Sizing Up the NBA Playoff Conference Finals
Houston (1) vs. Golden State (2)
The highly anticipated Western Conference battle is finally here as the Rockets will take on the Warriors for the league’s toughest conference title. Steph Curry returned to the Warriors after sustaining an injury in March and looked electric against the Pelicans. Despite a struggle at first with the Jazz, the Rockets finished the series strong, looking elite on defense.
The Rockets hold a 2-1 advantage over the Warriors during the regular season, with each game being as close as the next. Golden State-Houston matchups are as competitive as can be, with each team standing atop the Western Conference. The Warriors knocked out the Rockets in the playoffs in 2015 and 2016, so can this finally be the year the Rockets get their way?
Can Houston win in Oracle?
Home court advantage is thrown out the door in this series because Oracle Arena is by far the hardest place for any visiting team to play in. Houston will not get any early wins in Oracle, so they have to make sure to win at home. However, Golden State’s history in the conference finals shows they are just as good on the road as they are at home.
When in Oracle Arena, if the Rockets stand any chance of winning, they must stop the Warriors from gaining momentum. Golden State’s crowd feasts off any momentum, more specifically banging 3’s by the Warriors, and they can go on 10-plus point runs in less than three minutes.
How much will Clint Capela’s play factor into this series?
Clint Capela told ESPN, "We are the better team."
Those are fiesty words coming from a center that is in the mix for Most Improved Player of the Year and a debate for Defensive Player of the Year. But Capela’s resurgence this year has been geared to be dominant enough to take down a team like the Warriors. His consistency is impressive this season, averaging 12.2 boards, about two steals and almost three blocks in the regular season and the playoffs, but how long can he keep it up?
Capela’s presence down low helps Houston prevent points in the paint, but as we all know, the Warriors live and thrive on the perimeter.
Kevin Durant and Steph Curry: the one-two punch
As soon as Steph Curry stepped onto the court in game two against the Pelicans, he buried a 3-pointer from way beyond the arc. The crowd went ballistic. Steph was back.
It’s not too much of an argument to call Kevin Durant and Steph Curry the second and third best players in the league, respectively. Sure, Anthony Davis had a fantastic year, and James Harden put up MVP caliber numbers, but the one-two punch of KD and Curry is impeccable and the best duo in the NBA.
That will be the difference of this series. In just four games against the Pelicans, Curry averaged 24.5 points a game. The only one to beat his scoring is Durant, who is averaging 28/8/5 this postseason. Durant’s mid-range jumper is by far the best in the league, even more so than LeBron. The strong Rockets defense will have a lot on their plate this series.
Most people are tired of seeing Golden State in the championship over and over again. They make it look easy and some question whether or not they are good for the sport, given the high caliber talent on one team.
But all superlatives and history aside, this is what Houston’s been waiting for. James Harden wants to solidify his Rockets team as the squad to finally dethrone the Warriors. Chris Paul has been on a hot-streak defensively and they will keep each game close. For Houston to win this series, Harden has to average 30-plus a game, CP3 has to score about 25-plus with eight assists and two steals a game and Capela needs to lead both teams in rebounding.
Even then, it’s hard to see this Warriors team be eliminated.
G1: Golden State
G3: Golden State
G4: Golden State
G6: Golden State
Final Prediction: Golden State in 6
Boston (2) vs. Cleveland (4)
Boston and Cleveland fans have been waiting for this Eastern Conference Finals ever since Kyrie Irving was dealt to the Celtics. Unfortunately for Irving, he will not be playing against his former team, nor with his current team. Instead it will be the scrappy underdog Terry Rozier, who has had one of the most electric playoffs of any point guard this postseason. LeBron James will be tasked to size up against the young Celtics and will need the help of his Cavaliers squad, who are finally starting to get things rolling.
Tatum, Brown, Morris, Smart or Horford: who guards LeBron?
Toronto used rookie OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam on James, while Indiana put Lance Stephenson and Bojan Bogdanovic to guard LeBron, but obviously it wasn’t enough to stop James, who is averaging 34.3 points per game this postseason.
Nothing’s changed going into the conference championship game, as the Celtics don’t really have a clear-cut defender to put on James. If you put Jaylen Brown on James to defend him on perimeter and defend his jumper, LeBron will simply post up Brown every time. Same for rookie Semi Ojeleye. Jayson Tatum or Al Horford could defend him for stretches, but couldn’t stay on James for 40-plus minutes. Putting Marcus Morris or Marcus Smart on him might be their best and only option. Morris is ferocious on defense, although doesn’t possess nearly enough endurance as LeBron. Smart is scrappy himself and might get some steals off James, but also might rack up too many fouls against LeBron to truly compete.
Bottom line, you can’t consistently defend LeBron unless your name is Kevin Durant, Draymond Green or Anthony Davis. Best option for the Celtics is to take out everyone else in the equation. Boston cannot allow Kyle Korver to hit more than four 3’s in one night. And, they have to shut down players like Kevin Love, George Hill or JR Smith for any hope at stopping Cleveland’s offense.
Backcourt matchup has potential
At the start of the season, everyone in the NBA thought they would see the likes of Kyrie taking on Isaiah Thomas, both who had swapped teams from the 2016-17 season, in the ECF. But IT underperformed in Cleveland, causing his trade with the Lakers, and Kyrie went out at the end of the season with an injury. Now it’s George Hill versus Terry Rozier - a matchup no one would care about at the start of the season.
Hill and Rozier have been difference makers in this postseason. There hasn’t been a player statistically better in the fourth quarter than Rozier has been, and he’s currently Boston’s second-leading scorer, averaging 18.2 points a game during the playoffs. George Hill coming off his injury could prove to benefit Cleveland’s backcourt, which has been suspect all year long. Hill plays solid minutes defensively and proves to be a good finisher at the basket when called upon.
LeBron has been to TD Garden and ripped out the green hearts of Celtics fans time and time again. But then again, this is Cleveland’s worst playoff team since they were bounced out of the playoffs in 2011 by none other than Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen’s Boston Celtics.
This is also one of the best Celtics teams since Boston’s big three, so they will be a tough out.
Bottom line, the only way the Celtics win this series is if LeBron totally doesn’t show up for this series. He’s unguardable by every Boston player and will need to show up each game for them to win.
Final Prediction: Cleveland in 6