NBA Conference Finals Preview: Are We Headed for a Rematch?

Posted: 05/16/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

Thank goodness for the Thunder and Spurs, because aside from the two of them, who locked horns in a fascinating round two battle, the rest of the second round was mediocre bordering on terrible. I was very surprised to see that the Thunder were able to maintain the level of effort they did for five consecutive games after their embarrassing game one performance. I always knew they had the talent to knock off the Spurs, but I wasn’t convinced that they’d be able to stay focused enough to take punches from San Antonio and fight back. And while they benefited from some bad calls down the stretch of close games, the fact that they even stayed close with the Spurs, a 67-win team, for five straight games says a lot. They won two games in a place where only one team had defeated the Spurs in 43 (including round one) tries. And they closed out game six in style, with their only comfortable win. Now, after vanquishing the 67-win Spurs, they get to battle a whole different behemoth: the Golden State Warriors, who are 8-2 in the playoffs despite being without the best player in the league for the majority of the first two rounds. That’s clearly the more intriguing matchup, but I’ll start with the Eastern Conference Final, which comes between a team that is undefeated in the playoffs and has been setting all kinds of three-point shooting records (the Cavs) and a team that is banged up and coming off two ugly seven game slugfests.

Cavs over Raptors in 5: I wanted to make for the Raptors. I really did. But after watching each team’s first two rounds, I just don’t see a way that the Raps can even push this series to seven games. After their blowout game seven win over the Heat, the Raptors have outscored their opposition by a cumulative eight points in 14 games. The Cavaliers have outscored their opponents by 84 points in just eight games. I don’t see how the Raptors will be able to score, especially with center Jonas Valanciunas still injured. Without Valanciunas, the team’s only offense is the backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. And, while the pair picked it up near the end of the Miami series, they’re still shooting just 36% (DeRozan) and 37% (Lowry) from the floor. That’s just not going to cut it against the Cavaliers, and that might even be on the high end of what they’re able to do in this series. So scoring will be an issue, as, big dunks aside, Bismack Biyombo is far inferior offensively to the polished Valanciunas. How about the other side of the ball? Well, the Raptors defense has looked good, but that was against the 23rd (Indiana) and 12th (Miami) best offenses in the NBA on a per-possession basis. And the Heat seemed to be able to generate open threes at ease. Their problem? They missed all of them. Hoping the opponent misses open threes is, er, not going to work against the Cavaliers, who are hitting 16.8 threes per game in the playoffs on 46% shooting. Even if DeMarre Carroll totally shuts down LeBron James, which won’t happen, the Raptors have no chance if they can’t stop Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, and Co. from hitting threes. They’ll have a game in which the backcourt plays ridiculously well and they could win that game, but I don’t think this series is getting past five games.

Warriors over Thunder in 6: I wrote about Oklahoma City’s chances against the mighty Warriors here. A week later, a few things have changed. First of all, I no longer have as much concern regarding OKC’s mental lapses. After five consecutive high-pressure games against the Spurs, I’m more confident that they’ll show up game in and game out against the Warriors. Not fully confident, but more confident. The Warriors are and should be the clear favorites here, because they won 73 games this season and because they’re easily the more complete team. But I said that the Warriors should hope to see the Spurs and not the Thunder, and I think the Thunder have a very decent chance of at least sending this to a seventh game. Another development that’s occurred over the last week has been the emergence of the big man duo of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams playing together. In the regular season, Kanter and Adams played just 127 minutes together (all season!). They grabbed a lot of rebounds but couldn’t defend well enough to stay on the court together. In the playoffs, Kanter and Adams have played 79 minutes together. They’re grabbing 50% of offensive rebounds and 82.4% of defensive rebounds. They’ve allowed just 92.7 points per 100 possessions (the team has allowed 102) while scoring 110.1. The Warriors are amazing, but they aren’t a great rebounding team. The Thunder, who grabbed 54.7% of available rebounds in the regular season and 55.8% in the playoffs, are a great rebounding team, especially when the twin towers are on the court. The pivotal question, thus, is: when the Warriors go to their “Death Lineup”, the one with which they have absolutely demolished everyone in crunch-time, do the Thunder have to downside with them, or can they stay big and punish Golden State on the boards? If they go small, I don’t think they have much of a chance. You can’t beat the Warriors at their own game, especially if your extra wing players (Dion Waiters, Randy Foye, Anthony Morrow) aren’t particularly good. If they go big, they can hide Kanter on Harrison Barnes, who’s been bad offensively in the playoffs. They’ll undoubtedly give up some easy buckets, but they can stay in the game as long as they can continue to dominate the offensive glass, which is something they can definitely do with a frontline of Kanter and Adams against one of Barnes and Draymond Green. Steph Curry will get his points and Klay Thompson will get his, but the Thunder are uniquely positioned to counter that with two of their own dominant scorers. Of course, they don’t have anyone who can combat Green, which is why I think Serge Ibaka needs to be much better in this series than he has been recently. But in Adams and Kanter, I think they might have found a few big men who will make Golden State sweat. In a lot of ways, I think this could be similar to last year’s Finals between the Cavs and Warriors. In that series, the Cavs countered Golden State with a pair of big men (Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson) who dominated the offensive boards. For a while, it worked. But then the Warriors went to the Death Lineup and won the last three games of the series. They will do that again early and often against the Thunder, but the Thunder also have something the Cavs didn’t have last year: two legitimate superstars. It’s hard for me to envision a more exciting series than this one… except, maybe, the Warriors against the full-strength Cavs. Will we get that series? I expect that we will, because Golden State has given me no reason to doubt their ability to take a punch and then rebound and vanquish their opponent. But at least now they’re facing a team that’s fully capable of throwing a Haymaker. I think the Warriors will get back up and keep fighting, but they will get punched in the face by Durant, Westbrook, and Oklahoma City’s size. I really want this series to go seven games, and I think it has a great chance of doing so. But I’m picking the Warriors in six, just because I’m not totally sure that the Kanter-Adams duo is going to be able to match up even moderately well with Green, Barnes, and Andre Iguodala. This should be a great series.

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