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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0-3

Inside the NBA’s 0-3 conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

History

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

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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. 76ers series preview

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

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

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

Boston Celtics

Milwaukee gave Boston all they could handle until Game 7.

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

playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia 76ers

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

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

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

playoffs

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

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

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

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

Preview and Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

76ers in six

Featured image by Michael Perez/Associated Press

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first round

NBA playoff roundup: Summaries and analysis after two games

The first round of the NBA playoffs is here.

With every series shifting to the lower seeded team’s home court, it is time to take a look at where each team stands matching up with their opponent, some potential focus changes and predictions on how the next games will shake out.

Here is a summary of every series now that the first two games are in the books.

Eastern Conference

Raptors vs. Wizards

The Toronto Raptors finally shook the first game monkey off of their backs.

Up until Saturday, the franchise had never won the first game of a playoff series. Now, they hold their first-ever 2-0 lead.

Game 1 ended in a 116-104 win for the Raptors, although the final score does not quite tell the whole story. Toronto started off well, and got out to an early lead. By the end of the third, though, they only lead by one point. The bench players sealed the win in the fourth quarter, which is unsurprising, as Toronto’s bench has been fantastic all season.

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Lowry guards Wall during Game 1. (Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Game 2 was all Raptors, as the Wizards could not keep up after Toronto put up a 44-point first quarter. DeRozan led all scorers with 37 points, as the game wrapped with a 130-119 final score.

Although players like Serge Ibaka and Mike Scott have been terrific, the real story here is the battle of the backcourts. DeRozan and Lowry are winning this battle handily. Lowry is averaging 12 points and 10.5 assists, and DeRozan is giving the Raptors 27 points and 5 assists.

Wall seems to have no more rust to shake off, however, as he is putting up 26 points per game, and distributing at a clip of 12.5 assists per game. While Beal, who has played all year and earned his first All-Star appearance, can only muster 14 points and 3.5 assists.

The series is now shifting to Washington, but that is not necessarily a gigantic advantage. The Raptors away record is two games better than the Wizards’ home record. Expect the home crowd to give the Wiz a boost, but if the Raptors continue their trend of incredibly timely scoring, this series could be over in four or five games.

Celtics vs. Bucks

Although the Celtics are up 2-0 in the series, it has not been as lopsided as the record indicates.

In Game 1, Boston needed overtime to beat the seventh-seeded Bucks, after Khris Middleton knocked down a Hail Mary 3-pointer with 0.5 on the clock. It was a game of runs, as Boston had a 15-0 run to end the first quarter, with Milwaukee answering with a 21-5 run in the second. It was only fitting that a game that back and forth got an extra period.

As the old adage goes, though, better teams win in overtime. The Celtics outscored the Bucks 14-8 in bonus time, and took the win.

Game 2 ended with a 120-106 Celtics victory, but the Bucks were not hopelessly behind for the entire game. Rather, they hung around, but just could not muster the defense necessary to hold off Boston’s balanced attack.

As expected, Antetokounmpo has been the driving force behind Milwaukee, averaging 32.5 points and 11 rebounds in the two games. Middleton, the Game 1 hero, has been a scoring machine, giving the Bucks 31 points in the first game and 25 in the second. Outside of the Greek Freak’s 13 rebound performance in Game 1, though, no other Buck has had a double-digit rebound game. This likely has contributed to their 0-2 hole.

Without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics have looked just fine. In Game 1, four Celtics scored 20 or more, with Jayson Tatum only being one point shy of making it five. Six of Boston’s players had double-digit scoring games in Game 2. Not bad for an injury-laden team whose offense was written off after the All-Star break.

If the Bucks can break out of some bad habits and lackluster defense, they could even this series at home. But look for the Celtics to take the series with their more complete team and better coaching. Biding time until Marcus Smart can return in May, Boston has a lot to play for.

76ers vs. Heat

This series has been great, and will likely stay that way.

The “watchability” factor is due in part to the fact that Game 1 was an absolute blowout. The 76ers carried their cocky attitude and potent offensive attack into the playoffs to the tune of a 130-103 win. Even without Embiid locking down the paint, this young Sixers team found ways to score and keep Miami from doing much offensively.

Veterans and newbies stepped up for Philadelphia in the 27-point drubbing of Miami. Redick and Belinelli contributed 28 and 25 points, respectively, while Saric gave a 20-point performance. Ben Simmons, the possible Rookie of the Year, was one rebound shy of a triple-double, and Ilyasova turned in a double-double. There is not much an opposing team can do about that.

first round

Wade against Simmons in Game 2. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The story of Game 2 was vintage Dwyane Wade rearing his head. Wade played outside of his mind, scoring 28 points. He was playing off of the ball, however, only tallying three assists. Five other Miami players scored in double figures, including Dragic’s 20-point performance.

Saric and Simmons both had good second games, but while they received support scoring-wise, the defense was not enough to stop the Heat.

As the series moves to Miami, it will be the talk of the NBA if Wade can keep playing at this level. With Embiid still out, the series is up for grabs, as the mixed veteran and young talent of Miami tries to take advantage of the 76ers’ mostly inexperienced roster.

Hopefully, we are looking at a classic seven-game first round series.

Cavaliers vs. Pacers

The Pacers put an end to LeBron’s historic 21-game first round winning streak in Game 1 of this series. Considering all of Cleveland’s struggles this season, it is not really that surprising this is the year it came to an end.

In Game 1, the Pacers were on a mission to earn some respect. In the first quarter, they outscored the Cavs 33-14, and did not look back. Victor Oladipo, as he has been all year, was the focal point of Indiana’s offense. He scored 32 easily, while Stephenson, Turner and Bogdanovic all had double-digit scoring games.

LeBron had a triple-double, putting the Cavs on his back. It was not nearly enough, however, as they lost by 18 points on their home court. Only two other Cavaliers scored more than nine points, which cued the calls of “LeBron needs more help.”

Game 2 was a full-fledged LeBron takeover, though, as he was determined to not go down 0-2. James had 46 points and 12 rebounds, and outscored the entire Pacers team in the first quarter. As the Pacers cut an 18-point lead down to just four, more LeBron heroics sealed the win, as the Cavs came away with the three-point victory.

Any series featuring this Cavaliers team will be put under a microscope. The issues this team has had are not only well-documented but numerous. The second half of their season was less tumultuous, but it is generally agreed upon that 2018 could possibly put an end to LeBron’s streak of seven straight NBA Finals appearances.

Are the Pacers good enough to knock this battle-tested Cleveland team out in the first round, though? Probably not. Especially if LeBron continues his ageless 2018 campaign. Indiana does have a six-game advantage at home, versus Cleveland’s road record. But the Pacers continue to lean heavily on Oladipo.

Averaging 26 points in these first two games, probable Most Improved Player, Victor Oladipo, has no choice but to keep playing this well if the Pacers want to keep winning. Everyone knows what the Cavaliers can do when they put it all together, so, even though NBA pundits will say otherwise, the pressure is on Indiana to continue to impress.

 

Western Conference

Trail Blazers vs. Pelicans

The Pelicans have taken a surprising 2-0 lead in this third versus sixth seed first round series. It is magnified by the fact that both of these games have taken place in Portland, which features a fantastic home court advantage.

The first game was close, but the margin of victory would have been two possessions, if McCollum did not hit a prayer of a three-pointer at the buzzer. As with many NBA games, the final two minutes were the most exciting of the game. The Trail Blazers were within one point with one minute left, after a McCollum three.

The last minute was punctuated by poor decisions and turnovers by Portland. Not to be overshadowed, though, was some excellent defense by Jrue Holliday, which included a massive block with nine seconds left.

Another bad second half cost Portland Game 2 as well. The Pelicans dominated the turnover game and took advantage of every opportunity handed to them. Playoff Rondo is back in full force, falling one assist shy of a triple-double in Game 2, and had a massive 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter. He even stole the spotlight from Anthony Davis, which is no easy task.

first round

Jrue Holliday celebrates after a late foul was called against Portland. (Photo by Sean Meagher/Oregon Live)

It is hard to pick the brightest spot on the Pelicans roster over the first two games. Mirotic has proven to be an important addition, averaging 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. Jrue Holliday, as mentioned earlier, is playing well on both ends of the floor. Rondo contributed with his passing in Game 1, with 17 assists, and in all areas in Game 2. And of course, Davis has gotten his, with a 35-point, 14 rebound first game, and a 22-point, 13 rebound second game.

On the flip side, it is easy to pick out the problems for the Blazers. Lillard and McCollum have outright failed to carry the team the way that they did during the regular season.

Lillard is averaging 17.5 points, and McCollum has just a 15 point average. This is a far cry from Lillard’s 26.9 point and McCollum’s 21.4 point regular season average. These two simply need to play better, because when they do, the rest of the team feeds off of them. This is not an easy task, however, if Holliday and Rondo are going to continue to guard them as well as they are.

Yet another problem for the Blazers, is that the series now shifts to New Orleans. Not having the home court fans behind them has been a problem for Portland. The team is only one game above .500 on the road. The Pelicans only hold a three-game advantage at home, so expect the series to stay hotly contested.

Thunder vs. Jazz

Back-and-forth games have been the calling card of this series. Both games have been closer than their final scores indicate, due to late-game fouls and free throws. Lead changes are at a premium, and it appears that these two teams are evenly matched.

Game 1 featured two of the “OK3” have terrific nights. Paul George and Russell Westbrook combined for 65 points and 20 assists by themselves. Carmelo Anthony added 15 points and 7 rebounds, which helped carry the Thunder to a win.

Donovan Mitchell continued his dismantling of NBA defenses, with a 27-point night. He was also good for a double-double as he notched 10 rebounds. Six other Jazz players were in double figures in the scoring column, but the OK3’s 80 points were too much for the rookie-led Utah team. Both teams scored over 100, setting the stage for, possibly, the most exciting first-round series, depending on preference.

Continuing that trend, Mitchell did it again on Wednesday, earning 28 points. Derrick Favors turned in a double-double, and Ricky Rubio flirted with a triple-double. There were 13 lead changes in the game, but the last one in the fourth quarter belonged to the Jazz.

Westbrook, George and Anthony combined for 54 in Game 2. But Utah’s scoring was much more timely. The Thunder played well on the offensive end, as they usually do, but the defense that the Jazz are known for kept them ahead when it counted.

If the Thunder’s big three can continue averaging 67 points per game, it simply will be up to the Thunder’s bench to outscore Mitchell. The other big obstacle is Rudy Gobert, who locks down the paint with the best of them.

Utah’s home court advantage is significant, but the Thunder can score anywhere. Westbrook will have to continue to get his teammates involved, and Mitchell will have to play his brand of basketball to keep this series as fascinating as it has been.

Much like the Sixers-Heat series, we could be in line for a seven-game shootout here in the first round.

Warriors vs. Spurs

It seems as if the Warriors are doing just fine without Stephen Curry.

This is looking like the most lopsided series in the first round of the playoffs, because neither Game 1 nor Game 2 were close. The Spurs took minimal leads during Game 2, but they were short-lived. Other than those few instances, it has been all Warriors.

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are showing their age, and the absence of Kawhi Leonard is glaring. Even the Warriors’ bench is looking to be too much for San Antonio. The Spurs have lost both games by 21 and 15, respectively.

first round

McGee and Thompson both go up for a block on Dejounte Murray. (Photo by Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

They allowed Durant and Thompson to score over 30 in Game 2. Their only real scoring threat on a consistent basis is LaMarcus Aldridge. Even so, the Warriors can allow him to score whatever he wants as long as they continue to lock down the rest of the offense.

Meanwhile, the Warriors are playing so well that they have managed to take over the series despite just one double-double from any player in either game (Draymond Green, 12 points, 11 assists). Steve Kerr and this Warriors team are not only accustomed to the playoffs, but they have grown used to playing without Curry. Playing without the two-time MVP may not even cost them a game in this round.

The Warriors might perform sweeps of the Spurs in back to back years. Their only hope of salvaging a game is hoping Aldridge can keep repeating his 34 point, 12 rebound performance he put up in Game 2. Along with that, they will need Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili to score 15 or more while playing good defense.

Other than that, all the Spurs have to look forward to is the trip home, where they play well. But it is very likely the advantage will not mean much.

Rockets vs. Timberwolves

Game 1 of this series saw what is probably the closest the Timberwolves will come to snatching a victory away from the best team in the NBA.

Losing by only three points, the Wolves lost their chance to tie on an abysmal final possession that ended with Andrew Wiggins losing the ball out of bounds with less than a second remaining on the clock. Minnesota played well, and Houston played as poorly as they are going to, and it still was not enough.

James Harden went off for 44 points, as he essentially scores at will. Only Capela and Paul could muster offense worth mentioning, as Harden was option number one, two and three for the Rockets.

Burgeoning star Karl-Anthony Towns only took nine shots in the entire game, making three of them. That is not winning basketball for the Wolves. It seems as if their only hope is to overpower the Rockets with Towns in the paint, as Capela makes his shots, but gets no plays ran for him.

Game 2 was the kind of blowout one might expect for the one seed versus eight seed matchups.

The Rockets won by 20, and only needed 12 points from James Harden to do it. Chris Paul was the standout in this game, backed up by Gerald Green. Only three Wolves scored in double-digits, none of them scoring 20 or more.

Frankly, the Timberwolves are outmatched and outclassed. As the series moves to Minneapolis, a crowd that has not seen a playoff game in 14 years may shake the Rockets enough to allow Minnesota to steal a game away, though.

It is going to take more than 6.5 points per game from Towns to do it, though.

Featured image by Ravell Call/Deseret News

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“From Our Haus to Yours

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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finals

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.

finals

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.

finals

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.

finals

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! 

Featured image courtesy of NBA.com

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defense

Ranking the defense of every Eastern Conference playoff team

Defense wins championships. We’ve all heard it ad nauseum. The exception to this rule, however, might be the NBA.

In the past five years, the NBA has become a veritable 82 game three-point shooting contest. In last years’ finals, the Cavaliers scored 86 points in a single half. Against a vaunted Golden State defense, no less. They also broke the record for most threes in an NBA Finals game (24), which was set by the Warriors just one game earlier.

That’s just one singular example of how much the NBA has shifted in the past decade. Regardless of the shooting sprees, though, defense hasn’t completely gone by the wayside.

In the 2017-2018 season, we’ve seen teams such as the Jazz, Celtics and Raptors embrace their defensive identity. This is due to coaching and a true recognition of playing to their own strengths. All three of these teams have ridden their defense to playoff berths (or a potential playoff berth in Utah’s case).

So which teams can buck the current trends and disrupt their opponent with a potent defense? And which teams are better off shooting their way to the NBA Finals? Here, we’ll rank each Eastern Conference team by their defense, based on opponents’ points per game, blocks, steals and points generated off of turnovers.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

During their three straight trips to the NBA Finals, Cleveland’s defense has never been the driving force. This has all come to a head this season, as they rank third-worst in the league according to their defensive rating.

When looking at their stats individually, they seem like they should place Cleveland in the middle of the pack. The Cavs block 0.3 shots less than opponents per game, they rank only 0.6 steals worse than opposing teams, and surrender only 0.3 defensive rebounds more than they pull in. They’re even positive in their points for/points against split by 0.5 points.

defense

Kevin Love tries to contest a shot against Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge. (Photo by Mark Sobhani/NBAE/Getty Images)

The problem is, when you put all of these middle-of-the-road stats together, they translate to an underachieving defense. If you’re an optimist, you could at least see consistency in their defense to offense, but mediocrity does not get a team far in the playoffs.

The statistics here paint a picture of a team who has had to fight for almost every win they have. Better defensive teams blow out their opponents more often, leading to rest for their stars. It seems as if the Cavaliers are going to have to heavily lean on their offensive capabilities to make it back to the finals.

7. Milwaukee Bucks

According to NBA.com, the Bucks currently stand at 17th in the defensive rankings. They are allowing 106.2 points per game and scoring 105.9 points.

This hasn’t hurt their record too much, though. The Bucks currently sit at 39-35, five games ahead of Detroit for the eighth seed in the East.

A team without a legitimate identity past “give the ball to Antetokounmpo,” the Bucks are fortunate to be in the spot they’re in. Their paint game will give some jump shooting teams fits, but they seem to rely on their offense too much.

Milwaukee’s defense gives up 13.0 second-chance points per game, which is in the bottom ten. They also give up 46.6 points in the paint per game, good for ninth-worst. That last stat is especially odd considering their offensive post game is in the top 10, but it doesn’t always necessarily translate to the other end of the floor.

The Bucks’ block and steal numbers are decent, but they will have to step up the closeout pressure in the playoffs if they hope to pull off an upset.

6. Washington Wizards

The Wizards are known for their offense, led by Bradley Beal in the absence of John Wall. Their defensive rating, however, sits at 106.1, which is good for a place in the top half of the league.

Their worst defensive stat is the number of second chance points given up per game. It makes sense, given their guard-heavy style of play. To that end, the Wizards give up 45.6 points in the paint every night. They are also in the bottom 10 when it comes to blocks per game.

defense

Bradley Beal gets a hand up against Dwyane Wade. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Washington thrives on their ability to steal the ball and turn it into points. At 7.9 steals, their per game average is 10th best in the league. Creating more scoring opportunities for their fast-paced offense is paramount to the team’s success.

Steals alone won’t allow them to take a series, but if they can focus on their frontcourt play, the Wizards can definitely catch some Eastern Conference teams off guard.

5. Indiana Pacers

Indiana’s winning record and surprisingly good season are thanks in part to some serviceable defense.

They give up almost 2.0 less than they score every night, and their steals and blocks are in the plus column as well. The biggest discrepancy here is the block numbers, as they dish out one less than they receive. The 44.7 paint points given up per game are in the exact middle of the road.

The real advantage the Pacers have, though is their ability to turn turnovers into points. They are fifth best in the league, with 14.9 points off of turnovers. Considering their steals sit at 8.8 per game, that is just shy of a 60% success rate.

Much like the Wizards, the Pacers will have to rely on their quick hands to steal a series away from a favored team. But with a potent offensive attack with a very balanced defense, Indiana will be a tough out when April rolls around.

4. Miami Heat

Another surprising playoff contender, Miami’s young core has come into their own during the 2018 season. With a defensive rating solidly in the top 10, playing Miami has been more of a chore than was expected.

defense

Bam Adebayo forces Stephen Curry to pass the ball. (Photo by David Santiago/Miami Herald)

A great paint defense has been the key this year. Hassan Whiteside continues to come along nicely, and Bam Adebayo has created a one-two punch that makes easy buckets hard to come by. At 5.2 blocks per game, the team clearly has a defense-first mentality.

Their field goal percentage versus their opponents’ is pretty even, including a plus 0.2 percentage on three-point field goal percentage. The total rebounds and steals also sit narrowly in the plus column.

The real hurdle for the Heat will be keeping their big men on the floor. At 19.3 personal fouls per game, Miami allows 3.3 more free throw attempts than they take. In playoff games, those three points could very well be the difference between winning and losing a game. Discipline on the defensive end will be the name of the game for this young core in their search for a series win.

3. Toronto Raptors

Currently holders of the East’s top seed, and with all the talk of their defense-to-offense balance, one might expect the Raptors to hold a higher spot here. But, according to the defensive ranking, Toronto actually sits at sixth overall, and third in the East.

However surprising it may be, the Raptors are no slouch on that end of the floor.

They tower over their opponents, scoring 8.1 more points per game than their opponents, which is easily the highest on this list so far. They are positive in almost every defensive category. They own 1.2 more blocks per game over opposing teams, 0.7 steals, and have a 2.2% percent advantage in field goals made. Add in their fourth-best opponents’ points off of turnover rankings, and this is team causes problems.

Their biggest struggles come in the paint, like most of today’s NBA teams. A seemingly-paltry bottom half ranking in opponents’ points in the paint and a bottom five ranking in opponents’ second chance buckets are the problems for this team. Paint struggles have broken past playoff teams.

This doesn’t quite spell disaster for the Raptors, though. As previously discussed, jump shots have become the order of every game. It’s going to take some serious game-planning to truly expose these Raptors’ paint struggles to the tune of a win. Doing it four times out of seven is a much taller order.

2. Philadelphia 76ers

A surprising team to occupy this spot, the 76ers’ defense has led this shockingly young team to a playoff berth.

The opposite of most teams on this list, their paint defense is where this team thrives. This is thanks in part to Joel Embiid’s season-long coming out party. Accounting for 11.1 rebounds and almost two blocks per game, the team lives and dies by the center’s play.

Philly gives up just 41.8 points in the paint per game, which is third-best in the NBA. This translates to only 12.4-second chance points every game, good for a spot in the top half of the league. Add that to a 3.3 field goal made disadvantage to the 76ers’ opponents, and you have a formidable defense to deal with, regardless of shooting woes.

The only Achilles heel here is their miserable reputation of giving opponents points off of turnovers. Their opponents score 19.0 points per game off of Philadelphia turnovers, which is the worst in the NBA.

That is not encouraging, considering some teams will have to rely on their steals as their only form of defense. If the 76ers allow a bucket almost every time that happens, then they can kiss any shot of making it to the Eastern Conference Finals goodbye, regardless of their great play in the paint.

That will be the real litmus test of this young team. If they can stop that bleeding, then they have a chance to shake things up in the East.

1. Boston Celtics

The Celtics are not only the top team in the Eastern Conference but the best team in the entire NBA according to the defensive ratings.

Regardless of their woeful injury report, Boston, led by one of the top minds in the NBA in Brad Stevens, has a true defensive identity.

The Celts are solidly in the top 10 in opponents’ points in the paint, and opponents’ second-chance points. Their steals are even with their opponents, and their blocks are just 0.2 ahead of opposing teams.

defense

Injured star Kyrie Irving steals the ball from Dejounte Murray. (Photo by Matt West)

According to the field goal percentages against them, it’s clear this team contests almost every shot that goes up. They are in the plus column in three-point percentage, two-point field goal percentage, and total field goal percentage.

The most surprising stat is the fact that they only score 4.0 more points than opposing teams. But stats, however helpful, can be misleading when it comes to defense. The team play on the defensive end is completely apparent when watching this team play. They may play close games, but defense often comes out on top in those contests.

When the team gets healthy and gels in the playoffs, this defense could be the deciding factor in more than a couple of games. While their scoring isn’t much to write home about, stopping other teams from scoring can be just as productive.

Featured image by Nathan Denette/Associated Press

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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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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

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