Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Tonight at 8:30 PM EST on ESPN, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors will face off in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavaliers come into this series having swept the Atlanta Hawks while the Toronto Raptors were extended to seven games by the Miami Heat. The Cavaliers are yet to have been seriously challenged in the playoffs while the Raptors have been pushed by both the Pacers and Heat.
For the Cavaliers, the key to this series is punching the Raptors in the mouth early and taking a 2-0 series lead. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love have all been fantastic in these playoffs and so far appear to be an unstoppable trio. If those three guys come out guns blazing and cruise to a 2-0 series lead, the Raptors will have a very difficult time believing in themselves after what they've been through in the first two rounds. It will be very easy for the Raptors to think they've gotten as far as they can should they go down 0-2.
If on the other hand, the Raptors get a split in Cleveland, they'll start to believe that they have what it takes to win this series. Whether they actually have what it takes to win the series may be another matter, but if they do have what it takes to win the series, they won't know they do unless they first believe in themselves.
I've already talked about the Cavaliers' trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, but I'm yet to talk about the Raptors "big three", which consists of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas. Lowry and DeRozan are both explosive players in the backcourt and Valanciunas is becoming one of the better big men in the NBA.
In Game 7 against the Heat, DeMar DeRozan went off for 28 points while Kyle Lowry exploded for 35 points. Those two players have the potential to take over a game and "go wild" in terms of putting up a bunch of points. When you tag-team them with a solid big man like Jonas Valanciunas, who averages 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, you suddenly have a very competitive team.
The big obstacle that the Raptors need to overcome is the ankle injury that Jonas Valanciunas sustained against the Heat. He won't play in Game 1 tonight and he is doubtful for Game 2. With Valanciunas out, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will have to combine for at least 60 points and get solid production from some of their role players like DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Bismack Biyombo, and Terrence Ross. That's not to say that the Cavaliers don't need their role players like J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Channing Frye to play well. They do, but not to the same extent that the Raptors do. If the Raptors want to win this series, their roll players will need to step up and give DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry the support that they need.
In terms of predicting the outcome of this series, I'm going to say that the Cavaliers win this series in five games. I believe the Raptors can win two games in this series, but the problem is that the Cavaliers will want to be as rested as possible for the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers know that the Warriors and Thunder are engaged in a fierce battle that likely goes seven games and they want to make sure that they go into the NBA Finals as the team that is fresher.
The sliver of hope for the Raptors is that they have two guys in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry who have what it takes to put up a bunch of points and get hot. If those two guys play their best basketball in four out of seven games, perhaps they can shock the world. I don't see it happening, but it's not impossible.
Monday, May 16, 2016
Tonight at 9:00 PM EST on TNT, the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder will square off in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The Warriors come into this series having taken out the Trail Blazers in five games while the Thunder stunned the Spurs in six games.
Even though the Warriors have been the best team in the NBA all season, the Thunder should not be taken lightly. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are one of the most dangerous duos in basketball and they have some really nice pieces around them in Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, and Dion Waiters. The Thunder are playing like a team on the verge of a major breakthrough and it's entirely possible that we will look back on their series against the Spurs as that "major breakthrough."
As for the Warriors, they have been the best team in the NBA all season and done so with historic success. After going down with an MCL sprain, Stephen Curry appears to be "back" after watching what he did to the Trail Blazers in Game 4 and Game 5. He absolutely murdered the Trail Blazers with his three-point shooting and made them look utterly helpless as he chucked up ridiculous shots from beyond the arc. Assuming he is able to play like this against the Thunder, it's hard to see the Thunder finding a way to win this series considering the weapons that Stephen Curry has around him (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, etc.)
One key to this series will be the health of Andrew Bogut, who has been dealing with an adductor strain. He is expected to play in Game 1 tonight, but his health will still be something to monitor. If he is unable to be effective in this series, Enes Kanter and Steven Adams will look to take advantage and pound the Warriors inside. While Andrew Bogut wasn't needed to beat the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals last season, his absence would be felt against a team like the Thunder who have two quality bigs.
Another key to this series will be Russell Westbrook and how the Warriors defend him. Will Draymond Green go on him? Will Harrison Barnes take him? Will Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, or Klay Thompson? The Warriors need to figure out a way to effectively guard Russell Westbrook and keep him out of the lane. Kevin Durant is hard to guard as well, but Durant isn't explosive like Westbrook is. The Warriors will really want to put the clamps down on Russell Westbrook and make life as difficult for him as possible.
What is so exciting about this series is that both teams have elite players that can takeover a game. Stephen Curry has the ability to single-handedly change the outcome of games with his ridiculous three-point shooting while Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are both able to impose their will on opponents and hit big shots. I expect a lot of games to be close in this series, which means that this series will come down to which players are able to be the most clutch.
In the end, I'm picking the Warriors to win this series in seven games. This will be a back and forth series with lots of changes and swings in momentum. The Thunder will give the Warriors all that they can handle, but I can't pick against the two-time MVP Stephen Curry and a Warriors team that won an NBA-record 73 games. The Thunder are certainly capable of winning this series, but to pick against the Warriors after what we've seen them do would just be disrespectful and foolish.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Tonight on TNT, the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat begin their second round series in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The Raptors come into this series having survived a seven-game scare against the Indiana Pacers while the Heat come into this series having played a seven-game series of their own against the Charlotte Hornets.
For the Raptors, it would have been disastrous to fall to the Pacers. Lord knows what the aftermath would have been. The media in Toronto would have rightfully questioned the mental fortitude of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry should they have gone down to the Pacers. As for the Heat, a loss to the Hornets wouldn't have been a big deal since Chris Bosh is out. Most people would have chalked up an exit to the Hornets as a result of his absence and the Hornets being a team on the rise.
If the Raptors want to win this series against the Heat, the main thing they need to do is hold serve at home. If the Raptors go down in Game 1 or Game 2, the Heat will have a tremendous amount of confidence in their ability to win the series since the Raptors will appear vulnerable. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas have to come out strong and confident as a trio. If they do, the Heat will have their work cut out for them. If they falter and don't play up to their maximum potential, the Heat will be in a prime position to pounce.
If the Heat want to win this series against the Raptors, they'll have to do whatever they can to get a game in Toronto and get in the Raptors' head. The Raptors are mentally fragile at the moment and the Heat know it. If the Heat can get a game in Toronto, they'll get in the Raptors' head big time and make them question themselves.
In addition, the Heat should really rely on their veteran playoff experience to win this series. Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem both have three championship rings and are very battle tested. Their veteran leadership made the difference in the series against the Hornets and I look for it to make a similar impact against the Raptors. Wade and Haslem know what it takes to win a seven-game playoff series while the Raptors are still figuring out how to do it.
With that all being said, I still have to pick the Raptors to win this series in seven games. It'll be a close series that will go back and forth, but at the end of the day, the Raptors will get this done. The Raptors should have some confidence from their series against the Pacers that will serve them well against the Heat. Even though the Raptors showed signs of mental frailty against the Pacers, they only bended as opposed to breaking.
Going through a tough series and surviving makes young teams like the Raptors stronger. I expect DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas to step up and deliver the goods for the lone Canadian city in the NBA. With a tough series under their belt, they now know they can win a playoff series. With that hurdle now cleared, I expect them to play with a lot more confidence and do what they've done all season, which is be the second best team in the Eastern Conference. Don't get me wrong, the Heat will challenge the Raptors and push them all the way. But in a Game 7 in the city of Toronto, I have to roll with the Raptors.
Monday, May 2, 2016
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks begin their second round series tonight on TNT. The Cavaliers come into this series having swept the Detroit Pistons while the Atlanta Hawks took care of the Boston Celtics in six games.
The biggest thing the Cavaliers need to do to win this series is get off to a good start and not let the Hawks believe they have a chance. If The Cavaliers win their opening two games in a dominant fashion with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love all playing well, the Hawks may be in over their heads and not believe they have much of a chance of winning the series. The Cavaliers have more weapons than the Hawks and probably the best player on the planet in LeBron James. If the Hawks get punched in the mouth early, it might be too much for them to overcome.
As far as at the Hawks are concerned, they need to be patient and not panic when things get tough. They need to trust in each other and win by having a balanced attack led by Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver. If all four of those guys get each other involved and all play well, the Hawks could have what it takes to upset the Cavaliers.
The Hawks have a really nice balance of inside-outside play that can give teams trouble. They have guards who can score from the perimeter, bigs who can rebound and score inside, and the ability to win in a variety of ways. They can pop threes; get to the line, etc.
However, the reality is that the Cleveland Cavaliers are the better team on paper and they've played like it all year. So long as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love stay healthy, the Cavaliers will be the best team in the Eastern Conference. As a matter of fact, they won the Eastern Conference crown last season with Kevin Love injured and unable to play. The truth is that so long as they have LeBron James healthy, they'll be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Ultimately, I have the Cavaliers winning this series in six games. I think the Hawks will win a couple of games in the series, but they won't take the Cavaliers to a Game 7. The Hawks certainly have the pieces to upset the Cavaliers, but the Cavaliers would have to really fall apart in order for an upset to occur. Barring a major surprise, the Cavaliers will win this series with relative ease.
Sunday, May 1, 2016
At 3:30 PM EST on ABC, the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers will begin the other second round series in the Western Conference. The Warriors come into this series having disposed of the Houston Rockets in five games while the Trail Blazers took care of the Los Angeles Clippers in six. It was expected that the Warriors make quick work of the Rockets, but it was not expected that the Trail Blazers would get past the Clippers. The Trail Blazers heavily benefited from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both going down for the series and to their credit, they capitalized.
In this series, the Trail Blazers may have caught another break in not having to deal with Stephen Curry right away. Curry went down in the Warriors' series against the Rockets with a sprained right knee and it is unclear when he'll be able to return. If the Portland Trail Blazers want any chance at upsetting the defending champions, they have to take advantage of Stephen Curry's absence early on in this series. The best way for them to do that will be through their potent back court composed of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. If both of those guys can go off for 25+ points each in this series, the Trail Blazers will have a chance to pull off the upset.
However, even without Stephen Curry, the Golden State Warriors are still the better team. With Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Andrew Bogut healthy, the Warriors have enough weapons to put away the Trail Blazers in five games. Stephen Curry really should not be needed until the Western Conference Finals. Make no mistake, the absence of Stephen Curry gives the Trail Blazers some daylight, but not enough daylight to make them the favorites in this series.
If there is anything that the Portland Trail Blazers should do to give themselves a chance at winning this series, it is to get big production from C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard while also getting some help from their role players. If guys like Allen Crabbe can score in double figures and get going a bit, that will really help improve the Trail Blazers' chances of winning this series.
As far as the Warriors are concerned, they need to overwhelm the Trail Blazers with all of their weapons and continue to play defense at a high level. The Warriors should still be able to play elite defense without Stephen Curry on the floor, which should in turn force a lot of turnovers and help them get out in transition, which is where they thrive. If the Warriors are able to use their defense as a catalyst to getting multiple guys going like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, this series will be over quick.
Ultimately, I have the Warriors winning this series in five games even with Stephen Curry out for an indefinite period of time. I respect the Portland Trail Blazers a lot for coming as far as they have on the heels of losing LaMarcus Aldridge to the Spurs. Terry Stotts deserved serious consideration for winning Coach of the Year for the way he has gotten his team to play in the face of everyone thinking they'd miss the playoffs. But, at the end of the day, I cannot pick against the defending champs in this series. They have too many weapons even without Stephen Curry and should this series get tight, odds are good Stephen Curry will find a way to play.