Quick Game Two Thoughts

If Game One proved that the Warriors are indeed a complete championship level team, Game Two is going to test the coaching and depth of the Cavaliers. For so much of the playoffs Cleveland’s second unit has been a class above its competition but they were dominated by Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Mr. Finals MVP, Andre Iguodola.  In a game where Steph and Klay only combined for 20 points the Warriors still won by 15. This is a huge problem for Tyronn Lue to try to solve in Game Two. The Splash Brothers are going to start hitting shots sooner than later, and if the Cavs bench can’t hold their own against the defending champs then this series is going to be a short one.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Cleveland’s bench is the lack of a size when it comes to defending Shaun Livingston. Matthew Dellavedova is an incredible pest, and nut shot sniper, but Delly stands at just 6-4″ and stands no chance of being able to man-up Livingston, who is 6-7″ on a bad day. This series has to feel like a cakewalk compared to the gauntlet of big-physical defenders that the Thunder through at Livingston. LeBron James and Tristan Thompson are the Cavaliers most physical players, and neither one of them will ever match up on Livingston. When the Warriors bench lineup consists of Iggy, Livingston, and Thompson, you know that the defense is going to be there. This is not a lineup that will allow Jefferson, Delly and others like Channing Frye to fire up three pointers like they have been throughout the playoffs.

The pressure is definitely on Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to up their games tonight, Irving scored 26 points in Game One, but only hit seven of his 22 shots. He played way too much one-on-one in order to get his shot, and the Warriors are more than happy to let Irving try to win the game by himself. The more Iso possessions Cleveland plays, the less their role players get a chance to participate. I thought that Irving and Love had a great two-man game going in the Toronto series, and I’d like to see them work the pick and roll a little more in Game Two. Love played decently in Game One, but he really struggled to take advantage of mismatches in the post. The Warriors are only going to allow you to do so many different things on offense, and when you get a chance to post-up Love against the likes of Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson, you have to take advantage. This is what the Thunder were able to do so well against Golden State in the WCF, they would find mismatches down low and get easy points. Love has to step his game up from here on out, he is the only other player on the team outside of LeBron that can consistently get into favorable positions in the post.

Speaking of LeBron, who was one assist away from a triple-double in Game One, the King has to be every bit as dominate in this series as he was in last years Finals. Big series like this are usually won by the team who has the best player on the court, and right now there is this moment in which Curry and James are both at the peak of the NBA mountain when it comes to skill. Curry has been steadily climbing it for a couple of years now, and can see the summit. LeBron has been to the peak and is now trying to hold on for dear life. For all the match-ups and X’s and O’s that this series presents, it really boils down to how much dominance does the King have left in his tank. Can he reach deep down and come up with four, ultra-efficient, dominating performances against the one guy in the league that can seemingly shut him down?

I don’t like calling early games in a series a “must win” game, but there if the Warriors come away with a win tonight I’m not sure if Cleveland can come back in this series. For those who want to a see a championship for the Land, this game means a whole lot. I think we are going to see LeBron James play as hard as  he ever has tonight, it’s up to Love, Irving and the rest of the Cavs roster to follow his lead. For Golden State this game is a matter of staying the course, keeping up the discipline on defense and working to get Steph and Klay clean looks. They know how big a win tonight will be, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a special performance out of the Splash Brothers. It should be a fun one.

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.

The NBA Playoffs are dark and full of terrors

game of thrones nba

The NBA is a bit like Game Of Thrones, with less nudity (mostly) and dragons.

You have multiple contenders for the throne, some who are fighting to recapture old glories and others who starved for a first shot at the crown.

No one is safe. We saw this last year with the Durant, Irving and Love injuries – and of course with recent events we are reminded how much of a moving target the chase for a title truly is.

Then there are the White Walkers, a seeming inevitability that are the San Antonio Spurs. Their stifling defense and cold, machine like precision on offense are enough to send chills down anyone’s spine.

We even have our own Jon Snow is the form of Stephen Curry. Everyone knows he’s the rightful heir to the crown, but there’s this little hinderance getting in the way of him taking it.

Curry does not need a resurrection to save his team’s season, but Golden State may have gotten some luck from the old gods and new with the events of the last 24 hours.

Be careful out there NBA fans, the night is dark….


Just hours after the Golden State Warriors were hit with the news that Stephen Curry will miss around two weeks with a Grade 1 MCL sprain, Chris Paul broke his hand in the third quarter of the Clippers’ 98-84 loss to the Trail Blazers.

This is brutal. Chris Paul was in the midst of one of the best season’s in his Hall of Fame career. Paul had been averaging 24 points, 7 assists, and over 2 steals in the series. In any other season, Paul would have been a top contender for MVP, carrying a Blake Griffen-less to the four seed in the Western Conference.

I had been thinking all day about how Paul had to be chomping at the bit to finish off the Trail Blazers and get a chance to take out the defending champs before Steph Curry could get back in the lineup. Now the Clipper face an uphill challenge of beating a confident Blazers squad without their court general.

It’s not just that LA is losing one of the great offensive minds in the game, they are also left having to find an answer on defense to the two headed dragon of C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard. The two have been improving every game of these playoffs.

There was a lot less isolation out of Portland’s offense last night. The ball has been moving around, and players like Al-Farouq Aminu who scored a career high 30 points, were key in the Blazers win. Mason Plumlee is showing that he one of the best passing big men league, doling out 10 assists, while grabbing 14 rebounds and blocking four shots.

The Clippers still hold home court advantage in this series that is now tied up at 2-2, but the advantage has swung decisively in Portland’s favor. As much as Austin Rivers has improved in the last year, he is a huge step down from Chris Paul, especially on offense. Jamal Crawford will see increased minutes for the Clips, but his defense is brutal and he is playing against the best backcourt currently in the playoffs (given Steph’s status).

It feels a little twisted to think about how all of these series are going to pan out given the current rash of injuries, but if the Portland/LA series goes to seven games the Warriors get a couple extra days of rest. Curry’s timetable for return is not set in stone, there is a chance that he could return by game two or three of the next series. That’s if they can dispose of the Rockets tomorrow night without Curry.


The Oklahoma City Thunder advanced to the second round last night by disposing of the Dallas Mavericks, in a 118-104 game that was filled with pregame drama.

Before the game Dallas’ enigmatic owner, Marc Cuban said of Russel Westbrook, “I think he’s an All-Star but not a superstar.” This led to much conversation on the interwebs, and served as a great interlude to Westbrook’s dominating 36 point, 9 assist, 12 rebound outing.

I’m not sure if Cuban is off base with his comments. When I think of the word superstar, I tend to think of NBA players who transcend the game like LeBron James and Stephen Curry, but if my team was playing for their playoff lives the last thing I would want to do is rile up Russell Westbrook. Westbrook may not be a superstar in the conventional sense, but he is an absolute X-Man on the court. He’s one of the handful of players I’ve watched in my lifetime that has no parallel.

Westbrook was two rebounds a game short of averaging a triple-double on the season. He has the best first step in the game, and delivers a couple of moments in every game that are awe inspiring. Watch him go up for an offensive rebound, land, then take off like a Sonic Boom back towards the basket. He attacks the basket with such ferocity that you would think it was holding his kids hostage. Russell may not be a “Superstar” but he is the closest thing to a shooting star we have in the game.

 

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Durant took the opportunity to call Cuban an “idiot” in the post-game press conference. The former MVP has definitely been a bit prickly as of late. There was the flagrant two in game four, the litany of mean mugs after made baskets, and now this. There is an incredible amount of pressure on this team to get back to the NBA Finals, especially given Durant’s upcoming free-agency.

The Thunders two super… stars definitely have their phasers set to kill right now.

The OKC will start their series with the San Antonio Spurs next Monday. Get your popcorn ready. It’s going to be savage.

Curry’s injury looms large over NBA Playoffs

Stephen Curry suffered a right knee sprain in the third quarter of the Warriors 121-94 win over the Houston Rockets. The severity of the injury is not known at this time, an MRI is scheduled to take place later today.

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The shadow that Curry’s injury casts of the entirety of the NBA Playoffs is enormous. Even if the MRI results come up negative and Curry is only dealing with a slight knee sprain, it leaves the MVP at less than 100 percent and the Warriors are going to need Curry to be spectacular if they hope to finish off their historic season with a championship.

As much fun as it is to have a completely open field in the Playoffs, their are no narratives that carry as much import as the Warriors quest for the greatest season in NBA history. This is not to knock the other teams in the league, but if Curry’s injury proves to be serious it will be one of the greatest lost opportunities in the history of professional sports. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that Steph will be able to come back this year and compete at a high level.

The irony of all of this is that the Rockets were playing well until Curry’s injury. The duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard were keeping the game close, and Houston was playing better basketball than Golden State for much of the first half of the game. After Curry left things completely fell apart for the Rockets. The Warriors scored 41 points in the third quarter, and took what was a tie game at half time and made it a 97-76 trouncing going into the final period.

It’s hard to see Houston winning game five whether or not Curry plays. There is a palpable uneasiness around the Rockets players. A lot was made out of the benches reaction to Harden’s game winning shot in game three, but I think more telling is the look on Harden’s face whenever Dwight Howard misses a free throw or when another of his teammates misses a wide open three on one of his passes. This has the feel of a team that is desperate need of breaking up, and I think that starts sooner rather than later.


The San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers both completed their sweeps yesterday, and are looking in top form as they now start their long wait to see who their opponents will be in round two.

I fully expect the Thunder to finish off the long suffering Mavericks tonight at home. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were both handed some hefty fines after Russ berated a fan and Durant’s flagrant two foul in game four, but neither were given suspensions. I don’t think this will be Dirk Nowitzki’s last game, but if it is I hope the big German scores 40. Long live the one legged jump shot!

 

Both the Clippers/Trail Blazers (2-1) and Pacers/Raptors (2-2) have the makings of six or seven game series. I think the keys in both series is whether or not the Trailer Blazers and Raptors can get their second best players (DeRozan/McCollum) going. McCollum had a huge three for the Blazers, scoring 27 points and carrying his squad when Lillard was not on the court. DeRozan had another off night (8 PTS, 4-15 FG, 0-2 3PT) in the Toronto’s game four loss to Indiana. The Raptors do not have enough threats on offense to win series with DeRozan getting his usual 20 PTS a game.


The best series of round one has been the Celtics and Hawks. Game four last night ended in spectacular fashion, as Boston was able to rally late and win 104-95 in overtime. The game came down to Celtics coach Brad Stevens finding the right answer on defense to Paul Millsap, who was torching Boston.

Millsap scored 45 points in the loss, doing damage from in close and from deep. Steven’s put Marcus Smart on Millsap in the fourth quarter and Smart played brilliantly, completely stifling the big man in the final minutes while making big plays on offense in the Celtics comeback. Smart is a really fun player to watch, he is inconsistent of offense, and does not always make the right decision, but his defense and energy make up for whatever he may be lacking in basketball I.Q.

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Isaiah Thomas continued to hit big shots for Boston, scoring 28 points in the win with five of coming in the overtime period. This coming off of his heroic 42 point performance in game three. He is the reason that this series is now tied up at two games apiece. Thomas is quickly becoming a household name in Boston, and will a focal point for Atlanta in the all important game five that will take place in Atlanta tomorrow night.


 

In news that will make any educated basketball fan rejoice, the Lakers have chosen to let Bryon Scott walk. Scott has been one of the worst coaches in recent history, showing little knowledge of how the modern NBA works in terms of personnel decisions, and when it comes to basic principles of offense and defense. He was not the right coach for a rebuilding team in any sense other than the Lakers were a terrible team that will be in the lottery for the third year in a row.

It burns a little as a Lakers fan that Tom Thibodeau expressed interest in taking the Lakers coaching job, but was turned away because Thibs reportedly wanted control over personnel decisions. Thibodeau would have been a great coach for guys like Clarkson, Russell and Randle, and would have provided some legitimacy to the franchise as they chase free agents in these next two all-important off seasons.

The other obvious candidate for the job is Luke Walton, who played his entire Career for the Lakers and is the hottest person left in the market. Walton has not expressed outright his interest in leaving his assistant job with the Warriors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays for a least one more year under the tutorage of Steve Kerr.

This is an important off season for Los Angeles. If the Lakers are fortunate enough to land a top two pick and do well in free agency, they will have the foundation of a team that can compete in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future – that’s if they can find a coach with the talent and patience to build up the team’s young core. I’m not sure if that coach is out there, or if Jim Buss (president of basketball operations) has the wherewithal to pick the right guy, but getting rid of Byron Scott was the best decision this organization has made in a long while. Here’s to hoping it’s the start of a better era for the purple and gold.