Wednesday, May 20, 2015

2015 NBA Playoffs - Eastern Conference Finals

#1 Atlanta Hawks vs. #2 Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland and Atlanta were both down 2-1 in their Eastern Conference Semi-Finals series, but each team stormed back to win three straight games and move on to the Eastern Conference Finals. A trip to the Conference finals has been a long time coming for the Hawks, while for Cleveland they are back for the first time since 2009. For the best player in the world, LeBron James this is his fifth straight trip to the Conference Finals.

Despite being without Kevin Love and also missing Kyrie Irving for stretches, Cleveland made the Chicago Bulls look silly. Irving is going to be back for Game 1 and his battle with Hawks point guard Jeff Teague will be fun to watch. Teague has blossomed under Mike Budenholzer's system and become one of the better distributing and all around point guards in basketball. Cavs SG Iman Shumpert isn't nearly the shooter that his counterpart Kyle Korver of the Hawks is. However, Korver had a rough series against the Washington Wizards and really struggled to find his shooting form. Against the Wizards the Hawks were able to get away with that, but to have any chance of beating James and the Cavs, Korver will have to be his usual lights out. Cleveland has really developed well in their interior with Timofy Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. Mozgov and especially Thompson were straight dominant against Chicago, grabbing every missed shot in sight. The Cavs playoff rotation is the usual 8 deep we see from most teams, and they received excellent contributions from their bench against Chicago. SG Matthew Dellavedova and SG J.R. Smith were crucial in closing out the Bulls and the Cavs will be unbeatable if they continue to get that type of production off their bench. James Jones will see minutes from time to time and the rest of the Cavaliers roster is littered with guys you are surprised to find still in the league, like Kendrick Perkins, Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood.

It will be imperative for Atlanta that Al Horford and Paul Millsap limit Thompson and Mozgov's effectiveness in a way that Chicago was unable to. The Bulls were definitely hurt by missing Pau Gasol for a few games and also having Joakim Noah playing injured. Millsap and Horford come into the series healthy, so it will be interesting to see if Mozgov and Thompson carry their domination over to this series. SF DeMarre Carroll will have the unenviable task of trying to guard or at least contain James. If you haven't heard much about Carroll you will know all about him after this series. That is because you will either be hearing a lot of "LeBron blows past Carroll" or "Carroll with excellent defense on James" during this series. Carroll is a great scorer but the Hawks will need him at his best defensively in this series. The Hawks shrunk their bench a bit against the Wizards, mostly using the weirdest looking man on the planet PG Dennis Schroder and PF Mike Muscala. PF Pero Antic and SG Ken Bazemore also see some minutes but Budenholzer seems to be relying more on his starters the further Hawks go into the playoffs.

The Cavs aren't seeming to miss a beat without Love and I don't think the Hawks are the team that can stop James from reaching his fifth straight NBA Finals. I think that the Hawks have the players to limit some of the contributions Cleveland's less heralded guys had against Chicago but the Hawks rely so heavily on some of their chuckers that I think that will be their undoing in this series. Cleveland will reach their first NBA Finals since 2007, and move one step closer to adding another heartbreaking chapter to their sports history.

Prediction: Cavaliers over Hawks, 4-2

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

2015 NBA Playoffs - Western Conference Finals

#1 Golden State Warriors vs. #2 Houston Rockets

Both the Warriors and Rockets faced adversity in the Conference Semi-Finals, but overcame series deficits to reach the Western Conference Finals. After losing two straight to Memphis to go down 2-1, the Warriors ripped off three wins in a row, including two on the Grizzlies homecourt. The Rockets appeared dead in the water after being blown out in LA two straight games, to go down 3-1 in that series. But they won Game 5 at home and then overcame a 19 point deficit in the third quarter at LA to win Game 6, before dominating the Clippers in Game 7 to close out the series.

This series will pit two of the best players in the game right now on opposite sides. You have the Warriors MVP point guard Steph Curry and then you have the Rockets team MVP shooting guard James Harden. Harden has been blasted in the past for his lack of defense, but he will be forced to work on the defensive end when he faces up against Klay Thompson. If not Thompson is going to kill the Rockets. The difference maker in this series will be which Dwight Howard shows up for Houston. Howard will have the definite matchup advantage against Andrew Bogut and if he has some of that old Dwight in him he could be downright dominant. The other matchups are pretty even as Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala will be mixing it up with Trevor Ariza, Josh Smith and Terrence Jones.

Both teams have mostly settled on an 8 man rotation in the playoffs and for the Rockets, guards Pablo Prigioni and Corey Brewer have provided valuable minutes. Golden State gets strong bench minutes from PG Shaun Livingston and Iguodala. David Lee is a shell of his former self and plays limited minutes off the bench, so any contribution he makes this series would be a bonus.

The strong defense of the Memphis Grizzlies wasn't enough to beat Golden State and if Houston tries to just outscore Golden State they have no prayer of winning this series. The Rockets are not a very good defensive team outside of Ariza and Howard, and as mentioned above Howard isn't the player either offensively or defensively that he used to be. Houston will certainly give the Warriors a challenge and I think they can definitely steal one game at Oracle Arena, but I can't picture them having the personnel necessary to take four games from Golden State. If they had the Howard of 2009 then I might be tempted to pick them but Harden alone isn't enough to beat a team as good and well coached as Golden State. The Warriors will win this series and reach their first NBA Finals in 40 years.

Prediction: Warriors over Rockets, 4-2

Monday, May 4, 2015

2015 NBA Playoffs - Eastern Conference Semi-Finals

#1 Atlanta Hawks vs. #5 Washington Wizards

The Wizards had a week of rest before starting this series against while Atlanta, while the Hawks had just one day of rest. It showed late in yesterday's game when Washington pulled away from Atlanta late to take Game 1 on the road and immediately wrest homecourt advantage away from the Hawks.

Atlanta received balanced offense from their starters in Game 1, but almost nothing from their bench. Drew Gooden and Otto Porter Jr. have been magnificent for Washington coming off the bench in these playoffs and continued that yesterday. The Hawks are known for being a good defensive team but yesterday only were able to force six Wizards turnovers. The Wizards managed to win yesterday despite getting 0 points from Nene as Bradley Beal led the way with 28 points. Beal and Wall both battled through injuries yesterday and their health is obviously tantamount to the Wizards continuing their strong play. Paul Pierce continued to be brilliant for Washington, scoring 19 points even if he was jacking up a few too many threes yesterday. Marcin Gortat struggled to keep up with Al Horford on the boards and that is something to watch as the series progresses.

Washington also can't continue to count on Kyle Korver to struggle like he did in Game 1, shooting just 3 of 11 from three point range. Jeff Teague had his moments in Game 1 but will need to play much better the rest of the series for Atlanta to overcome Washington. All of the Hawks struggled with their shot yesterday, and while some of that might have been heavy legs, credit has to be given to the Wizards defense, which has been superb all year. Pierce had no answer defensively for the Hawks DeMarre Carroll yesterday and Carroll has been Atlanta's best player in these playoffs. Randy Wittman will try to find more ways to put Porter on Carroll, as he has a much better chance of keeping up with him than Pierce.

The Wizards are about equal to Atlanta when it comes to starting five talent. Atlanta's regular season record was much better, and a lot of that has to do with the edge in coaching the Hawks have with Mike Budenholzer over Wittman. However, to Wittman's credit, he is on a pretty hot streak right now when it comes to coaching decisions and he has Washington playing their best basketball at the right time. With Pierce in tow and with how shaky Atlanta has looked in the playoffs, I think the Wizards take a leap from next year and reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

Prediction: Wizards over Hawks, 4-3

#2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. #3 Chicago Bulls

Cleveland got past the upstart Boston Celtics in four games in Round 1 but it came with a heavy price. They lost Kevin Love for the rest of the season with a separated shoulder and JR Smith is suspended for the first two games of this series after a dirty play he committed in the Game 4 clincher. Chicago beat Milwaukee in six games, and you never knew which Bulls team would show up from game to game. They laid a huge stinker at home in Game 5, then came back and obliterated Milwaukee on the road in Game 6 to close out the series.

This is easily the best series of the Conference Semi-Finals, mostly due to the insane amount of talent that each team has. The Cavs Kyrie Irving will do battle with Derrick Rose at point guard. For the first two games it will likely be Iman Shumpert starting in place of Smith, going against the incredibly improved Jimmy Butler. LeBron James and Mike Dunleavy will theoretically match up, but I expect Tom Thibodeau to throw many different players on LeBron throughout the series. Tristan Thompson will see his minutes jump with the absence of Love and hell, maybe even Kendrick Perkins' corpse will be exhumed for this series as the Cavs try to fight the size of Chicago's bigs Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Cavs center Timofy Mozgov will likely rotate defensively against Noah and Gasol.

You can't tell me that not having Love for this series or Smith the first two games won't have an affect on Cleveland. James is easily the best player in the league and obviously his presence is most important, but Love and Smith aren't chopped liver. Chicago shows signs of easily being the best team in basketball and then other times looks completely average. A main reason for that inconsistency is Rose's inconsistency. Rose has struggled when he gets a lack of rest between games, and his will is going to be tested in this series that is mostly one night on, one night off. But what has changed about Chicago is that it isn't just Rose anymore. Butler can score and Gasol can score, not to mention their bench options like Kirk Hinrich, Aaron Brooks, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic.

With Love and Smith available for all potential seven games, I would probably pick the Cavs. But I think the Bulls will steal a game in Cleveland to start the series and then make Cleveland play catch up the rest of the way, before ultimately stealing another game in Cleveland in the deciding seventh game, and causing the city of Cleveland another torturous sports moment.

Prediction: Bulls over Cavaliers, 4-3

2015 NBA Playoffs - Western Conference Semi-Finals

#1 Golden State Warriors vs. #5 Memphis Grizzlies

The Warriors had to fight and claw but were able to dispatch the New Orleans Pelicans in four games and will be well rested for this series. The Grizzlies got past Portland in five, but it came with a steep price as point guard Mike Conley suffered a facial injury and it is unknown when he will be back.

Conley's absence means Steph Curry will see a mix of Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih guarding him. The Grizzlies finished with the second best defense in the NBA in points allowed per game, and it will take a peak defensive effort from guys like Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to slow down the Warriors offense. The Warriors are all about getting their points with jump shots, which could be a problem for Memphis as their best defense resides more in the paint. Grizzlies SG Courtney Lee will be tasked with trying to contain Curry's fellow splash brother, Klay Thompson.

So while Golden State has the advantage at the guard position, the Grizzlies have the personnel to match up with Golden State inside. Randolph and Gasol are rebound and scoring machines, and Allen remains on of the best defenders in the NBA. Position wise Allen would be guarding Harrison Barnes or Draymond Green, but I wouldn't be surprised if Memphis puts Allen on Curry or Thompson from time to time. Bench wise, neither team is particularly deep but has some big name players, as the Grizzlies deploy Vince Carter off their bench, while the Warriors have Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston as their main reserves.

It's a shame Conley likely won't play this series because having him in the lineup makes a huge difference for Memphis. Even without him, the Grizzlies are highly talented and have a lot of veteran players that have played in these big spots. They will give the Warriors all they can handle and unlike New Orleans they will actually break through and win a couple games. However, it won't be enough as I expect the Warriors to not lose a game at home in this series and eventually finish off Memphis in six.

Prediction: Warriors over Grizzlies, 4-2

#2 Houston Rockets vs. #3 Los Angeles Clippers

Houston beating Dallas in the First Round wasn't a surprise, it was with the relative ease that they did it. The Clippers had their coming of age series victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in a thrilling seven games. Chris Paul was crying and the Clippers were celebrating like they won the NBA Finals. Will they have anything left in the tank against a superb Rockets team?

The Rockets begin and end with James Harden but the key to their improved play this season is the defensive focus that coach Kevin McHale has been able to instill in them. They have also been well served by the addition of Trevor Ariza this season. Dwight Howard missed a ton of time this season, but the Rockets didn't miss a beat. Now, Howard appears to be rounding back in form, playing his usual heavy minutes and adding both offense and defense. Terrence Jones was another Rocket that missed significant time this season, but is getting healthy and adding an extra dimension to the Rockets offensive attack. Veterans Jason Terry and Cory Brewer share time at shooting guard, and Josh Smith has been an excellent in-season pick up. Starting point guard Patrick Beverley is out for the season, so the only true point guard the Rockets employ is Pablo Prigioni.

Paul is likely to have a strong series since because of the Rockets lack of options at point.  He comes into the series nursing some injuries, and may miss Game 1, but once he is back he will smoothly reinsert himself into things. The more fascinating matchups will take place inside with Howard battling Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Matt Barnes is the Clippers crazier, louder version of Ariza, but the Rockets don't have a sharpshooter quite like J.J. Redick. The Clippers bench has been much maligned this season for how much depth it lacks. Jamaal Crawford is excellent and what made one of the differences in the Clippers/Spurs series was the emergence of Austin Rivers. Glen Davis gives the Clippers some decent minutes off the bench, but he always seems to be getting knicked up.

The Rockets and Warriors seem destined to meet and to me are clearly the two best teams in the West. The Clippers expended so much to get past the Spurs and the turnaround will be quick for this series, so I instantly think they start from behind. Their lack of depth will hurt them more against Houston, as the Rockets trend younger than San Antonio. Harden and Howard will lead the Rockets to the ultimate showdown with the Warriors.

Prediction: Rockets over Clippers, 4-2