NBA Conference Finals Preview
For the first time since I can remember, all four NBA conference finalists didn’t even make it out of the first round last season. With these relatively fresh faces comes an air of unpredictability amongst NBA fans, and it may take a few games before we truly see the chess-match begin. This isn’t the Pacers or Spurs playing Miami, there will definitely be a feeling out process. So expect mismatches and weaknesses to be exploited from the very beginning! Now let’s get on to the actual matchups.
Atlanta Hawks vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Both teams were fairly unimpressive (if not uninspiring) in getting past their 2nd round matchups. The Cavs, with some dubious assistance from the referees, were still very lucky to not go down 3-1 to the Chicago Bulls, whilst the Hawks looked completely overmatched to the Wizards until John Wall fractured his hand. But this should be an entertaining series with two teams that are polar opposites in terms of style. The Hawks like to swing the ball after penetration and make the extra pass. That’s all well and good in the regular season when opposing teams don’t have the time to truly prepare with the right rotations, but in the playoffs, they can and they will. This is a huge reason as to why Kyle Korver has dropped from a 49% three-point shooter in the regular season to a mediocre 35%. If the Hawks are to rectify it, they need to re-establish Horford and Milsap in the post, and force the perimeter players from Cleveland to double (or at least sag off) and open up shots for Korver, rather than the drive and kick and swing game, which (as I said before) can be countered with preparation and scrambling defence.
The glaring weakness for Atlanta looks to be how they will guard LeBron, but James has been shooting the ball pretty terribly (less than 40% last round against the Bulls). Expect James to be posting up quite a lot to get him closer to the basket, but that could be working in Atlanta’s favour considering they have quality post defenders in Horford and Milsap. What I’d like to see from Cleveland is a pick and roll involving Lebron and Kyrie Irving. That should force all kinds of adjustments from Atlanta as they try to limit James and Irving without giving wide open jumpshots to Smith and Shumpert.
The bottom line is whilst Atlanta has a deeper team, they don’t cause anywhere near the mismatches that Cleveland does if they are put in the right positions. I expect the games to be close, but not the series outcome.
Prediction: Cleveland in 5.
Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets
A lot of fans are falling into the trap of thinking that this will be a quick series based off how terrible Houston looked in the first 4 games (and 40 minutes of game 6) against the Clippers. What they’re forgetting is how dominant Dwight Howard actually became, and what a solid defensive club (especially on the perimeter) they became in games 5 and 7 (and the 4th quarter of game 6). The aforementioned Howard completely turned the momentum of the series, averaging 19 ppg and 17 rpg over that period. With him patrolling the middle, and the emergence of Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer, the Rockets suddenly had the depth to handle L.A. The problem for Houston will be Harden. He had 35 turnovers against the Clippers along with shooting under 40%. Those horrible numbers were whilst being guarded by Chris Paul on one leg, J.J. Redick, and Austin Rivers. He’s going to be facing Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Andre Iguodala. On top of the defensive intensity he’ll be facing, Harden will also be dealing with trying to match the output of the Splash Brothers. It’s not going to be easy, but it is doable. If Houston can somewhat hide Harden on defence (Ariza on Thompson, Brewer/ Jason Terry on Curry, Harden on Barnes), and they don’t get completely torched, then anything is possible here. What makes me think that Houston has a legitimate shot here is the fact that whilst Harden will be facing a much different beast this round than he did against the Clippers, the opposite applies for Howard. He just outplayed Griffin and Jordan (both should be in some capacity All-NBA players) in the final 3 games, and will now be facing Bogut and Green (both of whom are really good role players, but aren’t on the same level as Griffin or Jordan). So in short, Houston have some underrated momentum and can win some key positions, so in theory, they absolutely could challenge Golden State. The question will be if the intensity will be consistent, and I don’t think it will.
Prediction: Golden State in 6.