Archive for May, 2018

For the first time since the 1970s, we got two Game Sevens in the conference finals. The results? The road team won both games. That may seem surprising, but given the identities of the road teams really isn’t. The Cavs entered Game Seven as slight — 3 point — underdogs, while the Warriors were actually 6.5 point favorites against the shorthanded Rockets. It seems silly to say, but I never really had any doubt that the Warriors would advance to the Finals, even when Houston took a 3-2 series lead. Sure, Chris Paul missing the last two games helped, but I think they would have won anyway. Here’s why: they have a tendency to coast through most of games before really turning it on when they need to. They were down by double-digits at halftime in Game Seven before completely dominating a 16-ish minute span in the third and fourth quarters. Had Paul played, they may have needed to extend that span, but guess what? I think they’d have been able to. And there’s not a team in the world that can come close to matching Golden State’s peaks. We know that now for sure after seeing the Houston series. That’s not to diminish the season that this Rockets team had. It’s absolutely an incredible accomplishment to have the regular season and first two rounds that they had and then to take this Warriors team, who were 24-3 in the playoffs since signing Kevin Durant, to seven games. They were a great team and showed great toughness and ability. And Golden State still should have put them away faster, because they have Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. That’s what bothers me about the Warriors: I don’t mind seeing dynasties, and I don’t mind seeing the same Finals four times in a row, but I wish they would actually dominate the way they should. That’s what made last year’s run so different than this year’s. I do understand that they’re jaded and probably being smart by just doing enough to advance, but I’d like to see them pour it on in the Finals just because I enjoy watching great basketball. And that Houston series was a lot of things, but it wasn’t great basketball. Steve Kerr says that the series would have been done in five games had Andre Iguodala not gotten injured, and I know that Iggy is an important player, but come on. They still had their four potential Hall of Famers and were taken to seven games. I know they can’t play like they do in the third quarter all the time, but I’d like to see that type of intensity a bit more often from the Warriors.

As for the Cavs, I can’t say much that hasn’t been said already. I think the discussion over whether this is LeBron’s biggest accomplishment is silly and ridiculous, so let’s just say it’s another HUGE accomplishment in a career that’s been full of them. To take this ragtag group of dudes to a Game Seven in Boston and to win that game (without Kevin Love) is remarkable. The Celtics hadn’t lost a home playoff game, and their first three home games in this series weren’t close. To fully understand the mountain the Cavs had to climb, just look at the fact that LeBron James was an underdog in a closeout game against an inexperienced team. Luckily for the Cavs, the Celtics forgot how to shoot. Unlike the Rockets, who were throwing up contested threes in the third quarter of their Game Seven loss, most of Boston’s looks from beyond were wide open, and they still shot just 7-for-39. That includes an 0-for-10 performance from playoff hero Terry Rozier. This seems kind of obvious given that the Celtics scored just 79 points against a mediocre defense, but the fact is that shots that had been going in for Boston just stopped going in. This allowed the Cavs to win despite being without their second best player and despite shooting just 9-for-35 from beyond the arc themselves. Few teams are more reliant on threes than Cleveland, so the fact that they won largely without the three is telling. LeBron’s performance — 35 points, 15 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 blocks (including that monster one on Terry Rozier that was the defining moment of the series) — was jaw-dropping and also entirely unsurprising. He couldn’t have done it without a good performance from Jeff Green (19 points), but it’s telling that it’s a surprise when anyone other than LeBron James has a good game.

So here we are: part four. Some things have changed (the biggest of which, obviously, is Kyrie Irving), but this is still LeBron vs. the Warriors. Iguodala will miss Game One and maybe more, while Love’s status is up in the air. It goes without saying that the Warriors are massive favorites. They have the second, third, fourth, and fifth best players in the series, and it helps that #2 and #3 might also be the second and third best players in the NBA. This much is for sure: it will take another Herculean LeBron effort for the Cavs to have a chance. This has been a playoffs full of Herculean LeBron performances: he is averaging 34/9/9 in the playoffs and is probably having the best offensive playoffs of all-time. When he dials in on defense, as he did leading to that Rozier block, we’re seeing the most dominant basketball player ever play his best ever basketball. And even if he continues doing all of that, it’ll still take a miracle for the Cavs to win. This reminds me of the 2015 Finals, the first matchup between these teams. The Cavs entered that series without both Irving and Love. Their lineup in Game Two, Cleveland’s first win, was Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, LeBron, Timofey Mozgov, and Tristan Thompson. Cleveland’s gameplan was to slow the game down and to have LeBron do absolutely everything for them. Sound familiar? Early in the series, it worked. They won Game Two 95-93 in overtime and Game Three 96-91 in games that were very reminiscent to Golden State’s losses to Houston in Games Four (95-92) and Five (98-94). The Warriors eventually figured out that series, winning the last three games by a combined 42 points. In that series, LeBron averaged 46 minutes, 36/13/9, 33 shot attempts and 11 free throw attempts per game. He wasn’t as efficient then as he has been this year, but his usage rate was wayyy higher (against Boston, he averaged “just” 23 shots and 9 free throws). With Love likely out for Game One, I expect the Cavs to again come with the plan to slow the game down and have LeBron dictate everything. They’ll start George Hill, J.R. Smith, James, Jeff Green, and Tristan Thompson. They’ll hope to frustrate the Warriors, get some secondary scoring from at least two of Hill/Smith/Green/Kyle Korver, and stay close late, at which point LeBron will take over. Given that Golden State has been known to take quarters and even games off in the playoffs, I could see it working once or twice. But the problem is: how the heck can it work four times?? The answer, unfortunately, is that it probably can’t. It’s unfortunate to have to look at a series before it starts like this, but I don’t think the Warriors can lose this series barring a major injury. That will remain true even if Love comes back early in the series.

The matchups are tough for Cleveland. In past years, they’ve trapped Steph Curry and dared others to beat them. I expect them to do the same this year, because everyone knows that the Warriors become unbeatable when Steph goes on one of his binges. Kevin Durant is obviously a matchup nightmare, but that’s true against everyone. The Cavs will probably be fine with Durant hoisting up a ton of isolation shots. They won’t be super tough shots, and often they’ll go in, but that’s preferable to giving more attention to Durant and allowing the Warriors’ whole offense to get going. In the Houston series, Durant averaged 29.75 points in wins and 31.33 points in losses. That’s continued a trend we’ve seen all season: 25.7 points per game in wins, 28.1 in losses. Cleveland will recognize its deficiencies and try to lock down on everyone else with the hope that KD can’t facilitate for anyone else. Jeff Green will get the Durant assignment, at least while Love is out. Tristan Thompson has done a reasonable job on Draymond in the past, and J.R. Smith can try to chase Klay Thompson around. George Hill is the best and longest defensive point guard the Cavs have had in the last four years, and hopefully for Cleveland’s sake he’ll bother Curry. And LeBron will be the free safety, helping off of Golden State’s fifth guy and providing rim protection. He’ll try to get in Draymond Green’s head — like he did in 2016, the year Cleveland won — and force Curry turnovers. I could actually see all of this working for periods of time. The problem is that there’s no way it’s going to work for 48 minutes, which means that Cleveland’s going to have to be very efficient on the other end. I think the Cavs have to go big when Love gets back and start Hill, Smith/Korver, James, Love, and Thompson. That’s what they did in 2015, when they got offensive rebound after offensive rebound. Love and Thompson are both great offensive rebounders, and the Warriors can be vulnerable to offensive rebounds because they play small lineups and leak out in transition. Even if it means costing them a handful of transition buckets, I think Cleveland has to sell out for offensive rebounds because they simply aren’t efficient enough offensively otherwise. Besides that, the offensive gameplan is as simple as I said before: hope LeBron doesn’t get tired and cross your fingers that the role players hit their shots.

I think this series will go one of two ways. If the Warriors really want to make a statement, they’ll sweep or win in five uncompetitive games. The talent difference is just too massive. But if they continue to take quarters off and the Cavs’ role players gain some confidence (because it really seems like Smith, Hill, and Green in particular have huge game to game swings in confidence), I think there could be some close games in this series and that it could head back to Cleveland for a Game Six. I want to be clear that no matter which way it ends up going, I think the Warriors’ chances of winning the series are close to 100%. But I respect LeBron James so much and have been sufficiently worried by the Warriors’ off nights to make me believe that the latter scenario is more likely to happen. According to Bovada, the most likely outcomes are Warriors in 5 (+165) and Warriors in 4 (+235). But I’m going to go against the grain and predict that the Cavs will win two games before Golden State decisively closes out in Cleveland in Game Six. Warriors in 6.


Stanley Cup Final Preview

Posted: 05/28/2018 by levcohen in Hockey

The Stanley Cup Final is set, and it’s a bizarre one: it’s the Vegas Golden Knights against the Washington Capitals. It would have been difficult to predict either of these teams making it this far before the playoffs started. First of all, there’s the fact that neither of these teams were among the best in hockey during the regular season. Sure, both teams won their respective divisions, although there were four teams that finished with higher point totals than either of them. But the advanced stats told a different story. The Capitals finished eighth-lowest in hockey in 5-on-5 Corsi For % (total shots for, including missed shots) and last in chances categorized as high-danger (just 45.08%). They relied heavily upon their power play, which is generally bad news heading into the playoffs given that penalties are called at a lower rate in the postseason. The Knights, meanwhile, were slightly above-average in 5-on-5 Corsi For % and middle of the road in high-danger chances for. They leaned on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. My thought was that, when facing stronger teams like Tampa Bay and Winnipeg (both of whom are at least as talented and had much better regular seasons), Washington and Vegas would not have enough firepower. I was wrong. They both won, but for different reasons. For the third straight series, the Capitals flat-out outplayed their opponents. They took more shots than the Lightning, they dominated play throughout, and they deserved to win. There’s reason to believe that the Capitals are simply a better team now than they were during the regular season, because this is the third straight time that they’ve vastly outperformed any regular season-based prediction. Columbus, Pittsburgh, and especially Tampa Bay were all stronger regular season teams from a chances perspective, but Washington out-chanced all three. As for Vegas, the Golden Knights won the same way they’ve been winning all year. After a four goal Winnipeg barrage in Game One, Fleury gave up just six goals on 135 shots. Winnipeg, a stronger all-around team, out-shot Vegas throughout the series, but the combination of Fleury and the outstanding Vegas first line proved to be too much for the Jets to overcome. In the end, the Knights closed out the series in just five games.

Anyway, the teams’ underlying metrics is the first reason that it’s a surprise that this is the Stanley Cup Final. The second is their histories — or, for Vegas, lack thereof. Everyone recognizes how incredible it is that this Vegas team, led by a bunch of castoffs, has made it this far in their inaugural year. It’s unprecedented. But how about the Capitals? The team that, despite stringing together dominant regular season after dominant regular season, had not gotten out of the second round during the Alex Ovechkin era? It’s pretty crazy that they’ve broken through this year, after their weakest regular season in years.

We know that there’s going to be a first-time winner of the Stanley Cup. But which team will it be?

It’s long past time to think of the Golden Knights as the plucky underdogs. Sure, the fact that Nate Schmidt, Vegas’s top defenseman, was Washington’s #7 d-man last year plays nicely into that storyline. But Schmidt is a talented player who clearly would fit on a top or second pairing on any team in the league right now. He caused countless Winnipeg turnovers and was a leading reason that Mark Scheifele, who still leads the playoffs in goals, was held pointless in the last two games of the series. With that being said, if there’s anywhere that the Capitals have a real edge, it’s at the blue line. That’s because the Capitals have three workhorse defensemen that have been terrific all season. Sometimes, it’s not just about how many good players you have but how you distribute time on ice. Just ask Tampa’s Jon Cooper, who felt a need to match his fourth line with Washington’s first and thus ended up playing the listless Paquette line about as much as he did the dynamic Johnson line. Washington knows who its top three defensemen are. John Carlson (the point man on the devastating first power play unit), Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov all have played between 24:30-26:00 minutes per game in the playoffs. Schmidt is probably as good as any of those three defensemen, but Vegas doesn’t quite have the same defensive depth. But while my gut says that the Capitals have a more dynamic group of defensemen, the Golden Knights have gotten eight goals from their defensemen in 15 playoff games, while Washington has gotten seven in 19. I still think the Caps have been better at protecting their goalkeeper and preventing shots, and the fact that they shut the Lightning out in the final two games of the series is super impressive.

All year, the conventional wisdom about the Knights has been that they have a lot of depth offensively and win by playing all four lines. I subscribed to that theory earlier on the in playoffs, and I still do think Vegas gets a lot from the Eakin and Bellemare lines. But for scoring the Knights rely heavily upon their first line — and what a first line it is. It’s been great all season: there’s a reason that William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault finished 1-2 in the league in +/- this season, with Reilly Smith not too far behind. And Marchessault especially has been tremendous in the playoffs. He’s the main non-Fleury reason that the Knights were able to turn around the Winnipeg series after the disheartening Game One loss. He bagged a pair of goals in Game Two and two more in Game Three, although one of those was an empty-netter. He also brought the type of unquantifiable energy and sense of urgency that the Knights needed to counter Winnipeg’s offensive flurries. He, Smith, and Karlsson have 18, 16, and 13 points in 15 playoff games, and most of them are at even-strength. Nobody’s found a way to bottle them up. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Caps counter Vegas’s first line with their own first line or with the Backstrom line, which they’ve used against top offensive units in the past. Based on the way they played the Penguins, when Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby saw a lot of each other, I think there’s a good chance we see a lot of Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith against Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson. That’s pretty exciting given how much offensive firepower each unit has. Kuznetsov (24 points) and Ovechkin (22) are the two leading scorers in the playoffs. It’s hard to imagine any line getting the best of the Karlsson line, but the Capitals probably have more forward depth than the Knights do. Outside of the top line, the forwards to watch for Vegas are Erik Haula and James Neal, who combine with Alex Tuch to form the second line. Haula and Neal scored 29 and 25 regular season goals respectively, serving as terrific secondary scorers. But they have just seven combined playoff goals as Tuch (six goals, 15 total in the regular season) has taken on more of the scoring load. In the Final, the Knights are surely going to need more from Haula and Neal, because Washington proved against Tampa Bay that they can get goals not only from their first two lines (among which their top four offensive players are spread evenly) but also from tertiary players like Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Devante Smith-Pelly.

don’t think either team is going to stifle the other’s top line, which means a lot is going to depend on goalkeeping (duh). There’s no question that the Knights hold the edge there, because Fleury has looked almost unbeatable all year long and especially in the playoffs. He’s seeking to become the second goalie ever (Jonathan Quick was the first) to post a save percentage north of .930 in every round of the playoffs. Overall, he’s been a .947 goalie in the playoffs after he was a .927 goalie in the regular season. Braden Holtby (.924) has been pretty darn good himself and is coming off of consecutive shutouts to end the Tampa Bay series. His reputation as a mediocre playoff goalie has come mainly from one really bad series against the Penguins and is fully undeserved. He’s playing well enough that it would take only a slight slip from Fleury to even up the goalie matchup. But the Knights obviously have to feel pretty good about any goalie matchup when they have this version of Marc-Andre Fleury in goal.

Here are some other things to keep an eye on:

  • Is fatigue a factor for the Capitals? Washington has played four more games than Vegas, which could be especially important given that they have three defensemen who play big minutes. They’ve gotten four days between the end of the Tampa series and Game One in Las Vegas, so they should be fine. But it’s definitely something to keep an eye on. It’s hard to say exactly how much Winnipeg’s fatigue (they were coming off of a draining seven game series against Nashville) played into their loss to Vegas, but I’d wager that the answer is at least a little.
  • This is always important, but especially so in this series: special teams. I said earlier that usually there are fewer power play opportunities in the playoffs because refs let some things go. That hasn’t been the case for either of these teams. Vegas has gotten 3.4 power play opportunities per game, up from 3.02 in the regular season. Washington is up from 2.98 to 3.1. The Golden Knights have been surprisingly ineffective — 17.6% — on their power plays this postseason. The impulse is to focus mainly on Washington’s power play, and for good reason. They have a star-studded first power play unit, with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstom, Oshie, and Carlson. And they’ve scored 17 power play goals in the playoffs, good for a 28.8% success rate. The matchup of that unit against Fleury is mouth-watering, and we’re likely to see a lot of it, because Vegas has been pretty undisciplined in the playoffs. But Washington’s penalty kill has actually been leaky (75.4% in the playoffs), which is why I think it’s likely that Vegas’s power play will get on track at some point. Washington likely needs to have the edge on the power play to win this series. They should, but maybe not by as much as people think.
  • Does home ice matter at all? Vegas has the advantage, and they’ve been great at home all season. They’re 6-1 at home in the playoffs (and 6-2 on the road). But Washington’s been tremendous on the road on the playoffs. They’re 8-2 away from DC and just 4-5 on their home ice. It seems like home ice should have some impact, but I’m operating under the assumption that it won’t just because it really hasn’t seemed to in the playoffs.
  • How effective is Vegas’s forechecking? In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the answer was very. But despite all their rest they looked to have worn down a little by the Winnipeg series, and the Jets were able to take advantage by doing some forechecking of their own. The Knights — especially their bottom two lines — try to take advantage of their size and speed, but if their forechecking is ineffective their bottom two lines could get exposed on the other end against the Capitals.
  • It’s really interesting to watch the differences in goalie styles. They’re both tremendous players who are great at tracking and saving pucks, but Fleury is fluid, aggressive, and smooth while Holtby is almost robotic in net. I think the simplest way to put is it that Fleury is more likely to make an outstanding, acrobatic save, but he’s also more likely to be out of position and let an easy one go in.

This is a really tough one to call. Vegas has been consistent all year long and is 12-3 in the playoffs. They likely have the goalie edge and also have an exceptional first line. But I’m reticent to put too much stock in the goalie advantage, because it can dissipate or even flip on a dime. And the Capitals are a slightly deeper team both offensively and defensively. They also have Alex Ovechkin, who’s shot is a true difference-maker. I’m picking the Caps in in what seems sure to be a tight series. Knowing how these things go, though, it’s probably going to be over in five games.

The Tampa Bay Rays Are Experimenting Again

Posted: 05/22/2018 by levcohen in Baseball

The Tampa Bay Rays rank 28th in baseball in team payroll at $80,074,591. That’s almost $60 million below the league average of a shade over $139M. They have some good young talent under team control but nowhere near the top-level talent they had in the days of Evan Longoria, David Price, James Shields, and B.J. Upton. Like other small market teams, their ability to compete will hinge on whether they can find competitive advantages that gives them an edge. The most commonly referenced example here is obviously what became Moneyball — the Oakland Athletics’ capitalization on a market that didn’t adequately value on base percentage. But there are other obvious examples — Kansas City’s reliance on heavy innings from their bullpen in their World Series seasons and Tampa’s early embrace of defensive shifts come to mind. As time goes on (and as stats get better and are more widely available), it becomes harder and harder to find those competitive advantages. It seems that there are fewer and fewer unadventurous teams, and baseball’s strategic norms (i.e., the things to take advantage of) are falling by the wayside.

One norm that remains, though, is the five man starting rotation. It was once a four man rotation and now some teams (notably the Angels, who are looking to preserve the arm of ace and slugger Shohei Ohtani) going with six starters, but most teams still pick what they think are their five best starters at the beginning of the season and give them the ball game after game until something goes wrong. Not the Rays. Due both to injuries — potential starters Nathan Eovaldi and Yonny Chirinos are on the DL — and lack of resources, Tampa Bay seems to have just three starters they’re willing to roll out there on a consistent basis. Two of those starters have ERAs north of 5.00, but that’s another story. Outside of those three starters, no other Rays pitcher has started more than five games (Chirinos), and no healthy pitcher has more than three starts. So when a weekend series with the solid Los Angeles Angels (26-21, sixth in baseball in payroll) came around, the Rays had Blake Snell — the best of their three starters — going Friday and then empty slots on Saturday and Sunday.

Most teams would have called up pitchers from the minors to start those games or at the very worst thrown long relievers out for four-ish innings. Not the Rays. Instead, Sergio Romo, a guy who’s thrown 514 career innings in 590 games, started both games. He became the first pitcher to start consecutive games since Zack Greinke started three straight in 2012 in very different circumstances (he was ejected early in the first game, started the second, and was able to start the third because the All-Star break was in between). The goal was not to stretch Romo out but simply for him to get out the top of the Angels’ order, which is full of good righty hitters. Throughout his career, Romo has had very strong numbers against righties, and the thought was that it would be helpful to give the Angels’ top hitters less exposure to the next pitcher, who would be expected to throw the brunt of the innings. It worked both times. On Saturday, Romo struck out Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, and Justin Upton in a perfect first inning en route to a 5-3 Rays win. On Sunday, Romo went 1.1 innings, leaving with a runner on first and one out in the second. He again struck out both Upton and Trout and also retired Andrelton Simmons. Ohtani and the Angels eventually overpowered Tampa, but it wasn’t because of the decision to start Romo for the second straight day.

Does this strategy have a future? I think it might. The Rays’ goal was obvious: get the best possible matchups against LA’s best hitters. If the thought is that you’re going to have to go through the order four times, you obviously have to plan on getting Trout, Upton, and the other righties at the top of the lineup out four times. If you think Romo is the toughest matchup for those guys — and Trout, Cozart, Simmons, and Upton are a combined 2-for-32 against him with just two singles — why not ensure that he’ll get to face them by starting him in the first? You can even do this if you have a “starting pitcher” you want to throw out there for a normal number of innings. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to ensure that the guy going through the order multiple times has to show his stuff to the opponent’s best hitters one fewer time. It’s a widely accepted fact that it becomes tougher to get outs when you’ve already faced the opposing hitters a few times. That’s borne out by the stats: pitchers have a .705 OPS against the first time through the order, .725 the second, and .805 the third. And the hitters most likely to take advantage of seeing your “starter” a third time are obviously the Trouts and Uptons of the world. So starting a tough reliever like Romo would serve to protect the real “starter,” who could then avoid facing the stars until the third or fourth inning — and would thus likely be limited to two showdowns against them.

In the most predictable development of all-time, the experiment was met with resistance. Cozart, who faced Romo both days, said: “It was weird…it’s bad for baseball, in my opinion…It’s spring training. That’s the best way to explain it.” I’m sure that was the commonly held belief among most players and managers in baseball. But the analytically-minded, forward-thinking baseball strategists often disagree with the Cozart’s of the world, whom I like to call the scions of conventional baseball. The bottom line is that while Tampa Bay did this out of necessity, I think this idea could have staying power.

NBA Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/13/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

It didn’t always seem likely, but in the end we got the Conference Finals matchups that seemed inevitable at the start of the season. Boston and Cleveland are obviously different teams than we expected them to be, while the Warriors and Rockets are exactly what we thought they would be. Last year’s Conference Finals disappointed, with Kawhi Leonard’s injury ending the Warriors-Spurs series in Game One and Cleveland cruising past Boston. I’m hoping for and expecting two better series’ this year.

Cleveland Cavaliers over Boston Celtics in 6: Brad Stevens has done a great job this year. But I think that all the Stevens love has gotten in the way of acknowledging the fact that, even without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, this Boston team is very talented and very well suited to playoff basketball. I don’t actually know how much better they’d be if they had Irving and/or Hayward, because their real strength is their ability to guard basically everyone straight up. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Al Horford, even Terry Rozier… all of their important players can guard bigger or smaller players. Horford, normally Boston’s center (but their power forward against the Sixers, as they put Aron Baynes on Joel Embiid), guarded Ben Simmons, Philadelphia’s point guard, in the last round. And Horford, Tatum, and Brown in particular are just darn good two-way players. Horford’s playing the best basketball of his life and is averaging 17/9/3/1/1 on 58% shooting in the playoffs (and that’s not on high percentage shots, either). Tatum has exploded in the playoffs, becoming Boston’s go-to scorer as a rookie. Brown has suddenly turned into a deadeye three point shooter, albeit one who still can’t shoot free throws. Then there’s Terry Rozier, who’s somehow become as good offensively as Irving. And Smart and Morris are perfect role players. Neither of them will be particularly efficient offensive players, but they’re both pivotal (and rock-solid) defenders and rebounders. Boston still sometimes has trouble scoring, but it’s nowhere near as big of an issue as you’d think given the two guys they’re missing.

Of course, their one-on-one defending ability will face its biggest test yet. Marcus Morris boldly proclaimed yesterday that he’s the best LeBron defender not named Kawhi Leonard. What could go wrong after a comment like that? The Celtics have homecourt advantage and are playing extremely well and confidently, but I think it’s pretty likely that LeBron James will have something to say about that. I know we’re just one series removed from the Cavs getting pushed to seven games (and thoroughly outplayed) by the Indiana Pacers, but I saw everything I needed to see against Toronto. LeBron surrounded by four shooters is still unstoppable, and Cleveland can still reach a higher level than any other team in the Eastern Conference. With that being said, the Celtics are good enough to be competitive in this series. They have a lot of players who can get their own tough buckets, and they — Horford especially — should be able to score against the Cavs’ suspect defense. I just don’t think they can get enough stops against a LeBron-George Hill-J.R. Smith-Kyle Korver-Kevin Love lineup. Horford knows that better than anyone. LeBron is a ridiculous 40-9 in his career against Horford and 15-1 against him in the playoffs. Most of that came while Al was on the Hawks, but he knows better than anyone that LeBron James is a different animal. I think that some of Boston’s less experienced players will know that after this series, too.

Golden State Warriors over Houston Rockets in 7: This is the series we’ve all been waiting for ever since the day that Houston traded for Chris Paul. It’s the Rockets, fresh off a 65-win season and easy series victories over the Timberwolves and Jazz, against the mighty Warriors, who have rounded into form in the playoffs. It’s likely the toughest matchup for Golden State since they got Kevin Durant. For those who think this GSW team is invincible, this is the true test. Because if Houston seems like they were designed specifically to beat this Golden State team, that’s because they were. They’re a high variance team that hoists buckets of threes per game. When they get hot, they’re practically unbeatable. And any team that hopes to beat the Warriors must have high variance, because there’s not a team in the league with nearly as much star-level talent as they have. Houston also has the switchy, strong wings that can come the closest to causing Kevin Durant problems offensively. In Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute, they have three Durant defenders that are way better than anyone San Antonio or New Orleans could throw at KD. I expect at least two of those three players to be on the court basically all the time because of how necessary they are defensively not just on Durant but also on switches onto Steph Curry. Because both of these teams so relentlessly go after mismatches, this is going to be a series with a lot of attacking of switches, so it helps to have players on the court who aren’t that vulnerable. That’s why I don’t expect to see much of guys like Ryan Anderson or Nene, both of whom have been good contributors to the Rockets for years but don’t quite have the versatility to play against the Warriors. Three players we will be seeing a lot of: Chris Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela. Paul and Harden are obviously Houston’s engines, and they’re going to need both to be at their best. I expect them to try to expose Curry defensively. Ironically, this may be a series decided on who plays better defensively between Curry and Harden. There’s no doubt that throughout his career Curry has been the better team defender, but I think Harden may have the higher defensive upside if he’s consistently locked in. He’s just carried such a heavy offensive load throughout his career that he’s made a habit of strategically resting defensively (aka taking plays off). That can’t happen in this series, because Curry, Klay Thompson, and Durant will take advantage of it ruthlessly. But the same is true on the other side, as Paul and Harden are both good enough to expose Curry in isolation. Early this season, I didn’t think Capela would have much of a role in this series, simply because he’s too big and not mobile enough to switch out onto Curry. But he’s improved so much throughout the season and is so vital to Houston’s gameplan on both ends that it’s hard to imagine him not playing 30 minutes per game. He’s both a great rim protector and a great finisher at the rim. And Houston is 50-5 when he, Paul, and Harden all play. The Rockets’ offense is quite simple. It’s designed to capitalize on weak defenders and finish with a three or a finish at the rim. Most often, Harden’s running the show. Otherwise, it’s Paul. They spread the floor, put two shooters in the corners, and allow their superstar guards to dictate and Capela to hunt for lobs. That simple offense has been very difficult to stop all season. Utah, one of the best defenses in the league, had no chance, simply because their key defensive force — Rudy Gobert — wasn’t mobile enough to remain effective against Houston. But if anyone can slow the Rockets down, it’s Golden State. Because the Warriors have the personnel to be able to switch everything without having a glaring matchup disadvantage. That’s the benefit of having Draymond Green and Kevin Durant as your starting big men. This is why Capela must make an impact. If he’s a force, he may make Golden State go with a lineup bigger than the one you know they want to finish with (Curry-Thompson-Andre Iguodala-Durant-Green). Swap Iggy with Kevon Looney or David West or JaVale McGee and you have a team that’s suddenly slightly more vulnerable to Houston’s offense.

I’ve said a lot of nice things about the Rockets, and those nice things are why I’m predicting that this series will go seven games. But Golden State still has to be the favorite in this series, because even if Harden and Paul outplay Curry and Thompson (and I’m expecting a big series from Curry), Golden State also has two other superstar players who can make enormous impacts on both ends. They don’t quite have the depth they used to have, but they have their four amazing players, and that’s probably enough. I said that Tucker, Ariza, and Mbah a Moute are as close as it gets to being Durant stoppers, but there’s no such thing as a Durant stopper. When he gets going, he can score anytime on anyone. The same is obviously true for Curry. The Warriors will likely try to play fast, capitalizing on Capela’s relative slowness (and Harden’s tendency to walk back on defense) and getting some easy buckets. They don’t want to get into the same iso game that is Houston’s MO, but they can; they do have Kevin Durant, after all. They’ll test Harden and Capela and try to force Clint out of the game. One other factor: Houston has homecourt advantage. That’s clearly a bonus, but Golden State can win anywhere. That’s why I have them being forced to a Game Seven but winning that one in Houston. It should be a good series.

NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/11/2018 by levcohen in Hockey

Tampa Bay, Washington, Winnipeg, Las Vegas. Not exactly the first cities that come to mind when you think hockey, but the last four teams alive nonetheless. I went 4-for-4 on my picks last round and was two games away from perfection (I had Vegas in 7 and Winnipeg in 6, and it ended up being Vegas in 6 and Winnipeg in 7). I can’t promise that I’ll do as well with these picks, but I do think we’re in for two exciting series’, albeit with a clear (yet only moderate) favorite in each.

Tampa Bay Lightning over Washington Capitals in 7: The Capitals finally beat the Penguins and advanced to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance in the Alexander Ovechkin era. And they deserved to win the series, as they thoroughly outplayed a tired, flawed, and banged-up Pittsburgh team. Their reward? A date with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that I have believed all year to be the strongest in the NHL. The Lightning have it all. They have a high scoring top line led by sniper Steven Stamkos and the highly skilled Nikita Kucherov, who scored 100 points during the season and has 12 in 10 playoff games. They have depth and skill and can roll four lines all game long, with playoff mainstays Chris Kunitz (the ex-Penguin) and Ryan Callahan (ex-Ranger) on the fourth line. They have three stud defensemen — Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman — and a skilled goalie getting hot at the right time after slumping near the end of the season.

The Capitals aren’t too shabby themselves. In fact, I think these teams have some clear similarities. It remains to be seen how they shuffle their lines with Nick Backstrom likely out in Game One, but Washington, too, probably has a top line with a pure sniper (Alex Ovechkin) and a second super skilled scorer (Evgeny Kuznetsov). They don’t have as much depth with Backstrom out, which I think is one big advantage for the Lightning. But they’re lethal on the power play, with John Carlson running the point on a unit with Ovechkin, goal-crasher/screener extraordinaire T.J. Oshie, Backstrom (if and when he returns), and Kuznetsov. They too have three horses defensively, all of whom are very experienced. Carlson is a nine year vet with 10 power play points in the playoffs. Dmitry Orlov is in his sixth season, while Matt Niskanen is in his 11th. This is an experienced team overall, with a lot of returnees from previous playoff teams. But Jakub Vrana, a speedy 22-year-old, is a new face who’s added a big boost to Washington’s offense. And the biggest difference between Washington’s previous playoff appearances and this one is that Braden Holtby is playing tremendously well this time. It appears that Holtby’s regular season struggles have actually helped him stay rested and focused in the playoffs, to the point that I think he can be expected to match Andrei Vasilevskiy save for save. The difference is that Tampa’s netminder has a deeper and better team in front of him. I was really impressed with the way the Lightning played defensively against the talented Boston Bruins in the second round. They gave up seven total goals in the last four games of the series, and only two of those were even strength goals (both in Game Two). So they haven’t given up an even strength goal in the last three games but have been vulnerable on the penalty kill, which sets up an interesting matchup with Washington’s dangerous power play. I think that if the Lightning play clean and stay clear of the penalty box for the most part, they should win this series. But these teams are too evenly matched for it not to go six or seven games.

Winnipeg Jets over Vegas Golden Knights in 6: The Winnipeg-Nashville showdown was the best series of the second round, the only one that went seven games. And that shouldn’t have been a surprise given that it was a matchup between the two best regular season teams in hockey. I hadn’t seen all that much of the Jets before the playoffs started, and I was so impressed by their Round One performance that it spurred me to pick them to beat the mighty Predators in Round Two. And boy were they impressive in that series. They won three games in Nashville and chased Pekka Rinne each time (including within a record 10:31 in Game Seven). They scored 27 goals in the series, led by Mark Scheifele’s seven. I love the way they play, with fierce, aggressive forechecking and the freedom that comes from full belief in their goalie. And boy has their goalie ever been impressive. Connor Hellebuyck has a cool name, and he’s also been a .927 goalie in the playoffs. That makes him the second best goalie in the series, though, as the Jets will have to solve the puzzle that is Conn Smythe favorite Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury’s given up 17 total goals in 10 playoff games and has a .951 save percentage. He’s been Vegas’s best player, and the most dominant player in the playoffs period. If the Golden Knights end this magical inaugural season with a Stanley Cup, you can be sure that Fleury will be the biggest reason why. But Winnipeg destroyed Pekka Rinne, a pretty darn good goalie himself, and I think they’ll score some goals against Vegas. They’ve been so good already and can still expect more from guys like Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, and Nicholaj Ehlers, who combined for 104 regular season goals but have just five total in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The onus, then, will be on Vegas’s forwards (and I say their forwards because they don’t get much scoring from their defensemen. They have no Dustin Byfuglien). Just like in the regular season, Vegas’s top line has shined in the playoffs. Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith have combined for 32 points and are the only three Vegas players with more than seven points in their 10 playoff games. The second line (featuring ex-Penguin James Neal, David Perron, and Eric Haula) has also been fairly productive, but Vegas is unlikely to get much scoring from their bottom two lines. The Eakin and Bellemare lines are both strong in their own ways — the third line is quick and has great forecheckers while the fourth line is very good defensively — but doesn’t have the scoring punch of, say, a Bryan Little or Matthieu Perreault (two-thirds of Winnipeg’s third line). Vegas is strong all-around defensively, and they’re used to grinding out low-scoring victories in front of Fleury. And they did manage 3+ goals in five of the six games against the Sharks, who are pretty strong defensively themselves. Vegas scored five fewer goals than Winnipeg all season, so I’m not going to pretend that there’s a big gap between the two. And it could well be that Fleury’s run will continue this round. As we all know, there’s no bigger differentiator in the playoffs than a hot goalie. That’s why I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Vegas moves on to the Stanley Cup final. But I’m going to pick the team that I think is stronger all-around, and that’s the Winnipeg Jets.

Postmortems for Eliminated NBA Teams

Posted: 05/10/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

The second round of the NBA playoffs is over, which means that four more teams have been sent packing. It wasn’t exactly a thrilling or lengthy Round Two, as all four series’ were wrapped up in four or five games. While I nailed both Houston in 5 and Golden State in 5, I flubbed both Eastern Conference series predictions, picking the Sixers and Raptors to win. I’ll get into that and more Philadelphia, Toronto, Utah, and New Orleans takeaways in this post before focusing on the Conference Finals — which start Sunday — later on.

There’s no doubt that the most soul-crushing defeat belonged to the Toronto Raptors. You have to think that if there were ever going to be a year for the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan core to get over the hump in the playoffs, this would be that year. They went 59-23 and had a +7.8 point differential. They were the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve been good in the regular season before, but not this good. Optimistic Toronto fans thought that maybe the combination of homecourt and an infusion of young talent — Delon Wright, Fred Van Vleet, LeBron-defending rookie OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, etc. are all new or better and more important than in previous years — could give Lowry, DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas enough help to break through to the Finals. And there was another reason to believe that this might be the year: the other top contenders in the East seemed to be wilting. Boston lost its two best scorers; Washington had no chemistry; Milwaukee not enough depth; Philadelphia was a year away; and most importantly, LeBron seemed frustrated with the lack of complimentary scoring options sans-Kyrie Irving. Even after the first round, there were reasons to be hopeful. Before the series, I wrote this:

On the one hand, you have a matchup between a 59-win mostly-healthy team that’s very deep and seemed to exorcize some offensive demons in Round One going up against a shallow, banged-up, defense-light 4-seed that barely — and luckily, given that the Cavs were -6.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes in the series — made it out of Round One. If you look at the series that way, picking the Raptors should win should be a no-brainer.

On the other hand, you have a matchup between a good-but-not-great team that still bogs down down the stretch and has never gotten over the hump in the playoffs against the best player in the world, who is impossible to stop down the stretch and who hasn’t lost a playoff series to an Eastern Conference team since 2010. If you look at the series that was, it’s hard not to pick the Cavs.

Four games later, it’s clear which hand was prescient. It’s not just that the Cavs dispatched the Raptors again, it’s how they did it. Games One and Three were heartbreakers, with the Raptors having multiple chances to win at the end of the first and LeBron James tearing their hearts out with a ridiculous runner off the glass to beat the buzzer in Game Three. Game Two was just complete domination, as the Cavs scored 139.5 points per 100 possessions and 141.9 pre-garbage time. That 141.9 mark? It’s significant because it exactly matches Cleveland’s offensive efficiency in their 132-129 win over, that’s right, Toronto. Against only one other team was Cleveland anywhere near as dominant offensively, and that was Detroit in November. And Game Four was such a sad way for Toronto’s stellar season to end. Cleveland scored 144.9 points per 100 pre-garbage time (that’s right, trumping even their Game Two output) en route to a 128-93 win. So the Raptors, in their greatest season ever, got swept in the second round by LeBron James. Lowry and DeRozan were despondent after the game, and it’s pretty clear why. This was their best iteration and the James-led Cavaliers’ worst. And it still wasn’t enough. It’s obviously a failure, and one that may cost Dwane Casey his job. To me, this loss shouldn’t be an indictment of Casey or of Lowry or DeRozan. It turns out that the Raptors weren’t good enough to beat LeBron. Newsflash: that’s been true of every single Eastern Conference team over the last eight years. The guy just doesn’t lose. The fact that the Raptors got swept right after the Pacers showed how vulnerable this Cavs team can be must hurt Toronto fans (and how do you think Indiana’s feeling right about now?). But something clearly changed between those two matchups, and I think that something was LeBron’s belief in his team and thus his team’s belief in itself. That’s not on the Raptors. Will they blow it up (Lowry and DeRozan and Casey out), stay the course (just minor tinkering), or opt for something in between (i.e., firing Casey and/or trading one but not both of their star guards)? I think it’s fair to acknowledge how great this run has been for Toronto while still believing it’s time to move in a new direction. Because even if LeBron leaves, there are other behemoths lurking in the East that have higher ceilings than this maxed-out team likely has.

We all got a little carried away by the Philadelphia 76ers’ end-of-season push. Playing against mostly bad teams, they won their last 16 games before finishing off the overmatched Miami Heat in five games. Heading into a matchup with a Celtics team that was pushed to seven games by the Milwaukee Bucks (whom the Sixers dominated in the final game of the regular season), it seemed like the Sixers were destined to beat the Celtics handily. But some other factors became painfully evident over the course of the series:

  • The Sixers’ two star players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, were playing in their first playoffs.
  • The Sixers lacked anyone who could drive or pull-up to get his own bucket even for short stretches, leading to offensive stagnation. They could have used Markelle Fultz. The Celtics’ roster was full of players who could create their own tough bucket.
  • The Sixers lacked many athletic two-way wing players, and their best one (Robert Covington) struggled mightily. The Celtics, meanwhile, had those in spades.
  • The Sixers had no real response when the well-coached Celtics shut them down from beyond the arc.

The bad news is that all of that and more caused the Sixers to lose in five mostly-close games against a tough Boston team that won 55 games. The good news is that we should have expected most of it and that much of this should be remedied. This was never supposed to be Philadelphia’s finished unit, and I think that’ll be obvious this offseason. They’re going to be on the lookout for another star player, and that would have been the case regardless of how this year’s playoff run turned out. Embiid is about to embark on his first full, healthy offseason as a professional. The Celtics showed him how much he has to work on is he wants to be an efficient offensive fulcrum, and I’m confident he’ll do just that. Dario Saric showed just how good he is in the last two games of the series. Markelle Fultz is going to have an impact. Simmons and Embiid will be better next time. It’s a tough loss, especially because most of the games were winnable and the Celtics vulnerable, but it’s one that’ll make the Sixers stronger.

I think the takeaways are similar for the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans. Both teams should be hugely encouraged by the success they had down the stretch (Utah especially was dominant at the end of the regular season) and in the first round. They both should pretty much stay the course and build around their best players. Unfortunately, neither team had enough quality depth to really bother either of the best teams in the NBA. It was really evident how much of a gap there is between the really good teams — like Utah, New Orleans, Boston, Toronto, and Philadelphia — and the elite ones — Houston, Golden State, and Cleveland when LeBron’s at his best. Both teams have most of their talent locked up, although Derrick Favors and the combustible Rajon Rondo-DeMarcus Cousins duo will hit free agency for Utah and New Orleans respectively. And neither will have to make the big decisions that Toronto and Philadelphia will. I think there’s a bit more pressure in New Orleans as the Pelicans work to convince Anthony Davis that he should stay for good, but there’s no reason for either of these teams to make drastic changes unless they’re the type that can’t be passed up (like a Kawhi or Klay Thompson trade or a LeBron or Paul George signing, for example, although I don’t think either of these teams is a likely destination for any of those players). Anyway, the main takeaway for each team is that they did about as well as they could have hoped this season. The Jazz were picked by some to miss the playoffs, but they went 29-6 to end the season and won a series before running into a stronger team. The Pelicans were supposed to fall off the pace after losing Cousins, but they rallied around career seasons from Davis and Jrue Holiday and swept Portland, the three seed, in the first round before running into a stronger team.