(1) Boston Celtics vs (4) Washington Wizards
Michael: Games one and two of the first round had everyone jumping on the “Celtics are the worst overall number one seed the Association has ever seen” train.
Since then, the Celtics have looked better, with some hitches to figure out in a hurry before the Wizards series. However, don’t expect the Celtics to look the same in the second round. In game two of that series, Boston shot 30% from three and the Bulls shot 40% on 33 and 25 shots respectively. Those numbers are normally reversed. Blame what you will, D Wade’s always incredible playoff abilities, Rondo’s resurgence, the Bulls continued TNT dominance, or simply poor execution on both sides of the ball from the Celtics, but those numbers and those types of games are not something commonplace for Boston and they proved it in the next 4 games.
The Wizards looked pedestrian at times during their matchup with Atlanta, specifically Marcin Gortat. Scott Brooks got out-coached in multiple games and Dennis Schroder showed he is a true NBA talent with a consistent and impressive showing in all 6 games of the series, posting a 126 offensive rating. All that being said, John Wall had a playoff game that has only ever been matched by MJ. Wall also had a dunk that is officially one of my favorite trash talk moments ever. When he was inside of the arc, Bradley Beal was a legitimate second option on offense (shot only 30% from 3 for the series), and the supporting cast played well enough to win games against a team with Bazemore, Hardaway Jr. and a depleted Dwight Howard in the starting lineup.
With both teams through to the next round, here are the keys to the Celtics vs Wizards.
John Wall: I am growing tired of talking about John Wall in the vein of “maybe he will be great.” John Wall has to be great the rest of the playoffs for his team to win a single game. And he has to be great on BOTH sides of the court. His offensive talent is not up for debate. Even with a 32% usage rate, his offensive rating is 111 in the playoffs, with a player efficiency rating of 25.9; this puts him above Kyrie, Lillard, Schroder, Parker and IT. He is 3rd in value over replacement in the playoffs and is shooting 41% from three…yeah, 11% higher than his backcourt companion Bradley Beal. His case is closed for being an offensive powerhouse. But as the adage goes, offense sells seats while defense wins championships. With the defense Wall has been playing, the Wizards will win 0 championships. Wall has all the tools necessary to be the best two way point guard in the league. He is always the quickest player on the court, his hands are incredible, he has a decent rim protector behind him in Gortat and his play on offense exhausts the other point guard. Yet, the person Wall guarded for the majority of the series against Atlanta, Dennis Schroder, was arguably the best player for Atlanta 4 out of the 6 games. It was Washington’s strategy to make Schroder beat them, but this is not excusable for Wall. If he guards Isaiah Thomas the same way he guarded Schroder, Boston will bring out brooms.
The Bradleys: The alliteration aside, Bradley Beal and Avery Bradley are going to be focal points for both of their teams. Beal has to shoot better from behind the arc for the Wizard’s offense to be effective. He also has to attack the paint more often, with no real rim protector on the Celtics’ roster. Avery Bradley, who is becoming the golden standard for a two way guard, has the undeniably difficult task of intermittently guarding Wall and Beal to make up for IT’s lack of a defensive presence. But Bradley has proven he is more than capable throughout the season and might be the best suited guard in the league to shut down John Wall. Side note, Bradley is shooting 40% from 3 in the playoffs, 10% higher than Beal.
The Paint: While the three point line is the most talked about area in the NBA, this series will draw a lot of attention to the paint. Al Horford, Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk are not known for their post defense. If the Wizards can exploit this shortcoming, they could put up some serious field goal efficiency. On the other end, Gortat is a post presence, but could be pulled out of the paint if Horford is able to hit threes or get his typical touches at the top of the arc.
This series will come down to who establishes their strengths more effectively. Neither team wants to fall into the other’s’ pace and style of play. The Wizards averaged 6 more possessions per game than the Celtics, so expect them to push the tempo. The Wizards will also have to exploit the Celtics major weakness: rebounding. If the Wizards can out rebound the Celtics in double digits, it may swing the series closer to their side. Yet, I expect the Celtics overall efficiency, which is 7 points higher than the Wizards, to shine through in the series. Look for IT to have a crazy series on offense, Gortat to own the paint and rebounding, Avery Bradley to be a two way superstar, and John Wall to decide if he is a truly great player on both sides of the ball.
Prediction: Celtics in 6
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Toronto Raptors
Tommy: Ever since Cleveland overcame consecutive losses to the Raptors in Toronto during the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and then Toronto made a couple of solid moves to sure up their roster to better deal with the Cavs, it felt like these two teams were on a crash course to meet again. That is, until the Bucks blew the doors off the Raps in Milwaukee to take a 2-1 lead, and one of worst pairings they could have drawn looked like it could topple Toronto and storm on to the next round. Give Dwane Casey credit, he made very sound adjustments and the Raptors even looked dominant in the close out game until they nearly fell apart to send the series back to Canada. There were times when Cleveland also looked vulnerable, but the difference was they found a way to win everytime.
Now that those series are completed, and Kyle Lowry can rest his back, it is important to get on track for this series. Stop and consider that Toronto replaced Luis Scola with Serge Ibaka for a second. Ibaka hasn’t replicated the best performances of his OKC years in Toronto, but the Raptors stole 2 games off Cleveland with Scola averaging 13 minutes per game and a -13 Net Rating; for over a quarter of each game, the Raptors were working with a double-digit handicap. In addition to Scola, Valanciunas and Biyombo had no chance when the Cavs went 5 wide and shot the lights out. By the end of the series, Cleveland averaged 29 3PA’s that went in at a 38.9% clip for 34 points per game.The Ibaka trade, as well as acquiring P.J. Tucker and drafting Pascal Siakam, gives Toronto a much better chance to counteract Cleveland’s 3 point arsenal.
Most people still wonder how the Raptors won those 2 games. Of the 4 Factors, the 2 that jumped out in both victories were turning the ball over less than 10% of their possessions, and having an Offensive Rebound Rate 24% or higher. The pace of the wins didn’t top 85 possessions, and only one of their losses was lower than 90. Kyle Lowry’s eFG% jumped from 30.4 in the first 2 losses to 77.2 in the 2 wins, then regressed to a more reasonable 57.4% in the final 2 losses. Furthermore, 2 games jump off the page for Lowry: in Games 1 & 5, when the series was balanced, he gave the ball away on over a quarter of his possessions. Of any single player, Lowry arguably holds the most important key in the series. One version is off balance and frantically trying to make things happen, and another is a two-way force outplaying Kyrie Irving on both ends.
Every team in the east that is serious about their chances of stopping LeBron James’ manifested cakewalk to the Finals does their best to add a designated guy to provide resistance to the King with as little help defense as possible. DeMarre Carroll was thought to be that guy, and then he definitely wasn’t that guy. James ripped the Raps, posting a 66.5 eFG%, 35 AST% and an Offensive Rating of 132 points/100 possessions. Even though Carroll couldn’t be considered 100% last year, Toronto jumped at the opportunity to add P.J. Tucker to the roster as another option to throw at James. Giannis Antetokounmpo displayed some weaknesses LeBron obviously does not have in Round 1, and still worked Carroll and Tucker for a monster series. The only difference I see in the Raptors’ chances on defense is the aforementioned ability to better guard the shooting prowess of Love and Frye, but if LeBron still demands a double team that advantage will be mostly nonexistent. James powered the Cavs past the Pacers with inefficient help from a struggling Kyrie Irving. Irving tossed up a subzero 21.9% from 3 and nearly turned the ball over as many times as he threw an assist. Kyrie’s first round Usage Rate compares to that of the series against the Raptors last year, but his eFG% was 6% lower and his AST% was 10% lower. Most of all, Irving’s Net Rating against Indiana was a -18 (he was particularly bad in Games 1 & 3, and wasn’t on the floor for the Cavs massive comeback in Game 3), compared to +8 against the Raptors in ‘16.
The 2016 Eastern Conference Finals was a funky series. The Raptors were two wins away from facing the Warriors in the Finals, and beat the Cavaliers by 15 in Game 3. The Cavaliers’ average margin a victory was 28.5 points. A stat like that writes fluky all over a 4-2 series and is hard to ignore. The Raptors won the only close game of the series in Game 4 when, down the stretch, the Cavs missed multiple wide open 3s, Patterson and Biyombo grabbed offensive rebounds, and Biyombo illegally held Tristan Thompson from contesting a Lowry lay in that pushed the lead to 6 with 23 seconds left. Biyombo juiced Toronto’s much needed offensive rebounding with a monster 8 tally in the Game 3 win, hauled down 3 in the Game 4 win, and is no longer on the team. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect any great team to come out flat for a half, and then not claw their way back; that was Game 3 to me last year, and I expect at least one of those out of the Cavs this year. I also give the Raptors enough credit to win at least win 1 game because they are that good. Problem is Toronto is an inconsistent offensive team, and Cleveland is a better version of that. In the other 4 games I expect LeBron to draw switches in the 3-1 PNR, torment the post, and set up teammates to make double-digit 3 pointers in very similar fashion to last year.
Prediction: Cleveland 4-2
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (3) Houston Rockets
Tommy: The Spurs beat the Rockets by 6 in the teams’ second meeting of the season, and that 6 points was triple the margin of victory in any of the other 3 games during the regular season. Their identities are nothing alike, but produced a deadlocked series spread out over 4 months. Now, as they cycle between locations not even 200 miles apart, San Antonio and Houston will engage in another series which will be determined in no more than 2 weeks. We’re treated to a successive MVP battle, and the second Popovich vs. D’Antoni playoff dual since the benches-clearing Suns/Spurs grudge match a decade ago.
The Spurs haven’t advanced past the second round since they won the whole damn thing in 2014. Popovich declared Kawhi Leonard the best player in the league after San Antonio finally managed to scratched a data-driven Memphis team from the 2017 Playoffs bracket. Pop’s controversial statement didn’t necessarily turn heads, and it shouldn’t. Leonard’s #1 spot is a toss up, but certainly not absurd. Leonard provided late game heroics against the Grizzlies, and has seriously started to morph his offensive game into a slightly less explosive third coming of MJ. So they have maybe the best player right now, and maybe the best coach of all time, they have their typical cast of shrewd role players, and LaMarcus Aldridge… they still looked mortal against a Memphis team giving major minutes to a only slightly insane Vince Carter, James Ennis, Jamychal Green and Wayne Selden.
Looking back to the last couple Spurs eliminations, what killed the giant that has Eastwooded the West in the post-Jordan era? In the final 2 losses against the ‘15 Clippers, and final 3 losses against the ‘16 Thunder, San Antonio’s Defensive Rating coincidentally spiked to 115 in both series. These defensive breakdowns came from Spurs squads that ranked as a top 3 defense giving up less than 100 pts/100 possessions in the regular season, and had the defensive player of year. While Kawhi is somewhat of a longshot for DPOY this time around, 2017 doesn’t feel far from the losing scenarios of those last 2 years: San Antonio finished with the best Defensive Rating in the league, but even let Memphis’ 12th-worst offense jack up their Defensive Rating from a 97.3 in the first 2 games, to a 118.1 in the next 4. It’s not all that surprising that the Spurs elite regular season defense doesn’t stand up in the playoffs. There is considerably less time to game plan and adjust during the regular season and they defend offenses of the Orlando Magic’s caliber (don’t forget the Magic beat the Spurs by 12 back in November) on a more regular basis; but even moreso, defending the likes of Paul, prime Griffin, Westbrook, and KD with Parker, David Lee or West, Gasol, a retiring Duncan, and Ginobili is bound to get exploited eventually, even when they have Kawhi.
This year it’s James Harden, turned Manu Nash, playing the slightest bit of actual basketball in between a never-ending 3 point shooting contest. San Antonio managed to hold Houston far below their average 3P% at 29.2%, but the Rockets hadn’t traded for Lou Williams before the first 3 (lowest scoring) matchups yet. Part of the Spurs strategy was to remove Harden’s teammates, switch a lot of ball screens, and make Harden beat them by himself. Harden put up an 2 extra shots than his average, and Houston averaged 2 fewer 3PA’s than their collective average. I mostly like this strategy against Harden because he can be indecisive attacking a big, and it slows the game down. That being said, I don’t find it to be a reliable strategy against one of the premier offensive talents in the league for consecutive games. It will be up to Danny Green and Kawhi to mix it up so Harden doesn’t get comfortable.
The Spurs shot themselves back into games after allowing the Rockets to build some big leads in the regular season match-ups, which underscores the nature of this matchup: Houston shot the most 3’s this season, and the Spurs made the highest percentage of 3 point attempts. The Rockets will put up a lot of points during some stretch of the game, but fully putting games away when they rely on some shaky looks (highest percentage of unassisted 3PM), officials blowing whistles for foul-seeking ventures (Houston’s 23.8% of points from FTs in the 1st Round was nearly 2% higher than the Raptors 2nd-highest proportion), and a weaker overall team defense quickly turns into a massive gamble against the best Clutch team in the league. San Antonio walked away with 3 wins to 1 loss in the regular season, but there were plenty of plays down the stretch that could have swung in Houston’s favor, and it’s unlikely the Spurs will get every break again. It’s the type of series that could be very close, but end in 5 games, or there could be massive blowouts and it goes 7. Gamble considered, I expect Houston’s offense to eventually be too much for San Antonio’s defense to really control, and in a sign of the times, we’ll see another elimination of the “ageless wonders”
Prediction: Houston 4-3
(1) Golden State Warrior vs (4) Utah Jazz
Michael: I loved watching the Utah vs LA series over the last week and a half. The Jazz showed incredible resolve after losing the very possible defensive player of the year, Rudy Gobert, on their first offensive set of the playoffs. Gobert was out for 3 games and the Jazz still managed to win the first of the three games. Winning in the first round will be a continuous thing for the Jazz so long as they keep their core of players. Sadly, their second round matchup is against the Golden State Warriors.
If you take a quick look at the Warriors stats in the playoffs this season it reads something like: GSW is first, second or third in all the positive statistics. This was with Durant only playing in two of the four games in the first round. Given, the Trailblazers were not the most formidable opponent, they are still an NBA team that made the playoffs in the West. The Warriors are coming off of a whole weeks rest, while the Jazz will get May Day off, and then have to play again. The Vegas odds of the Utah Jazz winning a 7 game series against the Warriors are effectively 0.
If you go through the lineups for both teams, player by player, I only see an advantage at Center for the Jazz. George Hill has played very well this season, but he is not Steph Curry. Hood could make things difficult for Klay, but Klay is definitely going to make things difficult for Hood. Gordon “The Hair” Hayward is stupidly underappreciated by the league, while averaging 24 points per game on 16 shots, with 45% 3 point shooting in the playoffs. Hopefully, Hayward is able to give Durant a run for his money, but I am not holding my breath. Draymond wins no matter who plays against him for the Jazz, probably in this case, Derrick Favors. The saving grace could be Gobert vs Zaza or “Shaq a fool” McGee, but even that dominant position win for the Jazz is marginal at best. And then we have the benches. Utah, depending upon who starts, has Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles, Boris Diaw and Neto/Exum. While all of those are capable players, with Johnson and Diaw having a good deal of playoff experience, they pale in comparison to the GSW bench. Andre Iguodala is arguably the sixth man of the year, Shaun Livingston (if he plays ) is unguardable by any Jazz bench player; if Livingston can’t play, well, GSW just plays Ian Clark who is raining threes this season at 37%. Not to mention David West, who is often forgotten in their rotation.
All that to say, the Warriors are the far superior team and they win this series. Overall, I think the Jazz have the pieces to win a game or two, probably at home as winning in Oracle is no small task.
Prediction: Warriors in 5