Mitchell is tentatively in the top spot for Rookie of the Year. But why?

Ben Simmons collects more rebounds and dishes out more assists at a guard position. Jayson Tatum is shooting 45.3 percent from three and turns the ball over less in the exact same amount of time on the floor. In fact, the only category of note in which Mitchell safely leads his top two challengers is points per game at 18.2.

Defense

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell steals the ball from Nance Jr. (Photo by Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

Part of it might have to do with his commitment to improving his game on the defensive end of the court. He has commented on his own “perfectionist” nature when it comes to his defense and has said ex-Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s defensive expectations were one of the things that drove him to pick Louisville.

That commitment may not show up on the stat sheet, as his 1.5 steals per game and 0.5 blocks per game are not gaudy numbers. But they are only going to get better if Mitchell’s is as dedicated to improving as he says he is.

Also, it’s hard to deny when watching him play that he isn’t exerting the effort it takes to be a great defensive guard. Coach Quin Snyder has even lauded Mitchell’s ability to deny an offensive player the ball when they are racing to their spot. Keep in mind that anyone’s first year playing against the best scorers in the world is going to be an adjustment, period.

Offense

What will probably impress ROY voters even more, however, is Mitchell’s electric offense.

Again, he has 18.2 points per game, which leads all rookies at the halfway point on the season. He already has 16 games with 20 or more points, which puts him within spitting distance of the Jazz rookie record, currently held by another former Louisville Cardinal, Darrel Griffith. He’s sinking 3-pointers at an almost 36 percent clip, which is decent enough. Plus, his 43.8 field goal percentage is impressive considering he takes more jump shots than either of his top competitors.

The real story here, though, is his athleticism around and above the rim. He can get up, catch the ball in traffic and most importantly, slam it home. This brings us to our next point.

Dunk Contest

Donovan Mitchell’s dunks are fantastic. If he isn’t in the dunk contest this year, then the NBA might as well cancel it.

There’s no real way to describe a dunk using only words, so suffice it to say, he is exhibiting in-game feats of athleticism that one must see to believe.

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell throws down a dunk. (Photo by Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Mitchell told Michael Rapaport on his podcast that he would “love” to participate in the dunk contest over the All-Star break, but would be prepared to lose to Derrick Jones Jr. of the Miami Heat, if Jones were to participate. He went on to say that he’s probably lost to Jones in 12 out of the 13 dunk contests he’s been a part of, as they have competed against one another since they were young.

At only 6-foot-3, Donovan has already thrown down some dunks that will undoubtedly be in consideration for Dunk of the Year honors. This is helped by his tremendous jumping ability and having one of the most seasoned passers in the league, Ricky Rubio, at the point guard position.

Earning respect

Along with earning his spot in ROY consideration, Mitchell is also earning high praise from some of the very best players in the NBA.

After a workout with Chris Paul and Paul George, Paul told David Gardner of Bleacher Report that Mitchell was “going to be good for a long time,” while also commenting on his obvious love of the game.

The biggest story here, however, comes from an Instagram comment of all things.

On Dec. 16, the Jazz visited Cleveland. Mitchell scored 26 points in Utah’s losing effort, while LeBron James notched his 60th career triple-double. After the game, Mitchell posted on Instagram about how excited he was to be able to play against the players he grew up watching. In a comment on the post, James called Mitchell “young king.”

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell tries to score against Wade. (Photo by: Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune)

This is significant. James has respect for all rookies, but he appeared to name Mitchell as a potential successor to his throne. That doesn’t happen every day. Regardless of whether it was in a press conference or on Instagram, this is James telling the world to keep an eye on this one.

Also, after that same game, Dwyane Wade lined up after LeBron and patiently waited his turn to give Mitchell a word or two of encouragement. Wade, one of the best shooting guards of all time, and a dynamic finisher around the rim in his prime, wanted words with Mitchell. Neither Wade or James had to to do these things. They were paying their respects to a first-year player. Make no mistake, that’s a big deal.

That is three potential Hall of Fame basketball players already touting Mitchell’s abilities and capacity to improve. And that’s without mentioning all the things that great players have said about him in press conferences after games against the Jazz.

All in all, Mitchell has the ability to be a true all-around player in the league. At the shooting guard position, that’s very impressive. He’s also managed to fill a Gordon Hayward-sized hole in the Jazz’s offense. It probably will not be enough to propel the Jazz to a playoff berth, or even a winning season, but he provides hope for a storied NBA franchise.

And no matter what team you may root for, the potential for another LeBron James should inspire that same hope.

 

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Five things to be thankful for in the NBA

Everyone has something to be thankful for come holiday season. With Thanksgiving passing yesterday it’s time to reflect on the things we are thankful for in sports.

The NBA season has been filled with twists and turns. Many teams and players have created a different narrative to this year’s NBA. The teams that have dominated both conferences are not the ones on top. Players have both emerged and fallen from last season. However we are thankful for many things that make the NBA entertaining. Here are five of the things that have made the NBA the most interesting this season.

The 76ers’ young guys

If you haven’t watched Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Robert Covington play you should. The three of them are making the 76ers more than exciting to watch. They are something to be thankful for due to the elevated play in the East. Having a team emerge with great young talent to compete every night with the top teams in the East is definitely something to be thankful for.

Simmons is averaging 19, 9 and 7 and Joel Embiid is averaging a double-double. Covington is shooting 46 percent from three while shooting just under eight a game. The 76ers are 10-7 and are sitting in the sixth spot in the East. Simmons has been terrific, taking defensive rebounds and turning them into points.

The Sixers have been off to a good start and are just a couple games back in the East. They should continue their pace and be a tough out for a top team in the East come playoff time.

The Gordon Hayward-less Boston Celtics

Well now the Cavaliers don’t like the superior team in the East. Gordon Hayward went down in the first quarter of the season and the Celtics rallied around that. They have the best record in basketball and have beaten the Warriors already this season.

Many thought the season was lost for the Boston Celtics without Gordon Hayward. Instead, they are continually proving they belong. They have the best defensive unit in the league right now and previously held the best offense in the NBA to 88 points. Finally the best team in the East doesn’t look like the Cavaliers, it only took a few years.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant

Everyone loves a little conflict and soap opera. What Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have created is flat out chippy and fans can’t take their eyes off of it. Many cheer against Kevin Durant for his choice to join the Golden State Warriors and Russ has “poked the bear” in a sense.

Russell Westbrook has felt disrespected due to Kevin Durant’s decision and has made it an on the court conflict. It has made games that are normally not as interesting and turned it into prime time television.

A new villain has been created

NBA

Lonzo Ball, (Thewinningtake.com).

Lonzo Ball is a villain. Like it or not LaVar Ball has made fans not like his son but in a way it has made the NBA better. Teams look forward to playing the Lakers to watch the opposing point guard play him tough.

This is exactly what his dad wanted to do by making a below average Lakers team relevant and putting his son in the forefront because of it. People now are drawing attention to an 8-11 team with a point guard who is shooting under 32 percent.

I still find myself thinking about how thankful we are to have a person to cheer against every night. It’s like fantasy sports because it makes fans care about games that they wouldn’t normally. So in a way, LaVar deserves a thank you.

The Timberwolves in playoff position

Obviously it’s very early in the season but the Timberwolves look very good. They have a big three in Karl Anthony-Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins. They are competitive every night and look poised to finally make the playoffs. We always cheer for things that don’t happen often right? Well the Timberwolves have been absent from the playoffs for a while.

It would be good for basketball to have a shake up in playoff teams. It gets boring seeing the same teams make the playoffs year in and year out. The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season. This could be the season that they finally break that extremely long drought. The Timberwolves round out the Thanksgiving list because they are finally relevant and create a tough playoff opponent for anyone they face.

 

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