The NBA Conference Finals - Key Match-Ups
QUEENS, NY – When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. At least in this case, “you” happens to be most of the NBA universe and fandom. Four teams opened the regular season. It’s more than coincidence these exact four teams happen to represent the finalists for the Larry O’Brien trophy. The Houston Rockets host the defending champion Golden State Warriors, a favorite to carry through for another run at the title. The Warriors seem unbothered, and confident. The Boston Celtics look to break LeBron’s 8th consecutive run to the Finals, hosting his Cleveland Cavaliers. Chris Paul has finally eclipsed playoff woes, reaching the conference finals. James Harden has an opportunity to rewrite his narrative after forgetting how to play basketball in last season’s elimination game against the Spurs. The up-start Boston Celtics have just about won the NBA season, more so than the 76ers. A series win over the Cavaliers would cap off an incredible season, even without hoisting the Finals trophy. Losing both star players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward – young phenomes Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Scary Terry have uplifted the city of Boston all year. The younger players have been surrounded by intelligent, willing, and scrappy veterans. The Celtics are poised to make a serious run to the Finals. Let’s breakdown the low-key match-ups that should make a difference within these series.
Chris Paul vs GSW Front-court – Chris Paul will need to capitalize on the screen & roll. The best play in the NBA at the moment is a James Harden screen for CP3. According to Second Spectrum, the Rockets score 1.25 points per play when Harden sets a screen for Paul, first in the league as the playoffs have carried on. The Warriors have several 5/4s capable of holding down the paint. He must find a way to capitalize on those possessions, valuable points for the Rockets. If CP3 has McGee or Pachulla switch on him on those ensuing plays, he’s quick enough to convert. He may find trouble with Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala when Kerr inserts the death lineup or decides to play small-ball. They are both quick enough with long strides and active hands to maintain the dribble drive or CP3 dribble maneuvers. Another interesting caveat, Klay Thompson has only fouled James Harden three times on a possession since February 2016. The Rockets backcourt has to be aggressive with the basketball, causing GSW perimeter defenders to pick up early foul trouble on the dribble drive. They’ll shoot the three-ball, but it’s imperative they attack the basket. It’ll make life easier throughout the game. Taking the Warriors offensive efficiency this season into consideration – it’s at 120.4 with Curry, 112.2 this season. Without Curry it is 106.1, and the Rockets full season also sits at 112.2. Steph Curry must be forced to defend the basketball as the Rockets seek early foul trouble. Their defense starts on offense.
Steph Curry vs Rockets Front-court – The Rockets defense should maintain Curry coming off any screenplay. When he receives a screen from KD, they score 1.24 points per play. This is good for second in the league behind only the Rockets. The Warriors’ offensive efficiency this season sits at 135.3 when Harden defends Durant. Against the Warriors this season, Harden has given up 3-8 shooting against Klay Thompson and 11-23 against all other Warriors. Houston should be able to keep up with the pace and space. Curry should have difficulty scoring the basketball on those possessions. In this case, he’ll receive PJ Tucker, Trevor Ariza, Mbah a Moute, or Eric Gordon on the opposite end. These are capable defenders; stronger, lengthy, and just as quick. The Rockets need to protect the paint and run the Warriors off the three-point line. They want to produce a contested two, giving them an opportunity to score in transition and capitalize on high-percentage opportunities. Rinse and repeat. Capella will have to step up on the defensive end, they cannot get beat at their own game. He’s done a solid job of rim protecting and defending the paint this postseason. His 2.8 blocks per is the most among remaining players. Once the primary scorer has been neutralized under the three-point line, The Rockets cannot allow lobs to the basket or swing pass for an open three. Crisp and quick defensive rotations should keep Houston in prime position to win the game. They’ll need to be consistent and convert on the other end, stifling GSW’s explosive shooting ability.
LeBron vs The Boston Celtics – LeBron now sits first in NBA history with the highest PPG – 33 years or older – with 34.3 PPG. Given perspective, only Michael Jordan (3x) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1x) are behind him to close the top 5. He is breathing rare air this season, entering a pantheon unseen by majority players to ever set foot on the NBA hardwood. Against the Boston Celtics – 4-2 all time in playoff series, winning the last four. He’s played 34 games, the most against any team in the playoffs. The Celtics have also had difficulty containing the King – he’s averaged 28.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists on 47.0 FG percentage. In the series against the Pacers and Raptors, Cleveland’s most used lineup included Hill, Smith, Korver, Bron, and Love. They’ve clocked in 110 minutes together, which is also 110 more minutes than the regular season. Cleveland’s most-used lineup is outscoring opponents by 41 points, third-best in the playoffs [ESPN/Get Up]. Point-Forward LeBron is usually on the floor with Kevin Love, on rare occasions with Nance or Thompson. That 4 position will be a nightmare for the Boston Celtics. They often have Baynes and Horford on the floor, Cleveland’s lineup will force them to play small-ball. LeBron has been logging heavy minutes throughout the playoffs, the Boston defense won’t have much opportunity to rest. He’ll either have Horford/Baynes on the perimeter in which he can shoot over or apply pressure on the dribble drive. The result will be a scored field goal, foul, or an open three once the defense collapses. Expect the Celtics to put Smart, Morris, and Brown on Lebron, even Tatum on occasion. There’s variety, size, and speed to the Celtic’s advantage. They are quick enough to help and recover. To their disadvantage, take note of their ability to play the passing lanes. It could be their Achilles heel as they look for easy points in transition. A futile steal attempt (often with the wrong hand/defensive position) breaks down the defense, leading to dunks and threes – momentum-shifting plays in the playoffs.
Photo Courtesy – Brian Babineau/NBA/Getty Images
Boston Celtics Wings vs Lebron James - The Boston Celtics must play the numbers. Similar to Rockets need to attack Steph Curry on the defensive end, they’ll need to do the same with LeBron. They need to maintain a high-level of physicality with the King and reinforce their defensive presence. Bump every cutter, especially LeBron when crossing the lane without the ball. After clinching the series against the 76ers, a candid Jayson Tatum expressed his lack of knowledge to defend or contain LeBron - where it begins and ends. Despite his brilliance this postseason late in his career, Bron has afforded some time off on the defensive end. His pace and speed slows as the game progresses, saving just enough to explode on the offensive end. He’s mastered this ability, reads the defensive scheme, and takes timely shot attempts. Tatum has blossomed this postseason, posting impressive numbers on the offensive end. A formidable and skillful scorer, he’ll have a few runs at LeBron. They must force him to defend, continue to move the ball on both sides of the floor. This action forces LeBron to be on the strong side and actively engaged on both ends throughout the game. Don’t anticipate much low-post action from Boston’s front-court against LeBron, although they will capitalize against other Cavs players. Screen-and-roll, pick-and-pop action will force Cavs players to rotate which isn’t there strong suit. Do anticipate ball movement to freeze and stun the Cavs defense.
The NBA conference finals are soon underway. Enjoy the games!