Western Conference Playoff Preview

NBA Western Conference finals preview

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

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

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

 DURING THE REGULAR SEASON

Western Conference finals preview

James Harden (Photo by businessinsider.com)

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

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

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

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

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

HOW HAVE BOTH TEAMS LOOKED IN THE POSTSEASON?

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

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

Western Conference finals preview

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

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

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

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

 

HOW WILL THE SERIES PLAY OUT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden State wins in 6.

 

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Minnesota Timberwolves

Wolves vs. Rockets: Recap

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

Wolves turning Things around

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

Minnesota Timberwolves

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

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

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

Five Wolves Scored more than 17 points

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

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

Keys for Game 4

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

Minnesota Timberwolves

James Harden playing defense on Towns
(Houston Chronicle)

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

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Rockets Timberwolves preview

Rockets vs. Timberwolves series preview

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

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

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

Regular Season Summary

Houston Rockets

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

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

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

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

Rockets Timberwolves preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota Timberwolves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rockets Timberwolves preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakdown and Prediction

Breakdown

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

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

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

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

Prediction

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

Rockets Timberwolves preview

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

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

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

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

Rockets in five

 

Featured image by Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

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NBA MVP candidates

2017-18 NBA MVP candidates

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

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

NBA MVP candidates

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

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

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

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

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

James Harden

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lebron James

NBA MVP candidates

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

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

 

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

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

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

NO. OF SEASONS AVERAGING 25-6-6

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Featured image by ClutchPoints

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NBA Western Conference Playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 8 seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

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

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

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

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

No. 7 seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 6 seed – San Antonio Spurs

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

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

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

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

No. 5 seed – New Orleans Pelicans

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

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

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

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

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

No. 4 seed – Utah Jazz

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

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

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

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

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

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

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

No. 3 seed – Portland Trail Blazers

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 2 seed – Golden State Warriors

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

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

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

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 1 seed – Houston Rockets

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Featured image by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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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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James Harden MVP

The NBA MVP is Harden’s to lose

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

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

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

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

Stats

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

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

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

James Harden MVP

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

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

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

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

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

Praise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

James Harden MVP

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

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

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

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

 

Featured image by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

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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.

Featured image by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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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.

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

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

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

No. 7 Seed- Washington Wizards

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

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

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

No. 6 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

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

playoffs

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

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

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

No. 5 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

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

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

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

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

No. 4 Seed – Indiana Pacers

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

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

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

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

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

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

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

The schedule is tough, but the Raptors are tougher.

Western Conference

No. 8 Seed – Denver Nuggets

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

playoffs

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

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

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

No. 7 Seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

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

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

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

No. 6 Seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

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

playoffs

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

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

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

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

No. 5 Seed – New Orleans Pelicans

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

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

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

No. 4 Seed – San Antonio Spurs

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

playoffs

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

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

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

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

No. 3 Seed – Portland Trailblazers

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

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

No. 2 Seed – Houston Rockets

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

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

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

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

No. 1 Seed – Golden State Warriors

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

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

playoffs

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

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

Featured image by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports

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