Boston Celtics

The Conference Semis: What to Watch For

Round 1 of the playoffs saw most things go as expected. LeBron James lifted his game a notch or two, Russell Westbrook took far too many shots, and the Warriors won without breaking stride. All of this was pretty predictable, which just goes to show that the playoffs never lie. Here’s a few other obvious truths you can expect to be laid bare in the Conference Semis.

The Warriors are easily the best team in it

This couldn’t be more clear, but for some reason a narrative seems to have developed throughout the course of the season that they’re vulnerable. Before the playoffs tipped off, betting agencies even had them listed as only $2.20 favorites to win the Championship. For those of you who aren’t familiar with punting, this means that they were apparently more likely not to win the title than to win it, which simply wasn’t, and isn’t, true.

There has justifiably been a lot of excitement about the Pelicans. Their starting five is really, really good, AD is extraordinary, and they absolutely annihilated a Portland team which went 17-7 after the All-Star break. They are a talented unit in excellent form, and in Game 1 the Warriors tore them to pieces – and did so without Steph Curry on the floor. Game 2 was a little closer, but Golden State lifted a gear in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line, which they can do because they have four of the best 15 players in the league on their team.

Houston are an excellent team, and – assuming both they and the Warriors advance – will probably give us an exciting Western Conference Finals series, but the Warriors should still be strong favorites against them in a seven game series. After that, the winner of the east beckons. It goes without saying, that team won’t be expected to win.

The Raptors suck at the playoffs, and LeBron is very good at them

It’s easy to say this after a Game 1 which saw Toronto give up a 14 point second quarter advantage to eventually go down in overtime, but even before that happened, all the evidence pointed in the same direction.

A quick recap on the Raptors recent history: in the past four seasons, they’ve won at least 48 games in the regular season and haven’t finished outside the top 4 in the east. In this time though, they’ve twice been bundled out in Round 1, and haven’t made it past the Conference Finals. Sense a pattern? Lowry and DeRozan are both stars and are the reason for Toronto’s regular season success, but neither of them has been able to consistently step it up to the required level in the playoffs.

LeBron James, in contrast, loves the postseason, and has enjoyed feasting on the Raptors in the last couple of years. Last season, he averaged 36 points in Cleveland’s sweep of Toronto, shooting an outrageous 57.3% from the floor and 48.1% from downtown. The season before he only averaged 26 points and 6.7 assists, but this came when he actually had two other good players in good form on his team, and as a result his usage was way down. He racked these points up on a ridiculous 62.2% shooting, and his 6.7 assists were accompanied by just 2.3 turnovers a game.

For these reasons, Game 1 didn’t bode well for the rest of the series for the Raps. Though James had 26 points, 11 boards and 13 assists, he wasn’t anywhere near his best offensively. He settled on eight 3-point attempts and seven more from mid range, and didn’t hit a whole lot of them. He went 12-for-30 from the floor, something he won’t do again this series, and yet still the Cavs got over the line on the Raptors home floor – despite Toronto having about 11 bites at the cherry to make a game winning layup in the final seconds. He’ll lift, the Raptors won’t, and it will be another early exit for the boys from Canada.

Brad Stevens is a genius

A look at Boston’s current available roster shouldn’t fill Celtics fans with a whole lot of belief, and yet here they are, having warded off a far more talented Bucks outfit, and up 1-0 against a far, far more talented 76ers outfit.

Sure, Al Horford is a terrific player and a major reason for their prowess at both ends of the floor. Terry Rozier isn’t a star, but he’s playing out of his skin. Smart is just about the best hustle player in the league, and Tatum and Brown have a lot of talent. These are all nice pieces, but not Conference Semi-Finals level pieces, and certainly not Conference Finals pieces. And yet here they are.

Most sides would fall to pieces if they lost their two best players, but the Celtics haven’t, because their coach is a genius. To compensate for their relative lack of talent, Stevens’ offense relies on a whole lot of dribble handoffs and off ball action to get the ball moving, and to keep everybody involved. At the other end of the floor, his players know their defensive rotations better than anyone, and with one of the more switchable starting lineups in the league it’s nearly impossible for oppositions to get any sort of mismatch.

On talent alone, the Celts shouldn’t get close to the 76ers. Already though, they’re 1-0 up. Philadelphia are still deserved series favorites, but if Game 1 taught us anything it’s that they won’t have it their own way. Boston will force a tight series at the very least, and for that you can thank Brad Stevens.

 

The playoffs are starting to heat up, and our partners, children, parents – anyone who doesn’t follow the great game – are wondering why they’ve suddenly been forced to play second fiddle to basketball. They better get used to it because we’ve still got well over a month to go, and even if the Warriors are probably going to win, it’s still sure to be compelling viewing.

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