It is no secret that the Golden State Warriors would have preferred to play the Houston Rockets in the conference Finals. The Rockets are a better matchup, play the same pace and style, and aren’t a threat defensively. Everything the Warriors would have loved.
The San Antonio Spurs are a whole different ball game. They are bigger than the Warriors in the paint, are the second best defensive team when rested and have a mastermind coach who is one of the greatest playoff coaches in NBA history. Everything the Warriors would have loved to avoid.
It’s all about pace
Not like this is ideal for the Spurs in any way. The Warriors are massive upgrade on the Rockets. They space the floor with a deadlier three point shot, are the best defensive team when committed, and have four of the five best players in this series. There’s every reason this could get ugly for the Spurs.
As one would guess, this series is all about pace.
Both teams finished in the top 10 in offensive pace this season, but that number can be deceiving for the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard has been incredible this far in the postseason, and there is no reason to believe his contribution or efficiency slips.
However, without Leonard suiting up, the Spurs’ offensive efficiency falls to roughly league average. This isn’t about the Spurs’ system failing as it is about LaMarcus Aldridge (their second best player on paper) not showing up this season. Case in point is Game 6 of the Houston series where Alridge put up a vintage 34 points and 11 points in what would become one of the biggest blowouts in NBA history. All that, without Leonard.
Aldridge is a key to the Spurs’ success in this series. The Warriors know better than to let the ball into the post, but unless Zaza Pachulia is on the floor, every switch on defence puts a smaller defender on Aldridge. Sure, Draymond Green is statistically one of the best defenders in the paint, but he will have his hands full against Aldridge who, when in form, is a top-ten center in the NBA.
The next gen stars
Popovich has already put a ton of trust in his next gen stars. Jonathon Simmons and Dejounte Murray both had great stretches in the Houston series while Kyle Anderson who hasn’t played much this season, will probably play a bigger role considering he would be a great playmaking option if the Spurs decide to play small-ball.
The Warriors’ 8-0 start to the playoffs tells you all you need to know about their form. They have been exceptional, especially taking care of business against the defensively sound Utah Jazz. But that also means they are yet to be put to the test. The Spurs are the just the team for that.
Unlike the Rockets who gave the Spurs nightmares by running the pick-and-roll to near perfection, the Warriors prefer to rely on ball movement and running screens off-the-ball, both situations that the Spurs can contend with.
Green’s role in this series cannot be overstated. He is the core around which both the Warriors’ defence and offense moves. His effectiveness, however, will be tested every time the Warriors go small, forcing him to contend with Aldridge in the paint. Relief will come in the form of a constantly moving and evolving style of defence that is characteristic of the Warriors.
Mike Brown, a former assistant to Popovich, will have his hands full going up against his former head coach. He will have the fortune of having Steve Kerr at halftime in the locker rooms during home games, but the Warriors are giving up a significant advantage in the coach’s corner
Leonard’s injury is a huge blow for Spurs
It is an understatement that Leonard’s injury is a massive blow to the Spurs’ hopes of making it to the next round. The Spurs’ offense is a stagnant mess when he isn’t on the floor. Needless to say the Warriors ought to make the most of his absence and go up two or three games up.
All said and done, the Warriors are just way too stacked with talent to lose even against a healthy Spurs.
Prediction: Warriors in six.
LeBron is going to create history
Great news for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
They have not played a game in more than eight days, and it will be another two days before they suit up for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
LeBron James continued to shift his game to a new level with every round, and despite Boston having a ton of bodies to throw at him, I do not expect him to slow down. Kyrie Irving stepped up more in the second round while Kevin Love remained reliable and not spectacular. Both can hardly be blamed, since James willingly carried much of the load through the playoffs this far. Boston, though is a different beast, loaded with players to trouble both Irving and Love, taking them out of their comfort zone.
As expected, Boston’s defence is key here. The Cavaliers struggled against elite defensive teams during the regular season winning just 10 of their 28 games against the top-10 defensive teams.
What matters though is that Boston was not a top-10 defensive team during the regular season (they were 12th), and the Cavaliers won the regular season series between the two teams, 3-1.
Celtics have a mountain to climb
With a whole ten days of rest and preparation, everyone expects the series to be a bloodbath. After all, Boston got pushed to seven games by a resilient boisterous Wizards team that refused to go away. They get just two days of rest before they meet the reigning champions. They are far less talented than the Cavaliers. And their best player is a terrible defensive matchup against anyone on the Cavaliers.
But that expectation would be wrong.
While this series knocked the gas out of Boston, they showed the Cavaliers they aren’t to be trifled with. They won the series on pure heart, with a new hero in every win: Jae Crowder’s 24 points in Game 1, Avery Bradley’s 29 points in Game 5, Kelly Olynyk’s 26 points in Game 7, and of course Isaiah Thomas’ monster 53 points in Game 2. The Wizards were clearly the more talented team (on paper), and it would’ve taken a meaningful series from every Celtics to eke out a win. That is exactly what happened.
And that is exactly what will happen.
No, the Celtics will not beat the Cavaliers. But they will sure as hell make them sweat in their quest for a third consecutive Finals appearance
Prediction: Cavaliers in six.
Best of the second round:
Performance of Round Two: Isaiah Thomas, 53 points vs the Wizards.
Barely days after attending his sister’s untimely funeral, Isaiah Thomas, 5’8” put on one of the greatest performances in NBA playoff history. When the 24 points across three quarters was clearly not enough, Thomas put on his cape and exploded for 29 points in the fourth quarter and OT. The game reached another level with John Wall, finishing with 40 points and 13 assists.
Game of Round Two: San Antonio Spurs vs Houston Rockets, Game 5, 110-107 (OT)
What. A. Game.
Easily the best game of the playoffs this far. The Spurs had Leonard hobbling around after he twisted his ankle in the second half. That alone should have been enough to deflate a Spurs team that seemed to be punching above their weight at many points during this series. Instead, the Spurs rallied to weather the loss of their best player and played some of the best defence in the playoffs thus far including this historic block by a 39, yes 39-year old Manu Ginobili. This proved to the fortune the Spurs needed, as they thumped the Rockets by nearly 40 points in Game 6 to wrap up the series.
Player of Round Two: LeBron James, 36.1 points / 8.3 rebounds / 5.3 assists, 57%-48%-83%
It really is hard to pick anyone but James. He is been the best player in the 2017 NBA playoffs thus far, and there isn’t anyone who is a close second. There was a general sense of woe around him this postseason: He has played too many minutes, his team barely finished with 50 wins, they finished the season abysmally going 23-23 over their last 46 games. None of that matters. The Cavaliers swept their first two opponents for the second straight season. And no matter how you look at it, the head of the beast is LeBron James. He is now in that phase of his career where he understands the difference between a regular season game and a playoff series, eerily reminiscent of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. That he should get an MVP for every season he is healthy is an understatement.
Team of Round Two: San Antonio Spurs, beat the Houston Rockets 4-2
How do you get blown out by 27 points in Game 1, and then blowout your opponent by 25 in Game 2? How do you win a Game 5 in OT with your best player on the bench? How do you close out a series with your best player out? How do you dish out a 39 point thumping to win the series in Game 6? How do you win a series that everyone (including yours truly) thought you would lose?
Ask the 2017 San Antonio Spurs.