After an amazing first round filled with dunks, buzzer beaters, and upsets. What remains are eight teams fighting for a chance to play in their respective Conference Finals, and to eventually represent their conference in the finals. All of these teams have earned the right to be in this position, and all have the ability to advance to the conference finals. This will be a breakdown of each matchup, delving in to what each team has to do to advance.
Golden State Warriors vs. New Orleans Pelicans: KD VS The Brow
I would be lying to you if I said Golden State was not the heavy favorite to win this matchup. The talent disparity alone could easily carry Golden State ahead of New Orleans. Combine that with an unselfish play style and a creative head coach in Steve Kerr, it’s going to be a difficult battle for the Pelicans. There is still a way to beat this Warriors team. The Pelicans can beat GSW is if three things happen:
1. First, they have to play incredible defense. They played well against the Portland Trailblazers- making Damian Lillard and CJ McCcollum non-factors throughout the series. Furthermore, they will need to force the ball out of either Kevin Durant and Steph Curry’s hands and force them to pass it to either Klay Thompson or Draymond Green.
2. All of the NOLA’s role players need step up. When playing a team like the Warriors, you can not just rely on your star pieces to save the day. It has to be a team effort with everyone hitting their shots and fulfilling their roles. Since their bench is severely lacking, it is going to be up to Nikola Mirotic, and E’Twaun Moore to continue to step up and hit their shots whenever Antony Davis is being doubled-teamed.
3. Speaking of Anthony Davis- he has to play his best basketball of his career. He will have to find the open man in double teams, be able to continue to score proficiently, and lastly deny KD on the defensive end.
For the warriors, all they need to do is continue to play their brand of basketball. If they are able to force the Pelicans to play their style, it will be a relatively quick series.
Houston Rockets vs. Utah Jazz: Houston we may have a problem!
Do not let Game 1 fool you, this is a very intriguing matchup between these two clubs. The matchup that will define this series is going to be James Harden and Chris Paul vs. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. For Utah, they are going to have to rely on their stout defense to slow the game down and force turnovers. On the offensive end, it is going to be up to Mitchell to cary the bulk of the offensive load. Not only in creating his own offense, but by also finding other guys like Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder. Especially since Ricky Rubio will be out for an extended amount of time due to injury, it will be to Mitchell to cary a lot of the offensive responsibilities.
For Harden and Paul, they need to both continue to run HC Mike D’Antoni’s offense, and step up their defensive intensity. While Utah may not seem like they can score, they have the pieces capable of keeping up with Houston or Golden State. If they do not lock down the side pieces of Utah, this could lead to another disappointing post-season for Harden and Paul. Lastly, it is important to note, that there is a lot of pressure on both of these players to advance to the second round. Not only are their legacies on the line, but their team is completely dependent on their success. If Utah finds a way to slow these two stars down, then it will be an early exit for Houston.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors: The Kings Last Stand
There has been a lot of criticism for Toronto the past few years on their ineptitude to compete against any team lead by LeBron James. The king quite frankly has had no issues against Toronto for the past few years. But this year seems to be a little different. Toronto this time around has proven to be a very different team with a lot more depth, and the ability to play great team basketball. They are 6th in the league in assists per game during the regular season, and DeMar DeRozan has proven he has the ability to be a star in the league averaging a 26 points per game.
The biggest issue that I notice from this team are their issues down the stretch of close games. Too often, the Raptors run isolation possession play calls lead by either DeRozan or PG Kyle Lowry. This strategy has proven ineffective as they consistently take bad shots at the end of the 4th quarter. Similar to OKC a couple years ago, they have a solid game plan, and they have sets that they run for the first three quarters of the game. Essentially, it seems that in the 4th quarter both Lowry and DeRozan decide to ignore the system they have. If they want to win, both stars have to trust the other guys and their game plan if they want to beat the Cavs.
For the Cavs, they cannot play the same way they did against Indiana. LeBron simply cannot save them every game if they want to make the conference finals. Whether its Kevin Love, George Hill, or J.R. Smith, someone has to make plays on the offensive end. They have proved to have the ability to do this at Game 7 when LeBron was on the bench due to cramping. Furthermore, Tristan Thompson was able to show he could be useful for this team by getting boards and not being a free throw liability. Yet, lets be clear, this is a very weak line-up and this year is going to be Toronto’s best chance to beat LeBron and potentially make a finals appearance. It is sink or swim for Toronto, and if they are unable to match LeBron’s intensity, then history will repeat itself.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics: Clash of Coaches
Both Boston and Philly have been playing exceptional basketball this season. Both teams play great team basketball, good defense and are both very young. The only difference really is that Boston is playing this matchup without there two best players, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. You have to give a lot credit to head coach Brad Stevens for being able to utilize the rest of his pieces to build a winning team. Also let’s be clear, Jayson Taytum, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown are three fantastic young players. They all play exceptional defense, are unselfish, and are able to shoot the ball extremely well. The 3 are averaging just over 17 points a game in the playoffs, and if Philly does not contain this trio then its simply going to be bad news for the 76ers.
On the other side, it is clear that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are the two best talents in this matchup. There ability to score at will, and to find the open man is impeccable. If Boston allows either of these two players to get going its not goanna bode well for the C’s. What it boils down to is coaching versus raw talent. Philly has the better talent, while Boston has the better coach. Normally talents trumps coaching (i.e. LBJ against the Indiana Pacers), but Brad Stevens is not an ordinary coach. He is exceptional and is going to be up for the test against Philly HC Bret Brown. Expect this series to be like a chess match with each coach attempting to create mismatches. It will then be up to the players to execute. Whoever creates a better game plan will ultimately proceed to the conference finals.
Regardless of the outcomes for all of theses series- I guarantee it will be an exciting second round! Like always, for all things NBA Playoffs keep it locked in at The Wrightway Network.