Welcome back for the second installment of Down on the Block’s Western Conference playoff race tracker. Not much has changed since yesterday, with just three teams in action (all of whom won). So here’s a quick primer for tonight’s full slate of action. First, the latest standings:
The seeds remain the same after the Spurs, Jazz and red-hot Blazers notched W’s Monday night. Things have just grown ever tighter. I expect some upheaval after tonight’s matchups, however. Peep it…
The NBA’s Western Conference is coming down to a two-team race for the top seed and a bloodbath in constant flux for the remaining six playoff spots. As of today, eight teams have eyes on those six spots, with just four games separating #3 (Portland) from #10 (Utah) with about 20 games left on the calendar. Remarkably, seeds #4-8 are within a game and a half of each other.
A bad week can send a team tumbling down the standings and into jeopardy of falling out of it completely. Minnesota, on a slide since Jimmy Butler‘s injury, and San Antonio, battling injuries to Kawhi Leonard and others, know this firsthand. Of course the opposite is true as well. Portland and New Orleans have shot up the standings with six-game and eight-game winning streaks, respectively. All ten of these teams boast a positive point differential on the season, contrasted with just six such teams in the Eastern Conference.
Last week, before Game 6 of the NBA Finals, I had a vivid dream. The kind that, though absurd, felt so intensely real. The dream took place in Game 7, which the Cavs had forced despite losing a majority of their players to (unspecified) injury in Game 6. Since the Cavs couldn’t field a full lineup due to those injuries, the league allowed the Oklahoma City Thunder to play Game 7 on behalf of Cleveland. And the Thunder were kicking Golden State’s ass. That’s when I woke up.
Subconsciously, I think I had recognized that the Cavs found the formula the Thunder briefly uncovered in the Western Conference Finals and that spelled doom for the Warriors. The bully ball of Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka that imposed its will on the defending champs was now being played by LeBron James and Tristan Thompson. The swagger of Dion Waiters and Russell Westbrook that shook Golden State’s famous confidence, brought to you by James, JR Smith and Kyrie Irving in the Finals. The otherworldly performance by a transcendent player, in Kevin Durant, was being surpassed by James. OKC would fumble it away, this elusive Warriors kryptonite, but the Cavs wouldn’t. In my dream, the Thunder were allowed another try to come back from the abyss and finish off the Warriors. In real life, it turned out, Cleveland’s transcendent superhero only needed one chance.
Stephen Curry and the Warriors, meanwhile, learned how cruel the NBA Finals can be, and also how quickly the cheerleaders morph into vultures. LeBron is all too familiar with those cruelties. Cleveland’s Game 7 victory and come-from-behind series win will rightfully be remembered as the King’s coronation, the final level of his redemption tour. We all remember when The Chosen One, the child prodigy, the next Jordan became a selfish, presumptive, entitled brat in the eyes of many overnight in the summer of 2010 with the ‘Decision.’ For the first time in LeBron’s life, he was the villain, a role he embraced more as a coping mechanism than a fundamental identity. His Heat team would win two titles, but lose two others as the stain on his legacy seemed to be written in permanent ink.
It wasn’t long ago that the Warriors were the darlings of the NBA. Remember when Draymond Green was the scrappy second-round pick, passed over due to his lack of size and ironically now using that unique body to anchor the best lineup we’ve ever seen? After two months of playoffs he’s a nut-punching pariah, heir to the throne of professional heels Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman. Remember the Baby-Faced Assassin, whose proficiency from long range was overshadowed only by his affability and boyish charm? Now in the eyes of many, Curry is a fraud. How dare you fool us into believing you were the best player in the world? LeBron reclaimed that title, while denying Steph his repeat championship and crushing the MVP’s pride with blocked shot after blocked shot:
How quickly the script gets flipped. In this zero-sum game, the prodigal King and his band of underdogs from the sad sack sports town of Cleveland reach the peak of the NBA mountain while the greatest regular season team of all time gets tossed down the stairs, everything they stand for repeatedly kicked on the way down. I’d be shocked if there wasn’t some secret rendezvous last night, where the likes of Charles Barkley, Tracy McGrady, Scottie Pippen and Oscar Robertson toasted to the death of the Warriors’ brand of basketball.
At one point it seemed Golden State had found the cheat code to the NBA, quickly skipping all the steps it is assumed must be taken before becoming elite. Michael Jordan took his lumps from the Pistons, who had to overcome the Celtics and Lakers before being crowned. The Warriors’ rapid success under Steve Kerr helped sour many who never snatched the Larry O’Brien trophy (ahem, Barkley). Golden State won the title last year without ever tasting the pain of being so close, yet so far away. The Warriors now have their “almost” moment. As Curry said afterward, that pain will stick with them for a long, long time. It will be fascinating to see how they respond next season, and also whether the grumpy commentariat suddenly show them some respect now that they’ve been humbled.
No doubt the Warriors made mistakes. It seems they took the Cavs lightly after jumping out to 2-0 and 3-1 series leads. Green’s suspension likely cost them Game 5. Kerr’s knack for playing too many guys came back to bite him, as Anderson Varejao and Festus Ezeli were given atrocious Game 7 minutes. Both Ezeli and Harrison Barnes cratered their earning potential this offseason by no-showing through most of the Finals. Curry was never the same after slipping on Donatas Motiejunas’ sweat puddle in the Houston series. Steph’s balky knee is not an excuse, it’s a plain fact. He was noticeably slower with the ball in his hands, lacked quickness on defense and struggled to gain his usual separation behind the 3-point line. Be it hubris, injury, poor clutch play or loss of composure, there is plenty of blame to go around in Oakland. They had the better team, which almost always means victory in a seven-game series in the NBA.
But in the end, this was all about LeBron. He led all players in the series in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He followed up two straight 41-point elimination game outings with a triple-double in Game 7. Multiple times during the last three games I exclaimed to whoever I was with, “He’s EVERYWHERE.” The chase-down blocks will live on in NBA promotional footage for decades, but the consistent rim protection even in the half court had the once-cocky Warriors afraid to attempt a layup. He went home to Cleveland, heavily influenced the makeup of the team and made himself responsible for whatever ended up happening on the court. When the Cavs’ season looked to be destined for another Cleveland ending, James played the best basketball of his life, beating the Warriors twice in Oracle Arena and handing them their first three-game losing streak of the entire season. His partner Kyrie’s step-back three over Curry in a “How does your medicine taste?” move was the cherry on top.
LeBron showed his teammates and the city of Cleveland it’s OK to believe in dreams.
For the Warriors, who matched their regular season loss total (9) in the playoffs, the nightmare endures.
“It was revenge for Billy Batts…and a lot of other things.”
The retroactive Flagrant 1 ruling that came down yesterday on Draymond Green, leading to his suspension from Game 5 tonight, was questionable and unfortunate. But at least it gives me an excuse to reference “Goodfellas.” My all-time favorite movie, and Martin Scorsese’s most egregious Oscar snub – “Dances With Wolves” really, Academy?
You see the suspension is really payback for Steven Adams’ kiwis, the trip on Enes Kanter and plenty of other Draymond playoff indiscretions. The NBA let him dance on the edge for weeks, but he just couldn’t help himself. Similarly, Tommy was whacked years later for killing Billy Batts – a made guy – something that couldn’t be forgiven since he continued to behave like a sociopathic jerk, albeit a hilarious one. Accordingly, Draymond was whacked from Game 5. “And that’s that.”
Even most Cavs fans would agree that on its own merit, this LeBron James incident was trivial. If anything, Bron was the more flagrant of the two, the aggressor and the instigator during a frustrating time of the game for Cleveland. He slammed Green to the hardwood then deliberately teabagged him in a move that must’ve had his coach Tyronn Lue getting combat flashbacks. In the second video below, it’s clear Green made contact with the royal jewels, but not enough to elicit even a painful wince from James.
It can be difficult not to make contact with that part of a man’s body when he’s treating you like the bachelorette, he the naughty police officer. I mean, I’m guessing here.
But Adam Silver and the NBA, with perhaps some nudging by James himself, have put their foot down and Golden State is forced to try to close out the series without their ace in the hole. This sets up a fascinating game tonight. From both an emotional and strategic standpoint, we may be in for a classic playoff showdown.
Prior to Green’s suspension, this game had the potential to be a snoozer, where the Cavs get discouraged after the first big Steph Curry-fueled Golden State run as a frenzied crowd smells an imminent title. That scenario is much less likely, now. Cleveland has a sliver of hope to win the series by beating a stripped-down Warriors team tonight, protecting home court in Game 6 and leaving it all up to Game 7. It’s tough to imagine the Cavs winning two straight in Oracle, but no doubt this suspension breathes life into that locker room. I highly doubt Cleveland no-shows tonight. Hope is powerful.
On the other side of the emotional spectrum sit the Warriors. If Klay Thompson’s comments yesterday represent the team’s collective mood, they are both incredulous and irate.
This 2015-16 Warriors team has thrived on slights, real and imagined, using them as fuel for their basketball fury to torch the league. Draymond’s suspension should be a galvanizing force; adding insult to injury the guy can’t even set foot in the arena (“What am I, a mirage?”). Through his many dramas, no one on the Warriors has publicly criticized Green. Instead, they rally behind him, creating an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Expect them to come out firing, hoping to stomp out the Cavs’ flame even without their emotional leader. A championship-clinching win under these circumstances would, in a way, be so Warriors.
But do they have enough firepower now to beat this Cavs team? That question will be answered tonight, making Steve Kerr’s strategic adjustments must-see TV. The only game Green missed during the regular season was a loss to the Lottery-bound Nuggets. The Warriors’ defense, so critical to their success, can become a sieve without Green. He allows them to get away with playing small, which drives their turnover-causing, up-tempo, 3-point heavy style.
GSW in Finals: With Draymond at C: 81 minutes, +53. All other lineups: 111 minutes, -24.
Cleveland wants to make this a half court game. That’s so much easier to do when Golden State is forced to play a traditional center. The Warriors offense seems to get less and less potent with each second that ticks off the shot clock. That’s when the Cavs’ wings can fly around and get in the faces of 3-point shooters and send help on the Splash Brothers.
Compounding the challenges, Kerr also has to make a player inactive tonight, since Green has to be listed as officially active even though he won’t be in the building. For most teams at this time of year, that’s no big deal. But Kerr uses every part of the buffalo when it comes to his roster. My guess is Ian Clark gets the axe. Marreese Speights is too good at home and James Michael McAdoo (inactive for the first three games) gives them now much-needed defensive versatility. Anderson Varejao also has to be out there thanks to his size and surprising production against his old team in these Finals. That leaves Clark, Brandon Rush and Leandro Barbosa. After Barbosa’s sizzling Game 1 I don’t see him getting left out of tonight’s game – he’s another player that can get hot at home. I can’t fathom Kerr making Festus Ezeli inactive, although it could be the natural progression of his continued obsolescence. To me, the decision comes down to Rush and Clark.
Will Kerr go super-big in a complete about-face? Will he double-down on small-ball even without Green, rotating in McAdoo, Barbosa and Rush while sitting Bogut? Will Harrison Barnes have to play the whole game? Clipboards beware!
In the end, it may simply come down to the superstars. This is the NBA, after all. LeBron vs. Curry. Four-time MVP vs. back-to-back MVP. Steph and Klay will be counted on to make it rain more than ever. LeBron needs to summon another iconic playoff game out of his well-worn body. The Cavs need Kyrie Irving to have a huge game and for Kevin Love to exploit a weakened Warriors defense.
The crowd will be venomous; one team desperate, the other resentful; both pissed; and the stars will be out. It’s the Finals, baby.
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.