Catching up on the NBA Conference Finals
By: Jonathan Hammond SSW, Christian May-Suzuki SSW, Earl Ignacio CW
The NBA playoffs have been a tale of two wars with completely different outlooks. In the West, the Golden State Warriors — whose 73-9 regular season record is the best in NBA history — fought through the injury of MVP Stephen Curry, resulting in their early series against the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers going longer than expected. The Oklahoma City Thunder are flourishing with the emergence of their role players, and took down the vaunted San Antonio Spurs, who were considered by many to be the only true adversaries to Golden State. In the East, Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have dominated their opponents behind torrid three-point shooting. They now face the underdog Toronto Raptors, who’ve made their first conference finals appearance in team history by gutting out two consecutive seven-game series, despite some streaky shooting from their guards. Halfway through these series, we take a look back on what has transpired and look ahead to the rest of the series.
Eastern Conference Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors
Jon: At this point, it seems all the Drake sideline antics in the world could not help the Toronto Raptors. The Cavaliers have a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference and it is only getting tighter as they continue to dismantle opponents. Game two showed the Raptors cannot rely on outside shooting to bail them out, as they shot only 27.3 percent as a team from three-point land. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan cannot outplay the Cavaliers on their own. They need bench support as well as higher-caliber play from the other three starters, mainly on the boards. The Raptors are shooting close to 80 percent from the free throw line, so they need to be aggressive in getting to the line for easy points. One would hope now that the Raptors have returned home they can find an offensive rhythm and figure out a defensive strategy to carry with them for the remainder of the series. Cavs in 6
Christian: The Raptors have struggled to answer the sheer firepower of the Cavs. Scoring itself has been the primary issue for Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey’s squad — they could not even manage 90 points in this series in two of the three games — while the Cavs have continued to shoot the lights out, despite a poor outing from Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in game three. The Raptors simply won’t be able to outgun this Cavs team, so slowing the pace and covering the three-point line — beyond which the Cavs have converted over 150 times during the playoffs, including a playoff record four straight games of 15 or more shots made from beyond the arc — is essential for Toronto to stop the bleeding and extend this series. For the Cavs, getting Love more involved in the offense could help continue their hot shooting run. While Love scored 19 points in game two, he only took eight shots, and could benefit from touching the ball now and beyond this series. This is especially the case in situations such as game three, where Irving could not find his touch. This Cavs team on paper is far more talented than the Raptors, so if this shooting streak continues, there is not much Toronto can do to stop Lebron from making his sixth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. Cavs in 5
Earl: The Cavaliers have exploited the Raptors inexperience thus far, awarding them with two blowout victories in Cleveland. Although the Raptors are spoiled with offensive playmakers at the guard position, they have lacked the ability to consistently get open looks. Casey has used the high pick-and-roll as a staple of his offense for much of the season, however he must diversify his play calling as the Raptors are hovered just under 91 points per game thus far. The Cavaliers’ big three has been on a tear, and with the Raptors losing center Jonas Valanciunas in the semifinals, it will be interesting to see if Toronto can impose an offense that can contend with Cleveland’s firepower. Toronto must assist their dynamic backcourt duo by increasing their floor spacing. With the Cavaliers’ offense humming at a frightening pace, Lebron James and Co. should have little problem reaching the NBA Finals for the second straight year. Cavs in 5
Western Conference Finals: Golden State Warriors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Jon: Russell Westbrook is playing at his expected high level, and there is no reason he should not be. Steph Curry is coming off of two different injuries that caused him to miss extended time in the playoffs, so Westbrook has the right idea to be aggressive whenever he sees Curry in front of him. Westbrook is also distributing the ball very well with 12 assists in both of the first two games, something he needs to continue to do in order to keep the Thunder’s offense fluid. Speaking of the Thunder’s offense, Kevin Durant’s shooting woes from early in the playoffs seem to be gone now, though he did put up 26 points off of 10-30 shooting night. However, the Warriors have been a solid team defensively all season long and Curry does not seem to have any problems offensively, putting up 26 and 28 points, respectively. The Warriors are deeper than the Pacific Ocean and the Thunder are going to have to get superior bench production in order to combat the Warrior’s depth. Warriors in 7
Christian: A split at Oracle bodes well for the Thunder, where the Warriors lost only two games all of the regular season. Throwing unconventional defensive looks led by Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka at Curry caused him to struggle immensely in game one, where he looked unusually passive and shot just 1-6 in the fourth quarter. The two-time MVP found his fire in game two on the way to a 27-point drubbing. In order for Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club to try and contain the Warriors offense and avoid another blowout, continuing to shake up the defense and throwing longer defenders to disrupt Curry’s space is crucial. On the other hand, the Warriors need to manage the minutes of Andrew Bogut more effectively. Bogut has played limited minutes thus far but has proven effective on the boards during his time on the court, helping the Warriors front court stand up to the two-center sets that Donovan continues to throw out. While the elevation of Russell Westbrook’s fourth quarter play and the strong play of the supporting cast makes the Thunder an explosive and dangerous team, the Warriors are on another level when they execute their gameplan. Warriors in 6.
Earl: What more can be said about Curry and the Golden State Warriors that hasn’t been already said? It’s hard to believe a team can beat the Warriors four times within seven games when they only lost nine times within 82 games. Don’t tell that to Russell Westbrook, though, as he has elevated his game in this playoffs to newfound levels. Westbrook’s renowned aggressiveness has been matched with the newly discovered hunger to dethrone the defending champs. Westbrook attacked the Warriors early and often, allowing his athleticism to dictate the pace of the game — a strategy that served useful with Curry nursing a knee injury. However, for the Thunder to truly reach new bounds, Westbrook’s late game decision-making must continue to improve. A formerly immature Westbrook would have played hero, opting to affect the game with his own superior talent as opposed to functioning within the team. This could be seen through the Thunder’s late game offensive collapses that often lead to isolations and contested late shot attempts during the regular season. With the Warriors’ offense being known to explode in short spurts, the limitation of defensive lapses is critical for the Thunder. Thankfully, despite Durant’s mediocre 26 points on 10-30 shooting in game one, he still managed to fluidly get to his spots. With key big men Ibaka, Kanter and Adams creating an imposing trio on the boards, the Thunder have enough ammo to compete against the Warriors’ vaunted small-ball lineup. To the delight of NBA fans, this series will likely come down to game seven, as we get to witness an electric battle between two dynamic offenses. Warriors in 7.