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.

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Round Two – Fight!

Round Two Fight!

The slow, unstoppable march of progress drags us to the second round of the NBA Playoffs. The weaker teams are left dead along the road side. Among the dead are the teams that were held back by injuries, age, inexperience – or in the case of the Rocket’s – a real hatred, the likes of which I’ve only seen in Shaq and Kobe’s last year together on the Lakers.

Now we are down to eight teams: the Warriors, Trail Blazers, Thunder and Spurs in the Western Conference and Cavaliers, Hawks, Heat and Raptors in the East. There have already been a couple of games played in the Western Conference Quarter Finals. The Spurs and Warriors both easily won there games, leaving the world wondering which powerhouse looked more impressive. Let’s take a look at these Western Conference heavyweights.

The Spurs’ 124-94 victory on Saturday night was one of the more impressive playoff beat downs in the history of the game. If there ever was going to be a passing of the torch from the Spurs big three to the new blood of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, this was it. San Antonio’s young stars combined for 63 points on 28-36 shooting.

The evolution of Leonard continues to be one of the biggest stories in the NBA. In game one he was able to hold Russell Westbrook to 5-19 shooting, while also scoring 25, grabbing five rebounds and dishing out five assists. Most players would not be able to score more than 15 points while guarding one of the leagues most aggressive guards, but Kawhi makes playing great defense look easy. This guy has already won a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year Award, he is the centerpiece of the most successful franchise of the past ten years, and by the way, he’s only 24 years old.

The Spurs played beautiful basketball Saturday night. They ran the pick-and-roll to perfection, often bring out the Thunder’s shot blockers and exploiting the lack of defense at the rim. They were also able to utilize LeMarcus Aldridge better than I thought was possible. Aldridge was unstoppable both in the post against Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka and coming off of picks in the high post. Playing in a system in which the players are looking to pass coming off of picks, Aldridge is the kind of versatile weapon that makes the Spurs unstoppable when he is playing well.

There are no easy answers for the Thunder going into tonight’s game. They absolutely need Durant and Westbrook to play better, but it’s up to Billy Donovan to find better shots for his two superstars, and Donovan has not shown himself to be very good at making game-to-game adjustments. They got by last round by Durant making tough shots, but the Spurs are not a team that you can just brute force your way through.

The other problem Oklahoma City will have to figure out is how to get Enes Kanter enough minutes to get his points without being a total disaster on defense. Nothing excites Greg Popavich more than having an easily exploitable big man on the court. Having Kanter have to play the pick and roll against the likes of Aldridge or Diaw is like throwing a chum out to the sharks.

I don’t see this series ending in a sweep, and there will probably not be another 30 point blowout in this series, but the flaws that San Antonio exposed on Saturday Night are fatal for Oklahoma City, and there is no throwing a bandaid on them. It’s going to take legendary performances out of Durant and Westrbook for the Thunder to win this series. If this is the last time we see the most dynamic duo in the NBA play together, let’s hope they go out fighting.
While the Spurs performance in game one was utter domination, the Warriors showed in their 118-106 over the Trail Blazers that they are only getting better. In the context of a team that won 73 games in the regulars season, that has to terrify the rest of the NBA.

We still don’t have a solid timeline as to when Steph Curry will return to play. In his interview during the game Curry seemed optimistic that he would at least be a game-time decision for Saturday’s game three.

We are starting to see Draymond Green become the ultimate point-forward, being able to set up the offense and get his teammates the ball where they are most lethal. Green had another triple double in game one, scoring 23 points to go along with 12 rebounds and 11 assists. With Draymond taking more of play making role in the Warriors offense, Steph Curry will be able to get more open looks coming off of screens and off of weak side action. This is going to be a huge theme if/when Curry gets matched up with the likes of Kawhi Leaonard next round.

Green also continues to be the master key that allows Golden State to play any style of basketball they see fit. Draymond is so adept at switching onto smaller players in the pick-and-roll that it can completely gum up an opposing teams offense. There was a possession yesterday in which Green switched on to Lillard off a pick and roll, stayed step for step with his man on the drive, then switches back onto the man he was originally defending to contest his shot. This all happens in flow of the game so seamlessly that you have to watch it multiple times to truly appreciate what Green is doing.

Green has mentioned his true joy as a defender is locking down bigger players in the post. He completely destroyed Mason Plumlee yesterday, holding the Trail Blazers big man to one point on 0-7 shooting. This play is pretty good representation of how Green treated Plumlee all game.

You can’t talk about the Warriors win in game one without mentioning how brilliance of Klay Thompson. Much like Kawhi Leonard, Thompson is asked to both defend the opposing teams best perimeter player as well as be the engine that drives his team’s offense. Of all the players who have benefited from Curry’s absence I think Thompson has improved the most. We all know that Klay is a dangerous spot-up shooter, but in game one the lone splash brother was making shots off the dribble both from range and at the rim. he finished the game with 37 points, shooting 50 percent from the field and from deep. He drained seven three pointers, many of which were contested and a few were shot from ranges that would even make Curry blush.

The defending champs are playing incredible basketball right now without their best player. The defense that has been come-and-go in the regular season has turned up a notch in these first playoff games. The Trail Blazers will not win a game this series if they can not free up Dame and CJ who were a combined 13-43 from the field in game one. The Warriors are not good enough to win a title without Stephen Curry, but they will be a better team because of this stretch of games without the MVP. The only real flaw I see with this team is what happens when they have to play guys like Ian Clark and Brandon Rush for extended minutes, but that problem solves itself if-and-when Curry gets back on the court.


I want to leave everyone with a lasting image of Paul George, who was the best player of the first round. His team may not yet ready to be a true contender but PG is absolutely talented enough to be the best player on a championship squad. Here is George throwing down a 360 dunk in the midst of the Pacers 101-83 loss to the Raptors. It was an audacious dunk, and while some will probably argue that it was disrespectful, I loved it. George thanked the fans of Toronto on Twitter after the game for being awesome. He is a stand-up guy. But sometimes you have to let the people know that you are not to be trifled with. I tip my hat to you Paul George, you have earned all of my respect this postseason.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking more about the Cleveland Cavaliers and their seemingly inevitable run to the NBA Finals. Tonight Cleveland plays Atlanta at home in game one of their series and the Spurs look to go up 2-0 on Oklahoma City. Enjoy the games everybody!

Warriors put Rockets out of their misery

At least it was a quick death.

The Warriors were not concerned with who was or was not playing in their 114-81 embarrassing of the Houston Rockets.

The champs shot close to 55 percent from the field and hit 11 of their 19 three point attempts. They had 30 assists to only 9 turnovers. I’m not sure there has ever been a team that can so brutally destroy a team when they smell blood in the water.

Golden State outscored Houston 37-20 in the first quarter, and the lead quickly jumped to 30 points in the second half which is where it stayed. What we watched tonight was a team hungry to prove they can compete for a title no matter who was their starting point guard. On the other side of the court was a team that looked relieved that their long nightmare of a season was finally coming to an end.

Shaun Livingston found himself wide open under the basket for easy layups. Livingston scored 16 points in 28 minutes, and only turned the ball over once. His play has been exactly what the Warriors have needed out of him in Curry’s absence. Both Livingston and Kerr seem to know exactly what is needed out of the veteran for this offense to keep firing on all cylinders.

In what seems like a preview for what we will see in the next series, Draymond Green was running the offense a majority of the time he was on the the court. Green almost had a triple double scoring 15 points, grabbing 9 rebounds and dishing out 8 assists tonight. He finished the game with a plus/minus of +32 in the 31 minutes he was on the court, a number will probably not be reached again for a long, long while.

The player who looked like he was having the most fun out there tonight was Klay Thompson. The lone splash brother had the hot hand, shooting 7-11 from three in a 27 point in 29 minute performance. There was no better time to get Thompson’s confidence up than tonight, and Klay was shooting – and making – shots from ranges that are usually reserved for Steph.

James harden was the only Rockets player to hit a field goal in the period, scoring. Harden scored 25 points on 8-12 attempts in what was the only highlight of Houston’s first half. He finished the game with 35 points on 12-23 shooting.

In what was an odd move that could easily be seen as a FU from Rockets Coach, JB Bickerstaff to Dwight Howard, the Houston big man played over 45 minutes in the blow out. Howard was 3-13 from the field, scoring just 8 points even though he played much of the second half against the likes of Anderson Verejao and Maurice Speights.

I’m not a huge fan of criticizing head coaches in the NBA, but Bickerstaff is not up to the task of coaching an professional team. He has no control over what happens on the court, and his rotations have been horrible since he took over the team. An argument could be made that no coach would have been capable of effectively leading this group of players, but Bickerstaff failed at the basic player management, and play calling that you would expect out of a top level high school coach.

Much like the Clippers, I see the Rockets completely blowing up this team in the offseason. There is about a zero percent chance that Dwight Howard remains on this team. He and James Harden have the on court chemistry of Donald Trump and the Republican establishment.

The obvious move is to get Dwight Howard out of town as soon as possible, but given the way he has been maligned over the last few years I pity the team that thinks they can get real value of the past-his-prime center.

For a team that supposed to be built around James Harden, and his ability to drive the lane and get people wide open looks from beyond the arch, there sure weren’t a lot of players who could make standing threes on this roster. I think Harden is still very much a top five player in this league, and if he has the right players around him I think he could be the best player on a championship squad. His flaws, especially on defense are glaring, but surround him with smart defenders who can also hit open shots and you have the makings of a title team – IF – and I can’t make that if any more pronounced, Harden is as motivated as he was in last years MVP caliber season.

Up next for the Warriors will either be the Portland Trail Blazers or the Los Angeles Clippers. Despite putting up a good fight for a half the mash unit that are the Clips went down to the Blazers 108-98 to go up 3-2 in the series. The dup of Lillard and McCollum scored 49 points. Mason Plumlee added 13 points and 15 rebounds to the win.

Portland will have a shot at closing out the series at home Friday Night and if they do so will get their crack at the defending champions. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but Golden State did beat Portland five out of the seven times they played in the regular season. I would love to see how well Klay and Iggy could match up with Lillard and McCollum, but that is a conversation for another day.

Tonight the champions did what you would expect out of a 73-9 team, they delivered a knock out punch to a team that visibly teetering on the brink. Even without Steph on the court their offense was a marvel to behold tonight. Even if Houston was willing to dig in their heels and try to take one more game of the Warriors, I don’t think it would have made much of a difference. The Rockets laziness was defeated play was the difference of this being a 15 point win for Golden State or the 33 embarrassment it ended up being.

I’m sure there will not be a whole lot of celebration in the warriors locker room tonight. They know that the real challenge begins next week. This is a team that looks ready to stare down any foe that is put in front of them.