NBA Round Three Preview

Posted: 05/19/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

Well, after a month of playoff games, we’re left with chalk in the conference finals. For the second consecutive year, each matchup will feature the #1 seed against the #2 seed. That reinforces the idea that the regular season in the NBA matters a lot more than any other sport’s regular season, with the possible exception of baseball, but it also means that the playoffs to this point have for the most part been somewhat less than captivating. Unless, of course, you like injuries, whining, hack-a-big or collapses. I must admit that the collapse part intrigues me, but the Clippers-Rockets series was so full of fouls and complaints that I could barely watch LA’s collapse. Seriously, the only two matchups that I have really enjoyed in these playoffs were Clippers-Spurs (a great series, but the fact that both teams have been eliminated doesn’t help now) and Warriors-Grizzlies (it was good in the first three games, not so much after Golden State reminded us why they will win the championship). The rest? Sure, they had their moments, like the three consecutive buzzer-beaters in the Eastern Conference, but they never were consistently excellent. Injuries to Kevin Love, John Wall, Mike Conley, Paul Millsap, Pau Gasol, Chandler Parsons, and whomever I’m forgetting have certainly put a damper on the playoffs. Anyway, this is where it really gets series. Now, all four teams must really have a shot at winning it all, right? Well, I’m going to have to be the downer there, too. I already have said that it was Golden State’s title to lose, but now that the Warriors have cruised past what might end up being their toughest challenge, I think they are even more unlikely to lose in the next two rounds. I’d put their chances near 85% now, which leaves very little room for the other three. But while I think the Warriors’ is close to a foregone conclusion, the Cavs, Hawks, and Rockets probably don’t (at least, I would hope not), which means I “have” to preview them. Onwards!

 

Warriors over Rockets in five: Houston’s comeback against the Clippers shocked me. I know I picked the Rockets to win in seven, but, once they fell behind 3-1, I didn’t think they had any shot at getting back into the series, let alone winning it. But their depth advantage did end up paying off, with guys like Pablo Prigioni, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer (three mid-season acquisitions, so props to GM Darryl Morey), and Trevor Ariza making plays time and time again, while their Clippers counterparts (Big Baby, anyone?) could never respond. When they were really on, Houston pretty much shut down LA’s vaunted offense, both by putting J.J. Redick, a key offensive cog in a funk, and by placing Dwight Howard on Blake Griffin and Ariza on Chris Paul. Unfortunately, they’ll have a much harder time against a Golden State team that causes matchup problem after matchup problem. If the Rockets stick by the script they used in the last round, they’ll put Ariza on Stephen Curry, which might work fine. Ok, but then who goes on the constantly moving Klay Thompson? Will it be notorious ball-watcher James Harden or (gulp) Jason Terry? And if Harden stays on Thompson, how on Earth will Terry be able to guard Harrison Barnes, who is a master in the post against undersized opponents? Alternatively, the Rockets could opt to put Terry on Curry and Ariza on Thompson, but we all know how that would turn out. It’s a shame, because this would have been the perfect Patrick Beverley series. But Beverley is injured, so the Rockets won’t have the services of perhaps the best defensive point guard in basketball. Instead of hoping to totally shut down the Warriors, Houston has to hope to keep the open shots inside the arc and keep runs from getting out of hand.

Unless the Rockets are getting to the line, the other side of the ball might be even worse for the #2 seed. They often struggled to score against the Clippers in the half court, and this is going to be much worse. While the Clippers were slightly better offensively than the Warriors in the regular season, Golden State was by far the best defense in the league. Given that Redick did a pretty good job on Harden for most of the series, the Warriors have to like the Thompson-Harden matchup defensively. Klay is the type of long, patient defender who gives Harden fits. And since the Rockets are weak at the point guard position, Curry won’t have to expend too much energy on the defensive side of the ball. Meanwhile, the Bogut-Draymond Green pair can stop basically any big man and/or explosive power forward (for Houston, those guys are Terrence Jones, Howard, and Smith) that an opponent will throw out. And they can counter a big Rockets strength, their depth at the wing position (Brewer and Ariza are both good players) with Barnes and the defensively stellar Andre Iguodala. Take a huge chunk out of the Howard dunks and role player threes and the Rockets are left with very few options. Jones, Smith, Ariza and Harden can probably get some good midrange shots if they really work for them, but settling for midrange jumpers is the antithesis of Morey’s philosophy (threes, layups, and free throws). Houston’s best chance might be feeding it down low to Howard and trying to get Bogut in foul trouble, because Bogut is one of the few Warriors who is really irreplaceable. And if that fails, put the ball in James Harden’s hands and let him go to work. That sophisticated plan will probably work a few times because Harden is so darn good, which is why I’m not making this a sweep. But I think there will be a few blowouts, with the Splash Bros getting hot from three, Green tearing it up, and Howard getting in foul trouble. It’s been a great run, Houston, but I’m pretty sure it will end here.

 

Hawks over Cavaliers in seven: I might be making this pick in part because I can’t make a full predictions post without picking at least one upset, but that (probably) isn’t the main reason. The main reason also doesn’t have much to do with an Atlanta team that has been pretty disappointing in the playoffs yet is 8-4. It’s all about the Cavaliers. Despite the fact that the Hawks beat the Cavs in three of their four regular season meetings, I would definitely pick a full strength Cleveland team over the Hawks. Here’s the thing, though: David Blatt’s team isn’t at full strength. Kevin Love is out, and I think that Kyrie Irving’s injury has gone way under the radar. The guy was playing on one leg throughout the Chicago series! He played really well against the Bulls in a couple of games, but I don’t think we’re going to see the Kyrie who carved up the Celtics against in this year’s playoffs. So if it’s going to be a hobbled Kyrie, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova, and LeBron James, LeBron is going to need to carry the load. Again. But is James really still good enough to carry his flawed Cavaliers over a 60-win team? Probably, especially since the Hawks are the worst 60-win team in recent memory. There are some warning signs, though. On the surface, all of the LEBRON JAMES stats are there this postseason, from the 26.5 points to the 10.2 rebounds to the 7.9 assists to the 3.5 STOCKs (steals+blocks). But LeBron is turning the ball over 4.6 times per game, more than in any other year besides his first in the playoffs, and he’s shooting 42% from the field after being at 47% or better the six previous playoffs. LeBron is obviously older than he’s ever been, and he’s also shouldering a bigger load than he ever has. And I’m not even going to touch the 14.6% three point shooting. Now, because the Eastern Conference is so weak, the Cavaliers are still easily favored against the Hawks. They have a good offense, with guys like Smith and Shumpert who can knock down shots when James draws their defenders. Their best offense, though, might come from offensive rebounds from the huge Mozgov and the uber-energetic Thompson. One of the most vulnerable spots for the Hawks is rebounding (they are in the bottom third in the NBA in defensive rebounding), because they simply aren’t big enough to bang with the big boys. Mozgov and Thompson are averaging a combined six offensive rebounds per game in the playoffs, and they’ll definitely save some Cavalier possessions. But if they are both playing at once, the Cavs will have lost a lot of shooting, which is why the loss of K-Love hurts so much. It’s hard to stop both Shumpert and Smith, but one of them? Not so much. Cleveland is a good offensive team, but they are much worth without Love or a healthy Irving.

On the other end, the Hawks have to be better than they were against the Nets and Wizards. We know by now that the offense isn’t going to be effective if two or three of their starters are out of sync. They’ll need Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder to take advantage of a gimpy Irving with drives and finishes or kick-outs. They’ll need Paul Millsap to hit the midrange jumpers he invariably gets for himself. They’ll need DeMarre Carroll to keep cutting and hitting from deep. They’ll need Al Horford to be a focal point, both in the post and on the pick-and-roll. Most of all, though, the Hawks need regular season Kyle Korver to return. If Korver starts hitting his shots again, everything will open up against a defense that has its deficiencies. Luckily, I think Korver will have a better matchup (likely against some combination of Shumpert and Smith) than he did against Washington. He moves more than almost any other wing player, and while Shumpert is a good on-ball defender, he and especially Smith both have trouble tracking cutters and moving wing players. Meanwhile, I love the Horford-Mozgov matchup for the Hawks offensively. Horford is just too fast for Mozgov, and he’s going to be able to get pretty much any shot he wants. And if Cleveland goes small, Horford and Millsap, two of the more versatile bigs in the game, will be able to back down smaller defenders, So we’ll get Teague penetration, open Korver and Carroll, and steady Millsap and Horford. Sounds like the regular season Hawks, and smells like victory. Hawks in seven it is.

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