After a grueling first two rounds, what remains are NBA four teams fighting for a chance to represent their conference in the Finals. Each team had to face incredible competition to make it to this point, and the intensity is only going to get tougher from this point forward. These conference finals will be remembered and shape the league for years to come. As always, this will be a breakdown of these two matchups, but as a special treat I will be giving my predictions for the two teams that will play for the O’Brien Trophy.
WCF | Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors: A Western Shootout
Since the beginning of the season, the two clear favorites coming out of the Western Conference were the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Both teams have been extremely impressive throughout the season and are clearly the two best teams in the NBA. Regardless of the outcome, it is a near guarantee that whoever wins this matchup will end up winning the NBA Finals. Yet, when breaking these teams down it is very simple. Essentially it is going to be the newly named “Hampton Five” against the two-headed monster of Chris Paul and James Harden. For Golden State, their biggest strength is that they have three offensive juggernauts in Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson. In the regular season the three stars combined to average 72 points a game, and have continued their offensive production in the playoffs. Those three players are extremely crafty and can essentially score from anywhere on the court. Along with being great offensively, all are relatively great defensive players and when paired with the 2 great defensive forces of Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green (who can also shoot the ball well), you are looking at what many consider to be the best team in basketball. The one major weakness that they have is that they simply do not have as much depth as other teams. While they have solid pieces it is clearly not like previous years where they have been formidable depth on the bench as well. For the Rockets, they have been successful under the leadership of James Harden and Chris Paul. Their high combined basketball IQ led the team to the second best offense and the best record in the NBA. Another important note is that when James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capella have been available for Houston this season, they have gone 50-5. If there was a team that could beat the Warriors, the only team with a chance to keep up with Golden State’s tempo and match their scoring ability is the Houston Rockets. For Golden State, they are going to have to force the ball out of Harden and Paul’s hands and center the defensive game plan on both those guys. If Steve Kerr’s team is able to stop one of those two players, then they will easily win the series. Doing so will be a difficult task and I am expecting this to be an old fashioned shootout between two juggernauts.
> Prediction: Golden State Warriors in 6 games
There are two major reasons why I think that the Warriors will beat the Rockets. First, all of the players at Golden State simply have more experience playing in these moments. Everyone on Golden State is a champion and with that comes a lot of weight and savvy that the Rockets simply do not possess. The fact is, I can see Chris Paul or James Harden having a meltdown during this time of the year. The second reason is that defensively, while the individual matchups favor the Rockets (they can guard both Thompson and Curry), there is simply no answer for Kevin Durant. Without someone to stop Durant, it is very hard to see the Rockets winning 4 games. Now I’m not saying the Rockets do not have a chance, but it’s going to be an uphill battle. They will definitely be able to compete with Golden State and it will be no cake walk.
ECF | Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics: The King’s last Stand.
It has been a tough road for both teams to make it this far into the playoffs. For LeBron and the Cavs, with a clear lack of talent, he has had to play extraordinary basketball to make it to the conference finals. For the Celtics, without their two best players (Kryie Irving and Gordon Hayward), HC Brad Stevens has had to create an effective game plan against teams with clearly more talent than Boston has. Terry Rozier, Jason Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are averaging around 20 points in the playoffs, which is a testament to the young talent Boston has and how confident these players are. Overall, the game plan for both teams is again quite simple. For Cleveland, the general strategy is giving LeBron the ball and having him coordinate the offense. This means creating his own offense, and playmaking for the rest of his teammates. Whether it is through driving and kicking it out to one of his shooters, or simply exploiting a potential mismatch through screens or pick and rolls. Essentially the Cavs offense runs through LeBron James, and if he ever has a bad night then simply put the Cavs are going to lose that game. It will be interesting to see the game plan that the Celtics have in store for guarding LeBron. There are two trains of thought in guarding James. Primarily, they could double-team him in order to consistently force the ball out of his hands. The problem with this strategy is that LeBron is a playmaker by nature and by doing so one is giving him easy assists for his teammates. The positive is that you’re forcing someone else to beat you on open shots. The second option- trusting your defenders to slow down LeBron, while you have the rest of the team locking down the rest of the Cavs players. This strategy is good because it forces LeBron to take over and beat you singlehandedly while also having his teammates play without the help of their superstar. Furthermore, the Celtics do have defenders like Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart to slow down LeBron James. The only issue with this strategy is that it is clear that LeBron can single handedly carry his teams to victories. He has proven it in both of his last two series making great shots in the post and hitting clutch game winners. For the Celtics, the beauty of their team is that there seems to be a different person every night playing exceptionally well for them to help them win. Whether its Terry Rozier, Al Horford, or Marcus Morris, it always seems that they find someone new willing to step up to make plays in crunch time. Defensively, despite changes to the roster, this squad has been consistently able to defend. They are able to switch relatively well, allowing them to contest most shots. This is why the Celtics Ranked 3rd in overall defense and 1st in 3-point defense Also, Brad Stevens has been proven his coaching ability in this year’s playoffs, creating plays that score after nearly every time out, and exploiting mismatches to put his team in the best position to win. Overall, this is going to be a great series, and it will be very interesting to see what game plan Brad Stevens has to slow down LeBron James.
> Prediction: Celtics Win in 6 Games
I know that a lot of you are probably thinking I am crazy to bet against LeBron James. Not only has he proven to own the competition this season, but he has done it this year with very limited support. My response is that I am not betting against LeBron James, I’m betting against his teammates. I believe that Brad Stevens will devise a plan ensuring that the other guys do not get clean looks and will have to shoot contested jumpers. Brad Stevens is going to force Kevin Love to play like an all-star and will make LeBron play his best brand of basketball to win. Honestly, I would not be surprised if LeBron is able able to overcome Stevens’s game plan, but I currently cannot bet against Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics. In the last two series, Stevens has clearly had less talent to work with, but was able to win both games due to his understanding of the game. I think he will continue this and end the reign of LeBron James in the Eastern Conference