NBA Playoffs 2018: Conference Finals X-Factors
After a historic amount of player movement, a dramatic regular season and a thrilling first round of the playoffs, we’ve arrived at the conference finals with three of the same four teams who were here last year, seemingly on track for an NBA Finals rematch.
It’s all a little disappointing, and feels a little predictable. But on the other hand, if I was writing this a week and a half ago, I would have been pondering how the young Philadelphia 76ers matchup with the Toronto Raptors. Things change, and the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Boston Celtics still have to play the games.
Neither favorite has as clear an advantage as they did last year, and all four teams have one player who could make or break their trip to the NBA Finals.
Boston Celtics X-Factor: Aron Baynes
Matching up with the Cavs in the playoffs is a challenging dance. Their shooters kill you with finesse, playing your bigs off of the floor and shifting your focus to the perimeter.
Then, once you’ve gone small, LeBron James and Kevin Love punk you. They beat you up, stuff you in a locker, and leave you there until the next day, when your coach finds you and lets you out and you’re in such a disoriented flurry that you fire him.
Enter Aron Baynes, a man-bunned lunatic built like all of Australia. Baynes will not be punked. There is no locker on God’s green earth big enough to fit him. The only question is: can he stay on the floor?
He was fantastic against Philadelphia, and not just because of his silly, obviously unsustainable three-point shooting. He does the things that the Celtics’ best player, Al Horford, has always struggled to do against Cleveland. He’s physically imposing, he rebounds, and he really changes the dynamic for the Celtics in the paint.
If Horford can dominate Love-centric lineups, and Baynes can be a factor against Tristan Thompson, the Celtics may not win — but they won’t get punked. That’s a step in the right direction.
Cleveland Cavaliers X-Factor: J.R. Smith
The Cavs have blown through the playoffs the last three years due largely to their shooting. When they surround LeBron James with shooters, they’re almost impossible to guard.
But this Cavs team is a little….different. The team used to be so good that they could afford to play Channing Frye. But now Frye is gone, as is Kyrie Irving. Suddenly, getting up to four shooters to run with James has gotten a lot more challenging.
Entering the conference semi-finals, that task was nearly impossible, considering the struggles of shooting guard J.R. Smith. He shot 31 percent from three against the Indiana Pacers. When Smith isn’t making threes, he isn’t a useful NBA player.
Of course, against Toronto, that all changed — since nothing ever goes right for the Raptors — Smith took 13 threes and made 10 of them. It seemed like the Raptors were content to let Smith slip open, simply crossing their fingers and hoping he would miss. He missed three times all series.
The Celtics won’t be that stupid, and whoever is guarding Smith will be bigger and more athletic than him — something the Raptors couldn’t promise. But now that J.R.’s floodgates have been opened, will it be too late?
After his worst shooting season as a Cavalier last year, he caught fire in the playoffs and never looked back, shooting 50 percent from three over 18 games, including going seven for 15 from behind-the-arc in five games against the Celtics.
As soon as Smith started hitting shots against Toronto, it was clear which way the series was going. Cleveland can still win without a good series from Smith — but if he’s playing well, they’ll be pretty tough to beat.
Houston Rockets X-Factor: James Harden
Usually when discussing a team’s “X-Factor,” you don’t point to their best player, and the guy who is about to win his first MVP. Obviously, any team’s best player will have to perform at a high level in order for the team to succeed.
But when it comes to taking down the defending champion Golden State Warriors, boasters of two MVPs and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, the way Luc Richard Mbah A Moute and Trevor Ariza perform will only matter so much. When it comes down to it, Harden will have to slay the Warriors.
In five games against the Utah Jazz, Harden averaged 28 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists on a 54.7 True Shooting Percentage — good numbers, but a considerable step back from his MVP-level regular season, especially in his effectiveness as a scorer.
That won’t fly against Golden State. Obviously, the Rockets have to be able to put up a fight defensively. But against a team as loaded as the Warriors, there’s only so much you can do. If you want a real chance at winning, you have to match their historic offensive output.
If anyone is equipped to do that, it’s this year’s Rockets — but Harden will have to be nothing less than incredible.
Golden State Warriors X-Factor: Draymond Green
Draymond Green is more than the Warriors’ starting power forward and backup center. He is their engine. He’s sort of their point guard. And he is their emotional center.
When Green descends into chaos, so does the rest of the team. Everyone who watched the 2016 NBA Finals knows this.
The main reason the Warriors looked so underwhelming for much of this season was due to Green’s lack of engagement. Well, he’s engaged again, and he has been fantastic so far in the playoffs.
But as we learned back in 2016, the key to beating the Warriors is to push Green over the edge. Luckily for the Rockets, it isn’t necessarily that difficult. If Houston can get Green off-tilt, the Warriors become vulnerable.
If Green is confidently conducting the defense, making plays on offense, and talking trash to Chris Paul — the Warriors are unbeatable.