NBA Playoff Preview Starting with Round Two
Written by Mark Lattman
Although it’s been 29 years since the Buffalo Braves last competed in the NBA, moving from New York and the Eastern Conference to California and the Western Conference there is still plenty of reason for local interest in the NBA. There’s the continued success of the Cleveland Cavaliers – last year’s champs who have in LeBron James one of the best players in NBA history – along with the emergence of the Toronto Raptors as legitimate contenders. Both these teams are as close to local markets as we get for the NBA, well at least in terms of being successful (sorry, Knicks fans). And even closer to home, at least in one way, is the Los Angeles Clippers, who were once the San Diego Clippers, who were those Buffalo Braves before that. So, with the Conference Semi-Finals basically upon us (except for The Clippers and Jazz still fighting for the right to lose to the Warriors in 5), let’s take a look at the match ups, starting with the Eastern Conference.
Boston Celtics (1) Vs. Washington Wizards (4):
Boston: Isaiah Thomas, Jr. is the East’s version of Russell Westbrook in terms of how much he alone means to his team, and with the tragic death of his sister right before the Bulls series, all bets were (literally and figuratively) off the table at first regarding his and the Celts performance. And after Boston dropped the first two games of that series at home, it looked like it was just all too much for everyone to overcome, and understandably so. But then, The Resurrection of Rajon Rondo came to a screeching halt through injury, Thomas seemed to get it a bit more together and with Jimmy Butler also getting hurt late in the series, the Celtics eventually rolled 4-2.
Washington: The Wizards’ ascendancy this year has been fueled by the one-two combo of Bradley Beale and John Wall who have matured into an all-star duo as predicted (and about on schedule). They beat Atlanta handily and represent the future of the East as much as anyone right now.
Prediction: Wizards in 6. I’m not fully sold on Thomas as a super star to begin with because of his poor Plus/Minus, and what he’s going through personally is a terribly depressing wild card. Beale and Wall continue their rise as it all, including lack of depth, catches up with Boston.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) Vs. Toronto Raptors (3):
Cleveland: What to make of the Cavs? They had a poor season by their standards, especially on Defense where they were second to last in efficiency, but still could have been the #1 seed again in the improved (at the top, that is) Eastern Conference. Everyone is finally healthy, yet Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving both sat out the fourth quarter of a close round one game. The first three games against Indiana were all up in the air till the end, and there’s no reason they should have been even that close, though Cleveland ultimately swept. As always, we can expect LeBron to step up his already MVP caliber game even more as each round progresses, but will it be enough to repeat as even Conference champs, let alone NBA champs?
Toronto: Similar to the Wizards, the Raptors are led by a young and outstanding guard tandem (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) and blooming as expected, (yes, they actually had a better record last year, but they were also healthier and the conference was weaker) leading a resurgence of Eastern Conference teams to challenge whatever team LeBron is on that year. As with Washington, depth and experience are an issue but after some early struggles, they put away the even less experienced and thinner Bucks team in six.
Prediction: Pick ‘Em. This might seem like a cop out, so I’ll actually make two predictions: It’s either Toronto in 6 or Cavs in 7. Despite being mismatched on paper, these teams in fact finished tied in the standings, though the Cavs won the series 3-1 with Toronto’s only win coming on the last day of the season, when Cleveland benched all their stars, a bad sign for the Raptors. If it’s hunger versus confidence, we’ll get a great series either team can win; if it becomes inexperience versus complacency, we will get an ugly, turn over filled mess either team could win. But only the Cavs have a chance at a romp, because LeBron.
Golden State Warriors (1) Vs. L.A. Clippers(4) or Utah Jazz(5):
Warriors: No matter what time their games end on the East Coast you still probably don’t need me to tell you that they’re really really good. Kevin Durant is back and healthy, Stephen Curry has (re) found his shot and how to work with (and without) KD, Klay Thompson as well for both those things, just a bit less in each case. And as long as Draymond Green doesn’t stiff leg someone (assumedly from the other team, but with Dray, you just never know) in their groin and stays on the court for the whole series, he can be as good as any of them. They hardly broke a sweat in round one against the over-matched Trail Blazers.
Clippers/Jazz: Who comes out of this series alive (but with a most likely terminal disease called GSW Syndrome), The Snake-Bit Clippers who are again without Blake Griffin or an up and coming but inexperienced and also hurt Jazz squad? Who cares if you don’t live there? The banged up, tired and travel weary loser goes home this week, and the banged up, tired and travel weary “winner” goes home next week. The only important question coming out of this series is weather Griffin has played his last game as a Clipper.
Prediction: The Warriors are so good that if they added Blake Griffin in the off season, he’d be their fifth best player. Think about that. And think about what that means for this year’s Clippers or Jazz. GS in 5, and only if they get bored for even a second.
San Antonio Spurs (2) Vs. Houston Rockets (3):
San Antonio: Another strong year for the Spurs, with the addition of LeMarcus Aldridge and the growth of Kawai Leonard from star to MVP caliber Super Star easily making up for the decline of once key players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Pao Gasol, David Lee and Patty Mills need to step it up a bit from their performance against Memphis in round 1 if S.A. expects to advance.
Houston: As was clear during their domination of the OKC Thunder in round one, if James Harden finishes just behind Russell Westbrook for MVP, it will only be because the Rockets have actual NBA players surrounding him, and good ones at that. Two players coming of their bench, Lou Williams and Eric Gordon are good enough to start on most other teams and one of them will win the 6th Man of the Year award. However, maybe they should do so here as well, as the other four starters for the Rockets are barely even sparklers.
Prediction: Spurs in 6, only partially coincidental with the fact that the Spurs finished 6 games ahead of the Rockets in the always tough Western Conference. Harden is great, but he did lead the league in turnovers and can be a streaky shooter. And Spurs’ coach Greg Popovich is still the most important person in the series in terms of ability to motivate and focus a team, ahead of anyone wearing a jersey here.
Written by Mark Lattman Although it’s been 29 years since the Buffalo Braves last competed in the NBA, moving from New York and the Eastern Conference to California and the Western Conference there is still plenty of reason for local interest in the NBA. There’s the continued success of the Cleveland