An NBA Finals more dessert than main course

After a seven game war between Golden State and Oklahoma City, we finally have the matchup that everyone predicted at the beginning of the year. The Golden State Warriors will host the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. The teams got here by incredibly different paths. You know, the smartest decision LeBron has made in his career was never playing for a Western Conference team. He’s been able to dominate the Eastern Conference for the vast majority of his career, only facing real competition from the Big Three Celtics of the late 2000’s. If I was Kevin Durant, especially after this hellish series, I would be taking a long look at some of the Eastern Conference squads as a new place to call home.

When you look at the disparity of talent between the conferences you could almost make the argument that whichever team makes it out of the West should be allotted an automatic win in the Finals, at least until they eliminate conferences for playoff purposes. I’m kidding here, but not entirely. When you look at the teams that Cleveland had to play to get to this point, let’s just take Toronto as an example, it’s clear that they have a huge advantage over the top teams in the West. The Raptors have two very good players in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but they would not be a top two player on six of the eight teams that made the playoffs in the Western Conference. Would you rather have those two than Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, or Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? I wouldn’t. I won’t even get into how much better the Warriors, Thunder and Spurs are compared to teams in the Eastern Conference.

I want to make this clear, I’m not trying to diminish how impressive it is that LeBron James has made six NBA Finals appearances in a row. That is one of the most impressive feats I’ve seen in professional sports, but even James would have to admit that such a feat would not have been remotely possible playing in the West. Just look at the series we just watched. Both the Warriors and Thunder were playing historically great basketball. It took one of the most impressive three point binges of all time to eliminate OKC, and last night most of 17 threes that Golden State hit were contested shots that literally only Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, or maybe Damian Lillard would even think about shooting.

Meanwhile the Cavs have been lying in wait. I like to imagine LeBron James chilling on a beach somewhere sipping pina coladas and watching the Western Conference Finals on his iPad. He knows what’s coming, last year James carried an undermanned Cavs squad to a couple of improbable wins over the would-be champs. Now he has the team he constructed, led by the coach he handpicked, ready to take on a team that just scraped and clawed their way back from a 3–1 deficit against the most physical team in the league.

That said, I don’t think the Cavs are ready for what is coming. They have not had to deal with even a fraction of the adversity that the champs have been through in these playoffs. There have only been a couple of moments in which Cleveland has been caught off guard by an opponent in the playoffs and when that has happened Ty Lue has not seemed to have quick answers. What happens when the Warriors go small against a lineup including Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, how do you hide their defensive deficiencies? A major reason the Thunder were able to push the Warriors to the brink was that they had the size and athleticism to counter the champs small lineup, especially against Draymond Green.

Golden State has the right answers for Cleveland, they have Andre Iguodala, who just proved once again that he is one of the league’s premier defenders against Kevin Durant. LeBron James no doubt remembers what happened when the two matched up against each other last year, when Iggy won Finals MVP mostly for his otherworldly defense against the King. Klay Thompson just spent half of a series defending Russell Westbrook, it’s safe to say that he is ready to take on the challenge of Kyrie Irving. Draymond Green is going to love not having to deal with Steven Adams anymore. For as talented as Kevin Love is, he has not shown the ability to dominate in the post this year, and Green will be ready to take on a different kind of challenge, whether it be from Love or Tristan Thompson.

The Warriors will not have to make any lineup adjustments to defend the Cavaliers, but Cleveland is going to have to twist itself into a pretzel to defend Golden State. There is no way that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving can defend the Steph/Draymond pick and roll. The Raptors abused the two Cavs stars in the pick game in their series and they were doing it with Bismack Byombo, a one dimensional player who is not nearly as dangerous of a shooter or passer as Green. There are going to be times in this series when Lue is going to have to pull one or two of his stars just to be able to properly defend Golden State’s offense, and it’s going to cause a lot of friction within the team. Are we going to see Matthew Dellavedova play big minutes with the starting team and Kyrie Irving coming off the bench where he can be more effective as a scorer and not have to agonize over trying to defend Steph or Klay? It seems like a smart move, but I’m not sure Coach Lue has the kind of sway to be able to make that decision.

I was a huge fan of how the Cavaliers played with their rotations in such a way that LeBron would start every second and fourth quarter playing with four bench players. These lineups were among the best in league during the playoffs, and with shooters like Richard Jefferson, Delly and Channing Frye around the perimeter you can see why. This is a lineup that makes it really hard on an opposing team’s bench to effectively guard LeBron one-on-one without giving up wide open threes. Just look at the Cavs three point binge against the Hawks if you need proof of how nasty this lineup can be. The problem that Cleveland is going to face here is that the league’s best answer to guarding James just so happens to come off of Golden State’s bench. If the Warriors decide to play Thompson and Iggy together in the second unit I don’t see the Cavs getting the same kind of scoring boost they have gotten in past series with their reserves. I also don’t see guys like Shaun Livingston and Mo Speights playing as poorly as they did against the Thunder.

You guys can probably see where I’m going with all of this. We’ve been waiting all year to for this rematch, and now here we are. But part of me feels like the Finals already happened. The two best teams in the league just played each other and the Warriors came out on top. Now we have a matchup with a lot of star power but nearly as competitive a pairing as the one we just got to enjoy. That’s not to say that the Cavs are helpless in this series. They have built a team as capable as the Warriors of blowing their opponent out of the water with three point shooting. They are a talented, well rested squad who have been waiting for a year to get their hands on Steph Curry and Co. Also, Cleveland has LeBron James, and that counts for a lot.

We’ll see how much Golden State has left in the tank in Game One. The Thunder may have lost the series, but they took a good piece of the Warriors with them on their way out. If I’m LeBron James I throw everything I have into Game One and hope for the best. Will it be enough to send the champs reeling? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that once the Warriors find their groove in this series there will not be a whole lot that the Cavs will be able to do to answer. The Thunder were a worthy adversary to the champs, they played a style that directly countered a lot of what Golden State tries to do. Cleveland has built a team in the image of the Warriors, but the parts do not fit together nearly as well. They have a team that can hit a multitude of threes or defend really well, but they can’t do both at the same time. Golden State can do what Cleveland can not, and I think they will expose the Cavs for being an incomplete team in time. Perhaps five years ago the greatness of LeBron James would be enough to overcome any deficiencies the Cavs have, but this is 2016 and the best player in the series resides in Golden State.

LeBron has spent years trying to calculate the easiest way to win titles, and I really respect his foresight in doing so, but no one in the league has been able to solve the equation of stopping Steph Curry and the Warriors. If winning the Eastern Conference was passing Algebra 1, beating the 73 win defending champs is taking the Calculus Final. I hope the Cavs have used all that free time they’ve had lately to start cramming.

A career defining night for Durant

Be ready for anything.

If Game Seven ends with Russell Westbrook standing over a heap of dead Warriors players it would not surprise me. If Stephen Curry goes on a streak so hot it melts the polar ice caps I wouldn’t blink an eye. If Kevin Durant comes out of the tunnel to start the second half in a Warriors jersey… Well that would actually shock me a little, but you get the point.

There are so many big stories swirling around this game, but I can’t stop thinking about how much this game means for Kevin Durant. Durant is the best player in the league without a title, and with free agency right around the corner the result of tonights game could decide the fate of any number of franchises going forward. This is also a huge game for Durant’s personal legacy. As amazing as KD has been, there have been moments at the ends of these games where he has shrunk away from the moment.

This is obviously a small sample size, and you can’t blame a single player for a team losing a game, but history does not look at players with a nuanced eye. When the smoke settles from this series we are going to remember how much of a force Russell Westbrook was and how Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala pulled the Warriors from the brink in Game Six. Durant has played great in this series, his averages for points, rebounds, blocks and steals are all above his regular season splits, and his defense has been incredible in this series, but going 1-for-7 at home in the fourth quarter of an elimination game is not becoming of an all-time great.

The Thunder’s fourth quarter scoring issues have been well documented all season. A team that relies so much on the success of their two stars winning one-on-one, is susceptible to teams that have elite individual defenders like Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson. You have to give the Warriors credit for somehow stopping the ten story snowball that seemed to be pushing the defending champs into a pit of despair. Now that the series is once again equalized and the Thunder have to try to win a Game Seven on the road, there is going to be more pressure on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to perform well than at any other point in their careers. This is what everyone wants to know about these two, can they channel that seemingly endless well of talent into 48 minutes of championship level basketball against an elite opponent?

Russell Westbrook will always have the excuse that he is more of a force of nature than a human being on the basketball court. When things are going his way Westbrook takes over the game like a tidal wave, putting out points in large doses, getting from one end of the court to another in less than four seconds and generally making it impossible for opponents to defend. When he is having an off night, all of that blinding speed and power leads to bad passes, missed defensive assignments and questionable shots. His game requires him to play a little out of control, and because of his unquestionable effort it’s hard to blame him when he makes mistakes.

This is why Kevin Durant has to deal with larger expectations than Westrbook, and it’s also why Durant is an MVP and the most valued free agent since LeBron in 2010. When juxtaposed with Westrbook, Durant looks like he is floating around the court, waiting in the shadows to hit a dagger a three. In game six KD scored the quietest 40 points that I can remember. Because of his size and athleticism he is able to get his shot off whenever he wants. The game looks so easy when Durant has it going, and his incredible mix of size and skill comes with towering expectations. I mean, how does someone like that ever miss a shot, right? Even when Durant is defended my a generationally great defender like Iggy he still gets no slack from the public when fourth quarter shots don’t go in. Kevin Durant is impossibly good at what he does, and I appreciate his game like I appreciate any great work of art, but it’s time that Durant full harness all of that talent, both God given and earned for one defining performance. This is that chance.

I can’t bring myself to fully invest in either team in this game. Part of me wants nothing more than to see KD and Russ get one more crack at a championship, and I don’t think that will happen if they lose tonight. The odds are just too good that Durant will either leave, or play one more year with OKC with the intention of splitting in 2017 when there will be a king’s ransom to be made in free agency. How can you not root for a Thunder/Cavs series? On the other hand you have the case being made that the 2015/16 Warriors are the greatest team of all time. They have fought like The Bride in Kill Bill to bring this series to a seventh game, and it feels like they still have unfinished business. How can you not root for a Warriors/Cavs Finals?

I’m not going to try to pick a winner for tonight’s game, because what is the point? The joy in watching basketball is giving the best athletes on the planet an arena to show off for the world. This is the ultimate stage for two of the more talented teams that I’ve ever seen to show off on. Whether you are a fan of the game basketball or just a fan of greatness in general tonight’s game is appointment television.

This is Game Seven.

Let’s go!

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Warriors are on the brink

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The end times are nigh in Golden State.

There is no longer a question over who the better team is this series, the Thunder have won three of the first four games in blowout fashion. They have effectively countered Golden State’s clockwork like offense with a terrifying mix of size and athleticism. For instance, when the Thunder go to their small lineup they still have two seven footers on the floor. Playing offense against this team like trying to navigate through a forest of really angry trees.

What’s been most impressive about the Thunder is how they’ve turned up the aggression on defense. When Kevin Durant is roaming around and blocking shots like a death merchant on defense what else can you do but throw your hands up and prey. Every offensive possession for the Warriors feels like pulling teeth, and with every missed shot Russell Westbrook is launched out of a cannon. The Thunder are getting any shot they want in transition, which has led to a snowballing effect in these blowout wins. When you get stops and force turnovers  in the NBA it usually leads to easy baskets, even when you are playing a 73 win team.

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So what do the Warriors need to do to get back into this series?

  1.  Draymond Green has to play better…  A lot better. We’ve all spent a lot of time this year talking up Draymond Green as the engine that drives this team, well the engine is in serious need of repair. When Green has not been kicking Steven Adams in the groin, he’s mostly been ineffective – whether it be playing subpar defense (a statement I never thought I’d have to say about him) or shooting 2-for-16 with 10 turnovers – the last two games have been an absolute bloodbath.
  2. Steph Curry can not guard Russell Westbrook for 40 minutes and be expected to play like himself on offense. Playing good D on Westbrook is trying to keep up with a cheetah on the Serengeti. People have been asking if Curry is hurt and he has insisted that he is physically fine, but you can’t tell me the guy isn’t fatigued. Steph has given it the old college try, but Russell is borderline unguardable right now, he has 67 combined points and triple doubles in the last couple of games. At this point I think you have to play Thompson, who is a better defender on Westbrook, to free up Curry on offense.
  3. Scrap the death lineup. It’s just not working against a Thunder team that has super athletic seven footers who can switch on the Warriors guards and block three point shots. When Golden State plays small they concede that they are going to give up rebounds in order to speed up the pace of the game, cause turnovers and get open shots. Well the opposite has been true against OKC. Players like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant love it when the Warriors play small because it means that there is no big man waiting for them when they drive to the rim. They are built to play fast, and the Warriors have not played a team that they can not keep up with, which has led to the these last couple of games being blowouts.

If they want to win this series the Warriors have to play in the half court. They have to play slower than they have played all year, work the offense and grind out possessions. If there is a weakness with this Thunder team its that they can become stagnant in their half court sets. The best way to take advantage of this is to make shots on your end, and play better transition defense.

I think we are also going to see a lot more out of Bogut and Ezeli than we have this series. The two big men can set screens and block shots, and match up a lot better against the likes of Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka than Draymond. The Warriors have been getting bullied in the post all series, perhaps it’s time they start doing some bullying of their own.

One more note about Golden State. There is absolutely no way if I’m Stephen Curry that I’m going down without shooting at least 30 shots in these games. There has been way too many possessions in which guys like Harrison Barnes or Shaun Livingston are taking bad shots for Golden State. Any shot that Curry takes is a better shot than the looks that his teammates are getting. The Thunder have made life really hard on Curry, but when you are the MVP that is just how life is going to be in these championship rounds. What’s the worse that can happen if Curry becomes a bit of a ball hog? They are already getting blown out in these games.

A lot could happen tonight that would not surprise me. The Thunder could come out and just blow Golden State out of the water. I’ve never seen Westbrook and Durant play with this much hunger at the same time, and when they are at the top of their games at the same time there is no team on this planet that can stop them. The Warriors are a great team that is fully capable of making some adjustments and fighting their way back into this series.

This all makes me wonder how different the league would be right now if Durant would have been healthy last year. How much less would we be talking about small ball if this series would have gone the same way in 2015? It turns out that the answer to teams playing smaller and hitting three’s is to build a lineup full of seven footers who can hit threes. The Thunder are giving us a glimpse of a terrifying NBA future in which rosters are full of seven footers who have sick crossovers and impossible range. I for one welcome our giant, hoop playing overlords.

I’m not sure that last year’s Thunder team could have beaten last year’s Warriors. Steven Adams has really figured out his game this year and is on his way to a max deal the next time his contract his up. His defense and rebounding has been the cornerstone of everything OKC has been able to achieve in these playoffs. Head Coach, Billy Donovan has made some really brilliant moves in this series like playing Andre Robertson at power forward as a way to negate his bad shooting. This is the kind of subtle lineup change that I don’t think Scott Brooks was capable of making. This team is peaking at the absolute right time, and if they can win tonight and get back to the Finals they will have shocked the world.

Fear the Raptor

It’s amazing how a couple of days off can help to clear a players head. Kyle Lowry has been written off as a dead man walking multiple times in these playoffs, but he’s gone the way of Lazarus in these past two games resurrecting his three point shot as well as the Raptors chances of winning this series. Lowry scored 35 points on 14-20 shooting in the Raptors 105-99 win over the Cavaliers.

The big difference in the past two games, outside of Kyle Lowry finding his game has been the emergence of Bismack Biyombo as a rebounding and shot blocking monster. The Raptors defense has put a emphasis on defending the three point shot, and it has been mostly up to Biyombo to protect the rim. The big question coming into this series was when would Jonas Valanciunas get back into the fray. He was listed as available last night, but the superb play of Biyombo allowed coach Dwane Casey to give their star big man another night off to heal.

Biyombo

The reemergence of the Toronto’s two All Stars has completely changed the dynamic of this series. The constant aggression of DeMar DeRozan and Lowry has exposed the biggest weakness of the Cavs – they have no stoppers at the rim. They can constantly run Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love off of pick and rolls with one of their two stars and get a huge mismatch. I really expected Tyronn Lue to start playing Timofey Mozgov just to get some extra rim protection in the game, but Mozgov has only played 9 minutes in the series. DeRozan has scored 64 points in the past two games, taking full advantage of open driving lines and not settling for too many long twos.

The player has been most effected by Toronto’s change in defensive philosophy is Kevin Love. Love has been the big beneficiary of Cleveland’s run-and-gun offense, but now that the Raps are clamping down on outside shooters he is having a hard time fitting in. When Love is not scoring his effectiveness on the court drops big time. He is not a shutdown defender and has not had a game with over ten rebounds in the series. He is shooting 5-23 in the two games played in Toronto and is generally getting destroyed by Biyombo in the post. Channing Frye has seen his minutes go up in these losses and a lot of that can be contributed with Love playing poorly. Frye has been red hot from beyond the arch, but the 33 year olds defense is also suspect, which is a problem when having to handle DeRozan and Lowry on pick and rolls.

How much of the past two games can be contributed to the Raptors stars simply playing better against how much has Cleveland’s offense been effected by some subtle defensive adjustments from Casey? Can Tyronn Lue, who has made some smart lineup adjustments to get optimum efficiency from his bench, find ways to get Kevin Love back into this series? These are two questions that I’m interested to see answered in game five. The Cavs are finally being tested, and only player that has seemed to hold his composure has been LeBron James. It’s time to see if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love can step up their defense, and help put away this suddenly dangerous Raptors squad. This is the kind of testing that Cleveland needs before they have to face the true challenger in either the Warriors or Thunder.

Why Draymond Green’s kick is going to hurt

The big story coming out of Oklahoma City’s 133–105 thrashing of Golden State was not how excellent Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant played, or how poorly the Warriors performed, but this:

Why Draymond, why?

This low blow from Draymond Green on Steven Adams has been the center of all sports talk in the past 24 hours. The big question is whether or not the kick was intentional. Both coaches and nearly every player interviewed last night was asked, and if you follow the NBA at all you’ve probably seen a thousand takes on the subject, and for good reason.

So why is this such a big deal? The Thunder are a good enough team to thrash a fully staffed Warriors squad, let alone a team that is missing their defensive MVP. We’ve already seen the league suspend Dahntay Jones for acting a damn fool on the court, and give that Green had already went low on Adams this series, it’s a good possibility that the league will suspend Draymond for game five.

Golden State is already in a bad spot, and can ill afford to go down 3–1 to an OKC team that is playing the best basketball I’ve seen them play since their last Finals appearance. Green did not play well in game three. He missed lay-ups, turned the ball over a lot and finished the game -43 in plus/minus. To be fair, no one on the Warriors played well last night, but when Green is having a bad night it has a huge effect on the rest of the team.

Without Green the Warriors are much worse defensively, especially without his ability to defend smaller players like Westbrook and Durant off pick and rolls. They also lose one of the best passing big men in the league, and the master key in their offensive sets. As Golden State searches for answers in the coming games I suspect that one of the keys will be having Green guard Kevin Durant full time.

The Thunder have done a great job of exploiting the weaknesses of the Warriors small ball (sometimes referred to as “death lineup”) style by constantly driving to the rim and beating up Green on the glass with their athletic seven footers. They have seemingly solved the puzzle that teams around the league have been working on for almost two years. This puts Golden State in an awkward spot, they are best when they play small with Draymond Green playing center, but it’s clearly not working in this series.

Whether or not Draymond’s suspended for game four I suspect that Steve Kerr will start playing Bogut and Ezeli more minutes. Bogut was in foul trouble right off the back in game three, but his size and defense are desperately needed against this Thunder lineup. The problem with playing Bogut big minutes is that he is not fast enough to effectively help and recover and pick and rolls involving Steven Adams. Ezeli has the athleticism to hang with Adams but is not dearly as adept of an offensive player as Bogut, and the Warriors lose a lot of their potency when he is on the court.

The difference in playstyles has made this matchup a real pleasure to watch. Thunder head coach Bill Donovan has shown a deft hand in handling his player rotations in this series. He has shortened his bench, only playing seven or eight guys in any given game. He’s put a very short leash on Enes Kanter, a player who can add a lot with his size and offensive skill set but is very exploitable by the Warriors pick and roll game. Donavan has gotten Kanter out of the game every time he starts hurting the team on defense. He has also braved it out with his big lineups when Golden State has gone small, and last night that decision was key in their win.

There are going to be times when the Warriors are going to hit threes and get steals and there’s nothing you are going to be able to do about it, but the Thunder have proven that if you can hang in their on defense and keep turnovers down, you can win with superior size. Of course it helps that OKC has guys like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant who can combine for 66 points and 14 assists, but it’s the ability of the Thunder to block shots and secure defensive rebounds that has sling shot their two offensive killers into easy looks in transition.

Which brings us back to that crotch shot. The league has been put in an impossible situation here. If they chose to suspend Green and the Thunder go on to win game four and the series, they will be shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to NBA Finals ratings as well as the brand of the biggest draw in the league. If they do not suspend Green then they will be called hypocrites and have to deal with bad press for the next couple of weeks. For me the former sounds a lot worse than the latter, and I suspect that Green will not be suspended.

Either way this series is going to be even more heated as both teams desperately try to get an edge. Right now the Thunder hold home court advantage and have been the better team in the series. The onus is now on the Warriors to make the right adjustments and get back into this series. Both teams have shown an ability to blow one another out of the water. The argument being made by both coaches being played out by their teams styles is one of the more interesting strategic battles I’ve seen in a playoffs series. It’s clear now that either team could win this thing, and once we get past the distraction of “the kick tweeted around the world” we are in for some great basketball.

LeBron dunks Raptors, again

Do not adjust your internet. This is not a rerun of LeBron James assaulting a rim from two days ago. This is yet another ferocious dunk delivered by LeBron the Destroyer that can pretty accurately sum up how Cleveland once again thrashed Toronto 108-89 last night.

James finished the night with a triple double, scoring 23 points on a devastatingly efficient 13 shots, while also grabbing 11 rebounds and doling out 11 assists. Kyrie Irving added 26 points. He continues to be unstoppable off the pick and roll, and there is not a single player on the Raptors roster who has shown an ability to match-up with him one-on-one.

It’s not just the stars that are killing it for Cleveland, guys like Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye are also getting in on the beatdown. Jefferson, who has been in this league for 14 (going on 50) years scored 9 in game one, and Frye, who has come into his own as a stretch five for the Cavs, had 10 last night. This is a team whose role players are gelling perfectly with its stars and the results have been explosive.

Things are getting pretty desperate for Kyle Lowry, who shot 4-14 in game two and had five turnovers to only three assists. He is shooting 1-15 in the series from range, and has a deer in the headlights look whenever he has the ball. I really thought that Lowry had figured things out in game seven of the Heat series, but his play was so bad in game two that Lowry walked back to his team’s locker room before the half. This is a guy who is in need of some serious soul searching right now.

I’ve advocated for Corey Joseph getting a look at starting point guard before, but he has not been nearly as good in this series as he was against the Heat. He finished with a -17 point differential, and while he is much more active that Lowry that activity has not led to much success for the Raptors. Toronto needs to put out some kind of tip line to try to find an answer what Cleveland is throwing at them, because I certainly can’t think of anything, and it’s clear that Dwane Casey has run out of cliche’s to try to get his players to work harder.

There was a lot of talk during the regular season that the Eastern Conference had finally started to catch up with the West in terms of talent, but that theory has been completely blown out of the water in these playoffs. The Cavaliers have still not been tested by their competition in the postseason, and seem capable of blowing their opponents out of the water whenever they want. To watch Toronto fight as hard as they can to keep these games close in the first two periods, only to get completely steamrolled in the third is disheartening. You can’t knock the Cavs for being destroying weaker competition, it is the mark of a great team, but it has not made of very compelling basketball.

There are no games tonight, so I suggest all of us basketball fiends go out and enjoy ourselves. Perhaps we should all go light a candle for the Kyle Lowry, so he might find his lost soul.

NBA Conference Finals Preview

Let’s start this thing off with some real talk. These have not been a particularly great playoffs. That Heat/Raptors series has left even the most loyal hoopheads with a bit of a hangover. The Cavaliers have hit the “easy” button in the past couple of weeks, making the Eastern Conference seem like a insignificant stepping stone on the way to their second straight finals appearance. In the west we have had to constantly worry about the health of the game’s biggest star, but at least there have been a couple of entertaining series. The Spurs were everybody’s contrarian pick to knock the Warriors off their pedestal, but OKC played spoiler to the would-be spoilers. We also got a glimpse of what could be wonderful future rivalry in Golden State and Portland. These playoffs haven’t been as bad as say, Batman vs Superman. There have been some redeemable moments, but a lot of it has been forgettable, so maybe a better comparison would be The Dark Knight Rises.

Now here we are, ready and raring to see a couple of knock-down, drag-out fights in the Conference Finals. Unfortunately we are more than likely going to see at least one of these series end in either a sweep or gentleman’s sweep, and there is plenty of potential for both of these series landing on the shorter end. This is price we pay for having two historically great teams in different conferences. The Warriors just proved through the last 93 games that no one in the league can matchup with them when they are healthy, and the Cavs have been hitting three’s at rate we’ve never seen in the league before. Both teams have the feel of two trains heading towards each other at full speed, we know they are going to eventually collide, the question is when.

So, can either the Thunder or Raptors play spoiler? Let’s get the Raptors out of the way first. It’s great to see Kyle Lowry work his way out of that nasty slump before this series. He scored 35 points in the Raptors game seven win over the Heat and 36 in game six. He is taking threes with confidence, making 8-12 from range in the last two games.  Toronto desperately needs their All-Stars to play well in this series. They have to find a way to punish Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in pick and rolls to the point where Cleveland is left with no other option than to bench either of them for a better defender. The best the Raptors can do is create enough chaos that Cleveland makes some mistakes in their rotations. Tyronn Lue has shown in the past couple of weeks that he clearly knows what he is doing, but he is still a rookie coach with only a couple of months of experience.

Here’s the thing about this series that can’t be ignored, LeBron James has yet to break much of a sweat in these playoffs. He’s only averaging 38 minutes a game, which is good for second fewest in his career. When he is on the court he has been more than happy to be a facilitator, letting Kyrie and Kevin carry much of the load on offense. I’ve talked before about how effective James has been when he starts the second and fourth quarters with the second unit. The Raptors simply do not have the depth to keep up with a Cleveland team that always has one All NBA caliber player on the court. DeMarre Carroll is the one player on Toronto’s roster that is capable of defending LeBron effectively. If I’m Dwane Casey I put him on the floor whenever James is out there. The more you play Carroll however, the less minutes DeMar DeRozan sees, and the Raptors are going to need DeRozan points to even stand a chance of keeping up with the Cavs.

The only spot in which Toronto has a positional advantage is at point guard. The combination of Kyle Lowry and Corey Joseph will go a long way towards bottling up Kyrie Irving. I can see both players getting minutes together with CoJo getting defensive duties on Irving, leaving Lowry free to do as much damage as he can on offense. With Jonas Valanciunas missing at least one game with a sprained ankle the Drakes will have to play small ball, which unfortunately plays right into the hands of Cleveland, who are lethal when they are able to play Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love together. Toronto is going to have a hard time keeping Cleveland off of the offensive glass as well as protecting the rim. The Raptors have two not-so-great options in playing this Cavs team. They can either lean heavy into their defensive lineup that features Joseph and Carroll to the exclusion of DeRozan and hope that they can somehow makeup for the lost points, or they can try to score enough with their two All Stars to force Cleveland to break up their big three. I don’t think either strategy is going to be effective, and this series probably ends in five games or less.


Ok. Let’s get to the more interesting series in these Conference Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder gritted and rebounded there way past the San Antonio Spurs to get here. There best chance to win this series is to play Adams, Kanter and Ibaka heavy minutes and hope to bully the champs in the post whenever possible. Both Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green are nursing injuries, expect to see a lot of Festus Ezeli in this series. Ezeli has had some good moments in these playoffs, but he lacks the passing ability of Bogut and the versatility of Green.

The problem with the Thunder playing big is that they are left with a mismatch on any pick and roll. The question is whether or not they can hold it together on defense enough to exploit their advantage on the offensive glass. Enes Kanter has been one of the worst defenders in the league when it comes to the pick and roll, and the Warriors will ruthlessly exploit that. The marquee matchup of this series is Steph Curry against Russell Westbrook, but the real match-ups to watch out for are the Thunder’s bigs against the Warrior’s guards coming off of switches. If the bigs for OKC can hang in there against the small lineups of Golden State then we may have ourselves a series. If they can not, and Coach Donovan is forced to play smaller lineups, they lose the one (pardon the pun) big advantage they have.

There’s no doubt that Kevin Durant will get his in this series. He’s had monster numbers against the Warriors all year (36 points, 53% shooting, 48% three point shooting). His play against the Spurs was enough to completely throw off the best defense in the league, and there are not many players in the league who can guard KD as well as Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio gambled on putting their best defender on Westbrook in hopes that Durant alone would not be enough to win the series – it didn’t work out so well. If the Warriors chose to play their death lineup it will be Andre Iguodala tasked with slowing down Durant. This makes me wonder how much we’ll see out of Harrison Barnes in the series, and if Iguodala can contribute enough on offense to counter what they are giving up in size.

Golden State has the luxury of playing Klay Thomspon on Westbrook throughout the series, freeing up Steph to roam around on defense. If the Thunder chose to play Andre Robertson big minutes it allows the Warriors to basically play 4-on-5 on defense. If they play Ibaka with Robertson it turns into 3-on-5. When OKC plays Dion Waiters they risk getting torched by whoever he is forced to guard. This is the conumdrum the Thunder find themselves in. They have answers to some of problems the Warriors pose, but not for all the problems at all times. Beating the champs is like solving a algebraic equation when all you know is long division.

The Thunder are going to try to play big, rough up Steph as much as possible and hope that Kevin Durant’s offense along with a onslaught of offensive rebounds will be just enough to knock off the Warriors. Golden State will counter by making the Thunder’s bigs navigate a maze of pick and rolls, forcing them to have to guard Klay, Steph, and the rest of their three point shooting death squad in open space. For all of the punches that I think Westbrook and Durant will land in this series, the Warriors are a younger, more adaptable team than the Spurs. This is a title fight that Golden Sate can win in the early or late rounds, but damn if it won’t be fun to watch all of these stars throwing haymakers.