Be it due to injury, fears of mosquitoes carrying Zika Virus or just summer vacation, big names continue to drop from the once-astonishing Men’s National Team roster. Just this past week, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have taken their names out of consideration for the 12-player squad looking for another gold medal in Rio this summer.
In January I mused about the potential this team had to rival the 1992 Dream Team in talent and star power with my proposed final roster. I revised it a couple months later after Anthony Davis got hurt and Chris Paul pulled out. Just take a look at what could have been, before we get into picking the actual, more watered-down (h/t Tracy McGrady) roster:
It’s been a long week of analyzing the NBA – check out my various posts on Hashtag Basketball and BSN Denver – so I’m going to approach this with the same intensity the Warriors approached Game 3.
On Tuesday I wrote about three ways the Cavs could make this series interesting. It boiled down to playing bully ball, containing the Splash Brothers and jumping out to a big early lead. Not to toot my own horn but all three of these things happened and the Cavs blew out the Warriors 120-90. After losing by 33 in Game 2, the Cavs improbably turned the tables with a 63-point swing. This was great for the Cavs’ chances in the series, but awful for fans of NBA basketball. There’s nothing better than edge-of-your-seat fourth quarters in the playoffs and little worse than a 30-point blowout.
For whatever reason, and it’s been well-documented, this year’s playoffs have featured more blowouts than close games and it’s gotten very old at this point. I turned off Game 3 with five minutes left, choosing sleep over Ian Clark and Brandon Rush starring in garbage time. I don’t turn off NBA Finals games. This pattern needs to change, quickly.
Whether Steph Curry is hurt or not, he’s undeniably frustrated by the physicality teams are using to contain him. He can’t move anywhere on offense without a Cavalier shoving or grabbing him, and refs aren’t calling the fouls they called in the regular season. It’s thrown him off his game. Don’t count on the officials suddenly having a change of heart during Game 4 in Cleveland. So Steph either needs to rise above it, or Klay Thompson will need to pick up a massive chunk of the scoring load. Thompson was bad in Game 3 even before the flying knee from Timofey Mozgov, throwing up threes without his feet set, which always leads to bad misses. This team doesn’t have the same punch when it doesn’t consistently hit the three ball.
They also don’t strike fear in opponents when they’re not creating havoc on defense. For all the ink that the Warriors offense gets, it’s their defense that starts everything. So much of their identity and trademark scoring runs come from turnovers and opponent misses. Kyrie Irving and JR Smith were given more room to operate than in Games 1 and 2 and took advantage, kickstarting that enormous early lead. LeBron James finished the job, looking like the 2012 version of himself and finally knocking down jump shots.
Speaking of, if LeBron’s shot is back and it wasn’t just a one-game aberration, the Warriors could be in big trouble. So much of their approach to the King has been based on a total lack of respect for his jumper. Andre Iguodala will be forced to play him close at the 3-point line if he comes out hot in Game 4, opening up everything else the Cavs want to do on offense. Suddenly Smith, Irving, Kevin Love, even Iman Shumpert become exponentially more dangerous if the Warriors can’t sag off LeBron.
Ah, yes, I mentioned Kevin Love. It will be fascinating to see how Tyronn Lue uses Love if he’s all the way back from his concussion. There’s a cottage industry growing around Love hot takes and whether the Cavs are better off without him. It does seem that he can’t share the court with Irving in this series because that means 40 percent of the team’s defense is exploitable. Is it a coincidence that the Cavs played like a completely different and more intense team on the defensive end with Love out and Richard Jefferson starting? We should find out tonight, whether Love is back in the starting lineup or relegated to a bench role. If you’re the Warriors, I think you want him back as a starter, which says a lot about Love’s game in 2016.
There could be lineup intrigue on the other side, as Andrew Bogut was rendered completely useless on Wednesday against the smaller Cavs lineup. Steve Kerr could choose to start the Death Lineup with Iguodala from the opening tip, matching up Draymond Green with Tristan Thompson at center. Thompson played like a man possessed in Game 3, so that could put a lot of strain on Green trying to keep him off the glass. My bet is Kerr sticks with his normal starting five but has a quicker hook on Bogut if things start going south early.
Hopefully after three games, these teams have learned enough about one another that they make the kind of adjustments that will give us our first competitive game in this series. It would be a shame to see another blowout – in either direction – after we invest so much time and thought into two months of playoffs. Both teams took turns embarrassing themselves on national TV in the last two games.
So it’d be nice if the defending champs show up tonight. Just not all the way up – let’s keep this baby close.
It only seems like ages ago that the Warriors were the ones limping home after back-to-back road playoff demolitions, demoralized and stunned. The champs have turned the tables rapidly, now on a 5-game winning streak and sporting a 2-0 lead over the Cavs in the NBA Finals.
After Game 4 two Tuesdays ago, I immediately penned a furious screed in an effort to channel my anger and to better make sense of what I was watching in the sudden 3-1 Thunder series lead over the Warriors. I wrote that the series was over and that the Thunder would close it out in Oakland in Game 5. It was the worst call in DotB history, and a valuable lesson. Don’t be a prisoner of the moment, and never write off the Warriors.
I’ve watched a ton of Warriors basketball this year and the team that went down 3-1 was unrecognizable. Whether the endless debate on Steph Curry’s health had any merit, or the Thunder found the Warriors kryptonite in their long athletic defenders, the magic was gone. After Game 4 the Warriors seemed dead to rights, which pissed me off. For one, I was angry that after a lackluster first two rounds, the Western Conference Finals I’d been waiting for all season would be short and non-competitive. I also couldn’t reconcile how the magical 73-win season could end like this.
This is painful to read now, but here’s a thing that I wrote that night: “There’s no question at this point that the Thunder are the better team. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams have been the best four players on the court in three of the four games. The series goes back to Oakland at 3-1, but the next time OKC sees its home building will be in the NBA Finals.”
Always remember to take a deep breath and think before blogging, kids.
It’s remarkable how quickly things can change in the NBA playoffs. The overwhelming emotion, momentum and energy that surrounds a hot team in its home building simply does not carry over to the next game. I forgot, as Andre Roberson rained down threes and Westbrook sprinted for transition points while entering Angry Frog Mode (copyright: my wife), that the next game starts out 0-0. In a post I wrote for Hashtag Basketball a few hours before Game 5 (after I had a couple days to calm down), I spelled out a path to a comeback. I didn’t believe it would happen, but I acknowledged it could. It doesn’t absolve my rant in this space, but at least I noted that if the Warriors went nuts from the 3-point line, they could make up for their major deficiencies elsewhere. Golden State ended up outscoring OKC 114-30 from beyond the arc in Games 6 and 7. Mind-blowing.
Durant said after the series was over that OKC beat the Warriors in every facet of the game except for 3-point shooting. It was a little sour grapes, yeah, but it was also true. I can’t think of another team in NBA history that can lose the battle of the boards, points in the paint, turnover percentage and free throws, yet still win playoff games convincingly. The math problem is real: three is greater than two.
Sorry for doubting you, Golden State. Math was never my strong suit.
NBA Finals Preview
Now to the Finals rematch we’ve been expecting most of the season. Golden State took the scenic route to meet the Cavaliers, who have been waiting patiently since Friday night. Cleveland lost just two games in the Eastern Conference Playoffs and have yet to lose at home. But they haven’t faced a team that’s even close to the Warriors, yet (or the Spurs or Thunder for that matter). LeBron James and Co. get their shot at revenge now. But can they overcome, or will James’ Finals record drop to 2-7? Let’s take a look at some keys:
The 3-point battle – Of course this is the first item on the agenda. It’s 2016. After losing to the Warriors in six games last year, Cleveland transformed itself into a 3-point shooting machine to solve the math problem. Channing Frye was a major addition midseason. JR Smith became the clear starting 2 guard over Iman Shumpert, thanks to his ability to go off from three. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are excellent 3-point shooters. James has struggled with his shot all season but is always a threat. Richard Jefferson, Matthew Dellavedova and Shumpert are passable from three off the bench. This re-invention manifested itself in some of the best 3-point shooting we’ve ever seen in the playoffs. Frye is shooting an obscene 58% on 45 playoff attempts. The Cavs blitzed the Hawks with 77 threes on 51% efficiency in four games, including a record 25 makes in Game 2. That followed a four-game performance in which they made 57 threes against Detroit. We all know what the Warriors can do with the 3-ball. If the Cavs’ hot shooting keeps up (there were some dips against Toronto in the Conference Finals), we could be looking at a high-scoring NBA Finals. It will be absolutely crucial for Cleveland to average 10-15 threes per game if they are going to beat the Warriors.
Cavs defense – At first glance it would seem the Cavs chances are great. After all, they took Golden State to six games a year ago without Love and Irving. Those two pieces of their big three are healthy, so it stands to reason the Cavs should be able to get over the hump. However, it’s somewhat of a paradox. Without those two guys, the Cavs had to become a big, slow team centered around LeBron. He nearly averaged a triple-double while scoring 35 points a game in the Finals last year, but it wasn’t all that exciting. It did slow down the Warriors immensely and at times Golden State’s big shooters struggled with the Cavs’ defense-heavy lineup. Now with Love and Irving back, the Cavs can play more freely and dynamically on offense, but their defense will suffer. The Warriors are expert at finding weak links in a team’s defense and exploiting them mercilessly. Love and Irving are minus defenders who the Warriors will target in pick-and-rolls and off-ball screens whenever they’re on the court. Irving could get lit up by either Curry or Klay Thompson, which means Dellavedova will have to play a huge role. Love cannot guard Draymond Green or even Harrison Barnes one on one, and he can’t switch onto Golden State’s guards. The dirty little secret of Cleveland’s impressive Eastern Conference run is that their defense has been suspect (102.9 DefRtg) against less than stellar offensive teams. It could get ugly against Golden State’s potent attack.
Crunch-time lineups – It will be fascinating to see who Cleveland closes games with. Tyronn Lue may be forced to bench Love or Irving (or both) late in games if Golden State is exposing them on defense. Cleveland found success with James at the 4 and Frye at the 5, which spaces their offense without sacrificing much rim-protection. Meanwhile, where does Tristan Thompson fit into the equation? OKC was the first team to give Golden State’s Death Lineup problems, but will the Cavs be able to make them pay for going small? If Thompson and James can dominate the glass like Adams and Ibaka did, that will help. But without Frye or Love on the floor, Cleveland’s shooting suffers big time. The Warriors have proven amazing in clutch situations – games that are five points or less in the last five minutes – all season long, thanks in large part to the Curry-Thompson-Green-Barnes-Iguodala lineup. Cleveland needs a counter-punch.
Coaching – Say what you want about Steve Kerr using too many players in his rotation, it’s at least kept the Warriors fresh. Part of the turning of the tide against OKC was the 6-man rotation of the Thunder getting gassed late in games, while the Warriors got their stars more rest. Kerr’s decision to start Andre Iguodala and mirror his minutes with Durant was a stroke of brilliance. Kerr comes in with Finals experience and a lot of weapons at his disposal. Kerr will also have to recognize when Andrew Bogut doesn’t have it, and quickly go to Festus Ezeli to help keep Thompson off the boards. Lue, one can argue, has a much tougher job in front of him. He’ll need to find the right mix of players to close games and adjust on the fly when things aren’t going well. There is so little margin of error against the Warriors. Cleveland has responded to Lue’s coaching style much more than it did for David Blatt, and most importantly, he’s got LeBron on his side. The young coach will be tested early and often in his first trip to the Finals.
Composure – Last but not least, it’s always crucial to keep your wits about you in a championship series. There will be moments when everything from whistles to turnovers to shot-making is going against you and your playoff mortality comes into focus. Emotions run high and with so much at stake, it’s easy to make a mental mistake. Green, specifically, needs to keep from picking up another flagrant foul or else he will be suspended a game. You can bet everyone on the Cavs is aware of this little piece of information and will try to poke the bear. Smith is another wild card, known for dirty fouls and even throwing punches at the worst possible time. The Cavs will likely follow the Thunder’s example and push, pull, chip, elbow, grab Curry anytime he’s moving without the ball. Curry needs to keep his cool but the Cavs also need to makes sure they don’t cross the line. The Warriors have been tested and have overcome, making guys like me look like idiots. The Cavs haven’t seen much adversity yet in these playoffs. Expect that to change soon.
Finals Pick – Warriors in 5.
After much internal debate, I can’t see Cleveland shoring up their defense while simultaneously scoring enough to exact revenge on the Warriors. I expect most games to be close, but I don’t think Golden State will lose again at home and I think they can steal one in Cleveland. I envision the Warriors going back to Oakland up 3-1, and surely they know how important it is to close a team out right away, after their comeback against OKC.
This pick doesn’t account for the potential for King James to go nuclear in his quest to finally win one for the ‘Land. You can’t rule that out. Basketball is awesome.
The collapse of the 73-win, record-breaking Warriors was swift, and total. The setting was an Oklahoma house of horrors, where the defending champs laid down (Harrison Barnes, literally) in a way that seemed unthinkable just a month ago. In two straight high stakes games the MVP and his merry band of ballers were embarrassed, flabbergasted, annihilated.
There’s no question at this point that the Thunder are the better team. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams have been the best four players on the court in three of the four games. The series goes back to Oakland at 3-1, but the next time OKC sees its home building will be in the NBA Finals. We’ve seen this movie before. Just two years ago, a much-ballyhooed superteam in Miami, led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, were flattened by a Spurs team composing its basketball masterpiece. We are witnessing the Thunder’s “5th Symphony.”
I’m getting flashbacks of the 2014 Spurs-Heat series. If GSW doesn’t come out firing in the third I think this series end in 5
Improbably, the record-breaking Warriors, who up until last night hadn’t lost two games in a row all season, go home with their tails between their legs facing almost certain elimination. How did it go so wrong? Let me count the ways:
Draymond Green completely disappeared. After the “kick to the balls heard ’round the world” Green weirdly self-destructed. The one-time triple-double machine has failed to notched one in his last two games combined (12 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists). He’s also a -73 in those disastrous two games. Maybe a suspension would’ve helped?
Steph Curry reverted to his pre-MVP careless self as he lost his patented quickness due to a knee injury. OKC has done a phenomenal job bodying him up, as the refs are letting plenty of contact go. Westbrook is staying glued to him in 1-on-1 situations and it’s obvious Curry has lost a step since the MCL injury. He can’t create separation like he’s used to, and has become a turnover machine at the worst possible time (six in Game). He also can’t make a layup for some reason.
They were murdered on the glass, to the tune of 56-40 (16 of them offensive rebounds) in Game 4. That followed a 52-38 beat down in Game 3. Too many times the Dubs were one-and-done while the Thunder got multiple cracks at a key bucket.
They resorted to non-stop fouling. It seemed every time I looked up Durant, Westbrook or Adams was on the free throw line in Games 3 and 4. The Thunder shot 77 free throws in the last two games.
Defensively they fell apart. This may be the ultimate explanation of their demise. In the regular season, Golden State ranked fifth in defensive rating. They won the title last year largely because it was so hard to score on them for long stretches. Their positional versatility was the trump card when things got tight late in games. Yet the Thunder have obliterated them in both transition and the half court. Their two superstars are getting 55+ points per game and the role players, a question mark all season, have stepped up big. In Games 3 & 4, the 73-win Golden State Warriors gave up 251 total points. That’s not a misprint.
Billy Donovan shocked the world (well, NBA Twitter) by outcoaching Steve Kerr. Donovan abandoned the Enes Kanter/Adams combo that was the Spurs’ kryptonite early on, favoring a smaller, quicker lineup with Ibaka picking up rim-protecting and switching duties. Meanwhile the Coach of the Year Kerr has thrown way too many guys into his rotations. Anderson Varejao, Brandon Rush and Ian Clark should not be seeing non-garbage time minutes in a conference finals. Festus Ezeli couldn’t hit a free throw, yet Kerr kept going to him when it was clear OKC was going to keep putting him on the line. The strategy to turn Andre Roberson into Tony Allen by completely ignoring him defensively backfired when Roberson started hitting threes at will. It just seems like Kerr is getting flustered on the sideline just as much as his team is on the court. Again, unthinkable stuff.
Many of these factors are linked. Teams that are getting manhandled on the boards foul out of frustration. Same goes for a team that’s getting out hustled to every loose ball. The 50/50 balls have been more like 90/10 for the Thunder. Coach Kerr is scrambling for solutions as he sees his team give up flurries of points, leading to uncharacteristic coaching blunders. OKC’s frantic defense, predicated on switching, closing out hard on shooters and denying everything at the rim, has discombobulated the Warriors into forced and unforced turnovers. The trapping on a less than 100 percent Curry leads to erratic passing, leads to fast breaks, leads to crowd explosions.
A staple in this historic two-year run for Golden State has been their sense of calm under pressure, their uncanny knack for getting hot at the right time. Russ, KD and the awesome Oklahoma City crowd have stolen their resolve. Don’t count on them giving it back. Sure, the next game is in Oakland and a Game 7 would be too, if the Earth’s rotation reversed and we somehow got to a Game 7. But there’s simply no coming back from this type of utter embarrassment in two straight conference finals games. The Warriors are beaten just as absolutely as those 2014 Heat were going into Game 5 in San Antonio.
So, Thunder in 5. Imagine the odds you could have gotten on that bet. Almost as juicy as picking a Thunder-Raptors Finals. Sheesh. The NBA universe is inverted. Pull the wool from over your eyes. Time is a flat circle (maybe this has to do with Matthew McConaughey and his damn Lincoln ads).
Prove me wrong Dubs, please. We’ve been looking forward to the Western Conference Finals all season. Congrats to OKC and all, but five games is a colossal rip-off for NBA junkies. What a sad ending to this fairy tale.
While the NBA’s first unanimous MVP recovered from a sprained MCL, we watched the Cavs throttle the Hawks in four games and a Heat-Raptors death march featuring injured centers, inefficient guards and dubious late-game coaching. The Steph-less Warriors played some entertaining games with Portland, but it was palpable that something was lacking. Meanwhile, Thunder-Spurs is the one second round series that has been good for consistent thrills, but unfortunately they can’t play that series every night. This all came after an underwhelming round one, where even the Game 7’s were lackluster.
But the Baby-Faced Assassin is back, and he wasted no time reminding us why we fell in love with him to begin with. His 4th quarter and overtime performance in Game 4 was legendary.
Every historically great player is able to quiet a hostile crowd in the playoffs. Steph didn’t just quiet the Portland faithful – he ripped their hearts out, poked them in the eyes and slapped their mamas. The man turned billionaire Paul Allen into a damn meme:
As an encore, Curry finished off the Blazers in Game 5 singlehandedly down the stretch. His ability to hit step-back threes over bigger defenders is beyond description at this point. It used to be absurd that he would even take these shots – now you just expect them all to go in. He doesn’t even have his feet squared up to the basket on this backbreaking, series-winning dagger on Al-Farouq Aminu:
Aminu, who had a great shooting series in his own right, learned the perils of tugging on Superman’s cape. If you recall, Aminu stared down a street-clothes-dressed Curry in Game 3 after draining a corner three.
Yea, not a great move. Curry of course got the last laugh. Don’t spit into the wind…and don’t mess around with Slim.
Curry’s second-straight MVP campaign has been so transcendent, I’m not sure NBA fans could’ve gotten over it if they were cheated out of watching him do his thing in the playoffs. From Game 1 to Game 82, this Curry season has felt historic. 73 wins. 402 threes. A top-10 all-time PER. 50-45-90 shooting percentages. His value is unique because he can dominate a game while still operating within the confines of the Warriors’ offense. The ball doesn’t stick in his hands. To wit, per SportVu stats on NBAsavant.com, Curry ranked 69th in average dribbles per touch (3.613) and 73rd in average touch time (3.816 seconds). Remember Curry led the league in scoring yet played under 35 minutes per game. Just how the hell does he pull that off without playing hero ball exclusively? It just doesn’t compute.
So let’s turn our attention to the historical context of this special MVP season.
I looked at 29 other famous MVP campaigns in an effort to compare where Curry ranks by the numbers. The criteria I chose to consider: PER, counting stats titles, Win Shares, Value Over Replacement Player, Box Plus/Minus and Team Wins. I’m simply adding them up without weighing any value higher than another, because I barely passed College Algebra. I did give a player 5 points for each counting stats title they won during their MVP season. The sum total is what I call the MVP Quotient. *Note: steals, blocks, VORP, BPM are not available for Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain. I estimated 11 BPM and 10 VORP for each.
As you can see, Curry grades out at the very top of the list. Above 1971-72 Kareem, 1995-96 Jordan, 1985-86 Bird, 2008-09 & 2012-13 LeBron. I’m always highly cognizant of the perils of recency bias, which is what led me to this exercise in the first place. But the numbers back up Curry’s case for the greatest offensive season of all time and, at the very least, a top-5 all-time MVP season. A season for the ages. My grandkids will hear plenty of stories about 2015-16 Steph.
Side note or two: How awesome was LeBron’s 2008-09 season? The 4th-best ever PER and it ranks 5th on this list even though he didn’t get any 5-point boosts for a counting stats title. It’s also cool to see how LBJ and Jordan dominate with seven of the top 12 MVP seasons on this list.
Playoff Power Rankings
Cleveland Cavaliers (Beat Hawks 4-0) – Just rolling through the East, licking their chops at the Heat-Raptors slap fight.
Oklahoma City Thunder (Lead Spurs 3-2) – Amazingly have won 3 of after getting trounced in Game 1. They need to close it out in Game 6, as a third straight victory in San Antonio is highly unlikely.
Golden State Warriors (Beat Blazers 4-1) – Portland was a handful, even for five games, but now they get some rest. We’ll see how Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green heal up from minor injuries. The West Finals will be a bloodbath.
San Antonio Spurs (Trail Thunder 3-2) – Reeling and on the ropes. But you can never count out the Spurs until the last buzzer sounds on their elimination. Wouldn’t be surprised if they win Games 6 and 7, but their offense needs an injection of life to do so.
Toronto Raptors (Lead Heat 3-2) – They should beat the Heat without Hassan Whiteside. Their prize is the Cleveland slaughter.
Miami Heat (Trail Raptors 3-2) – Terrible luck with Chris Bosh and now Whiteside and Luol Deng banged up. We’ll see if vintage Dwyane Wade returns to help force a Game 7.
The cream has officially risen to the top. Here I thought Round 2 was going to be all-out war but – though things could change as the four series shift to the lower seed’s building – the rout is on. Cleveland has gone to another level. If they can sustain 85% of this 3-point production, they have a shot against Golden State. The Spurs go to Oklahoma tied but look to be in a class above the Thunder. An MVP-less Warriors team is mostly rolling through Portland. We shouldn’t be surprised. This entire season there have been three teams at the top, and they’re still looking down on the rest of the league. Now, Steph Curry looks to be coming back sooner than expected (hooray for blood spinning!). Here’s where we currently stand.
Cleveland Cavaliers (Lead Atlanta 2-0) – Broke the record for made threes in a playoff game last night (25) in a 123-98 rout of the Hawks. After watching Atlanta throttle Boston in Game 5, I tweeted the following:
San Antonio Spurs (Tied with OKC 1-1) – The messy ending to Game 2 was glorious and bottom line is the Spurs squandered a great chance to win that game with numbers in transition. Playing in OKC is no picnic. But now the Spurs are mad. You can rely on the following equation: Gregg Popovich>Billy Donovan. Spurs in 7 (if not 6).
Golden State Warriors (Lead Portland 2-0) – An amazing fourth quarter brought them back after trailing by 17 points in Game 2. Draymond Green is vaulting to another level and Klay Thompson is staking his claim to the title of best two-way shooting guard in the league. Look for more Festus Ezeli going forward (finally). The Blazers should win one at home, but this series won’t make it past Game 5. Steph should be brought back with discretion, as the Warriors can clearly beat this team without him.
Miami Heat (Lead Toronto 1-0) – Dwyane Wade’s renaissance has been a joy to watch. If Kyle Lowry can’t magically turn his shot back on, the Raptors are toast. Miami’s best player and coach know how to win this time of year. It’s worth keeping an eye on Wade’s and Hassan Whiteside’s knees going forward. Word is both are fine, but a setback could change the series.
Oklahoma City Thunder (Tied with San Antonio 1-1) – To pull out this series over a 67-win Spurs juggernaut, Russell Westbrook will need to impose his will as he did early in Game 2. Tony Parker simply can’t keep up with him. The “let LaMarcus get his” strategy is interesting especially since it helps put a clamp on Playoffs Danny Green and Playoffs Patty Mills. Even though the series is tied 1-1, I get the feeling they need to win both these next two games at home. They stole one in San Antonio and I don’t think they’ll get another in the Alamo.
Toronto Raptors (Trailing Miami 1-0) – Sad Kyle Lowry stayed in the empty arena after Game 1 working on his jumper. Let’s hope that helps him turn things around. Jonas Valanciunas was great in Game 1, but how much of that was due to Whiteside not being 100 percent? Norman Powell needs to make an impact in this series, but at the end of the day their fate will be tied to Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Atlanta Hawks (Trailing Cleveland 2-0) – I believed. Then Earl Smith III destroyed my faith. The Hawks can’t keep Thabo Sefolosha on the floor due to his poor shooting, and unfortunately he’s the only Hawk that can even pretend to guard LeBron. I expect Paul Millsap and Al Horford to perform better in Atlanta, but it won’t be enough. The Cavs death train rolls on.
Portland Trail Blazers (Trailing GSW 2-0) – The Blazers have already overachieved. They may win a game at home with their great crowd, but Golden State is on a collision course with San Antonio. They always have been. Great job this season by Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard. They have good things ahead, but need to round out their roster in the offseason.
Boy, it was such a simpler time back on April 16, when I posted my original Playoffs Power Rankings. Steph Curry had two healthy feet and a non-sprained right knee, coming off a historic regular season and ready to become immortal. Chris Paul’s traffic finger was whole. Russell Westbrook was an unquestioned superstar (good call, Mark Cuban!). The NBA’s finest hour was upon us. Now just a week and some change later, the Western Conference has been turned on its head as NBA fans have lost the two best point guards in our lives. A rematch of the horrible 2007 Finals seems unavoidable. If it happens, the Cavs are much more competitive now than the first time they faced the Spurs in the Finals; yet we will still likely feel cheated, even if it’s a seven-game classic. But, alas, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Behold, the second installment of our Playoffs Power Rankings…
San Antonio Spurs (Beat Memphis 4-0) [Last Week: #2] – Quietly and swiftly took care of business versus the ghost of Memphis’ roster, winning four games by an average of 19.5 points and posting an obscene 117.1 OffRtg. San Antonio gets a much tougher test in OKC in Round 2, but they’ve suddenly become my de facto favorite to win it all now that Steph is a question mark.
Cleveland Cavaliers (Beat Detroit 4-0) [LWk: #3] – Proved to be too much for the Pistons in a testy series that saw LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving average a combined 69.1 points per game. The rest of the league should take notice as the big three seem to have found a rhythm finally. Then again, Detroit doesn’t present the toughest defensive matchup. The Cavs, the second-biggest beneficiaries of the recent Warriors’ woes, actually bested the Spurs by three in OffRtg in Round 1 (120.4).
Oklahoma City Thunder (Beat Dallas 4-1) [LWk: #4] – In another feisty series featuring shoves, errant elbows and innumerable stare-downs, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tried to get in Westbrook’s head, or something, by saying the Thunder only had one superstar in Kevin Durant. Russ went off a couple hours later for 36 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists as the Thunder punted Dallas out of the playoffs. Russ is one of the last people on Earth I would choose to anger. Maybe that’s why I’m not a billionaire.
Golden State Warriors (Lead Houston 3-1) [LWk: #1] – Let’s just get through this one before we get emotional. The greatest show on hardwood got knocked down a few pegs with news of Curry’s low-grade MCL sprain, but it’s still a damn good basketball team. Tied at halftime on the road in Game 4 with Curry shelved, the Warriors’ other stars unleashed the fury on Houston, to the tune of eight 3-pointers in the third quarter en route to a 65-38 second half. As bad as the Curry news is, they should still be favored over Portland or a CP3-less Clippers team in Round 2.
Atlanta Hawks (Tied with Boston 2-2) [LWk: #7] – Instant Gratification Overreaction (IGO) Exhibit A: To everyone on the Internet complaining about the lack of competitive playoff series after two games, just let it breathe. Amazing how a series can even up once both teams have played the same amount of home games. There’s nothing wrong with the seven game series format. Still, it feels like Atlanta should be up 3-1 at the least, but somehow Boston is staying alive without its best wing defender, Avery Bradley. The Hawks had a 16-point lead in Game 4 behind Paul Millsap’s monster effort, but the rest of the team couldn’t hit an open shot. If that inefficiency corrects itself, look for ATL to advance.
Miami Heat (Tied with Charlotte 2-2) [LWk: #9] – IGO Exhibit B: “Miami is red-hot and Nic Batum is out, it’s going to be an easy sweep” or some variation of that line of thinking was all over the podcast and Twitter world after Game 2. Amazingly, Miami did not continue to score at an all time team playoff rate and Charlotte’s great home court advantage helped them even the series. Initially I took Charlotte in six, but gun to my head I’ll take the Heat in seven. That Batum injury will haunt the Hornets at some point. The Heat should take care of business at home.
Toronto Raptors (Tied with Indiana 2-2) [LWk: #5] – Toronto is all over the place. Determined to put to rest all the demons of playoffs past, the Raptors fell flat in Game 1, losing at home. After two straight convincing wins it seemed things had course-corrected and the 56-win team would prevail easily. Then Indiana spanked them in Game 4. DeMar DeRozan (30%FG) can’t score efficiently on Paul George and it seems he’ll be the last one to admit it. It’s up to Kyle Lowry (32%FG), who’s having his own matchup difficulties, to take the reins and finally get this team to Round 2.
Charlotte Hornets (Tied with Miami 2-2) [LWk: #8] – I love the fight they showed in their two home wins, without the aforementioned Batum. Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin are an unlikely pair of playoff heroes, but they played the role well in Games 3 and 4. They combined for 55 points in Game 4, hitting half their joint field goal attempts. Steve Clifford has largely stuck to his guns on defense and waited for the Heat to stop making everything. It will be interesting to see if Miami gets hot again back in their home building, what kind of counter punch Clifford has in store.
Portland Trail Blazers (Tied with LAC 2-2) [LWk: #11] – IGO Exhibit C: The Blazers looked dead in the first two games, with Paul handcuffing Damian Lillard and the rest of the Blazers struggling to score. Though they still haven’t eclipsed 100 points in the series after averaging 105/game in the regular season, Dame, CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu got loose with some home cooking. Aminu in particular was amazing last night, scoring a career playoff-high 30 points with 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks. The Clippers’ myriad injuries have opened the door for Portland, will they bust through it with two games remaining in LA?
Boston Celtics (Tied with Atlanta 2-2) [LWk: #10] – I really struggled with this ranking. On the one hand they willed themselves to two straight victories to even the series. On the other hand, I just don’t feel like they’ve played all that well. Atlanta has just been missing open shots – can the Celts count on Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder and Jeff Teague going 14-60 again? I’ll go out on a crazy limb and say no.
Los Angeles Clippers (Tied with Portland 2-2) [LWK: #6] – With Paul expected to miss the rest of the playoffs with a broken third metacarpal, that means Austin Rivers & Jamal Crawford will be running the point. Yikes. Also, Blake Griffin is gimpy on that bad quadriceps, J.J. Redick has a bruised heel and even DeAndre Jordan got nicked up last night. It’s entirely possible Donald Sterling has a collection of Clippers voodoo dolls and is somewhere laughing maniacally. What an asshole.
Indiana Pacers (Tied with Toronto 2-2) [LWk: #12] – Paul George is the best player in the series with Toronto, and that alone gives the Pacers a fighting chance. In their two losses, the Pacers just couldn’t generate enough points on the offensive end, despite how well they’ve defended the Raptors’ stars. In Game 4, Ian Mahinmi and George Hill gave George much-needed support on the offensive end with 22 points apiece. Meanwhile George held DeRozan to single-digits scoring.
Houston Rockets (Trailing GSW 3-1) [LWk: #15] – We are so close to being rid of this uninspiring team. Let’s hope the Warriors put them out of their misery Wednesday so Dwight Howard and Co. can finally start their vacations. https://vine.co/v/iFVpQMzWBhO
It’s April and the season is over for 14 NBA teams. We have one last team to examine – the Utah Jazz, who were eliminated on the final day of the regular season. For a breakdown of the other 13 teams click on the “NBA Graveyard 2016” section.
The Utah Jazz, man,somehow, managed to die at the impotent hands of the 2016 Rockets and 2016 Kobe Bryant…
Postmortem: The Jazz were straight-up abused this year. Many jokes have been made about their role as the Washington Generals in Kobe’s 60-point explosion in the final day of the regular season. But the Jazz – who found out just before the Kobe game that they were eliminated from the playoffs – were victims of oppositional brilliance all season. In NBA Countdown’s video of the top 10 plays of the 2015-16 regular season, four of those plays came at the expense of the Jazz. In a 30-team league what are the odds that 40 percent of the best plays (admittedly subjective, but still) of a season would occur against one team?
Friend of Down on the Block Jay Dulla traveled over 1,400 miles to witness the career finale of his basketball hero, Kobe Bean Bryant. He dutifully recounts his experience below for those of us who could only tune in on ESPN2. Enjoy!