Well, here we are. The final four. After all that excitement in the west, the jostling for playoff positions, the good teams being eliminated in the first round, there are just two teams remaining, and lo and behold it happens to be Houston and Golden State. In the east, the Conference Final matchup is exactly what people expected 20 games into the season, and probably not at all what people expected 60 games into the season. The Cavs looked like a genuinely bad team for a long time, but LeBron is LeBron and the rest of their team is playing a bit better, and while a look at the Celtics roster doesn’t make for great reading, their team as a whole is very good.
So who will force their way through and fight it out for a ring? Will it AGAIN be the Cavs and the Warriors? Will the Rockets stake their claim as one of the best offensive teams of all time by beating the best offensive team of all time? Will Brad Stevens continue to prove just how much better a coach he is than Dwayne Casey?
Houston Rockets (1) v Golden State Warriors (2)
Sarcasm about how predictable this matchup was aside, this series will be incredible viewing. Two of the most potent offensive sides you could ever hope to see, combined with an inordinate number of elite players on the floor mean this will probably be the most compelling viewing of the season. Houston was seemingly unbeatable throughout the regular season, and while the Warriors were not, they are back to full strength and appear ready to step things up a notch.
Players to watch
There are roughly seven players who are deserving of a mention in here, but for the sake of keeping it brief I’ll chop it down to two. Apologies to Durant, Thompson, Green, Paul and Capela.
James Harden – The probable MVP hasn’t been at his absolute best for much of the playoffs to date, though his 28.5 points and 7.4 assists per game are still solid enough numbers. There’s no doubt he’s been inconsistent though; he started off the postseason with 44 points, and followed that up with just 12 on 2-for-18 shooting. Against the Jazz he scored 41 points in Game 1, and then watched his scoring numbers gradually reduce each and every game for the rest of the series.
He’s only faced the Warriors twice so far this season, and they’ve managed to contain him reasonably well in these games. Having said that, he had 27 points and 11 assists in the first outing against them. In the most recent of these games though, he scored just 22 points, and his 8 assists were accompanied by 6 turnovers. Houston will need a huge series from him if they’re going to get over the line, so he’ll need to improve on these numbers to give them a chance.
Steph Curry – Despite the presence of Durant, Green and Thompson, this guy is probably the single most important player on the Warriors roster. He was solid without being spectacular in the four games he’s played since coming back from injury, but regardless of whether he actually plays well, his presence on the floor is invaluable to Golden State.
Even if he doesn’t get on the scoreboard as much as he likes, he’ll make it that much easier for Durant and Thompson to get good looks, and with all three of these elite shooters on the floor it’s inevitable that at least one of them will get hot during the course of a game. Curry is more than capable of winning a game or two off his own hands, and in what could easily be a six or seven game series, this could be the difference.
As impressive as Houston has been all season, I can’t imagine how any sane person could tip against the Warriors. They’re still the same team that people were certain would win the Championship in a canter at the start of the season, and the same team that won 73 games two years ago now WITH Kevin Durant. Houston are really, really good and will probably win at least a couple of games, but beating the Warriors over the course of a seven game series would take some serious doing. Golden State will win this in six.
Boston (2) v Cleveland (4)
At Christmas time, these sides seemed like the two most likely to face off in the Eastern Conference Finals. They were both above .700; the Raptors had yet to establish themselves as anything other than the same good team which would fail to perform in the Playoffs that they had been in previous years, and the Sixers were sitting at 15-18. From there, the Cavs season spiralled dramatically downwards, while the Celtics got progressively worse and eventually lost Irving for the season. Despite all that, they’ve both rallied, made the ECFs, and kicked off the series we all expected many months ago on Sunday afternoon. The early signs weren’t good for the Cavs, with Morris doing a great job on LeBron and the Celts generally spanking their opponent’s asses.
Players to watch
LeBron James – Pretty unsurprisingly, LeBron is the most important player in this series by an alarmingly long way. He played extremely poorly by his standards in Game 1, and Cleveland got belted – who would have guessed!? Of course, the performances of the likes of Kevin Love, Kyle Korver and to a lesser extent JR Smith will also help to shape the series, but from the Cavs perspective, it’s LeBron who will have the biggest say on its outcome.
We all know what he did in the first two rounds of the playoffs, particularly against the Raptors, but can he repeat it against a Celtics side with the most suitable matchup for him he’ll have faced in this postseason, and against arguably the league’s best defensive unit? So far this season, he hasn’t been able to completely dominate Boston like he has some other sides. He didn’t pass 30 points in the three regular season games against them, averaging “just” 24 points to go with 8.3 dimes. He’ll probably need to do more than that to get his Cavs over the line in this series, and expect him to respond in a big way after a slow start in Game 1
Al Horford – Boston are far more a team than a collection of individual’s, but Horford is still arguably their most important player at both ends of the floor. He plays an integral role at the offensive end, contributing significantly to their excellent ball movement and strong off-ball action. Defensively he will play a major role predominantly on Kevin Love, but his switchability fits Stevens’ game style perfectly and will likely see him finish a lot of defensive stands on other players, including LeBron.
Horford isn’t as integral to Boston as LeBron is to Cleveland, and if he doesn’t contribute enormously in a game or two it doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the Cavs. If he can play like he did in Game 1 though, where he scored 20 points on just 10 shots, and dished out 6 assists to go with 0 turnovers, it will go a long way.
Betting agencies have this one at even money, and it’s hard to argue with them. The way LeBron has played so far in these playoffs, and the good form of Love and Korver make it hard to go past the Cavs if they play at their best. Whether they can consistently do this, however, is debatable. In contrast, the Celtics probably have a lower ceiling, but their floor is higher than Cleveland’s. So basically, whichever team plays better will win. How’s that for analysis?
It’s virtually a flip of the coin, but with an ability to ramp things up to a higher level than their opponents, it’ll be the Cavs who sneak home with it. They’ll go down 3-2, get things done at home in Game 6, before heading to Boston to break the hearts of Celtics fans in Bean Town.
Both of these series will be compelling viewing. The Eastern Conference Finals will almost certainly come down to the wire, and will be an interesting matchup between a great team not particularly reliant on any one player, and a pretty average team extremely reliant on exactly one player. In the west, the two best teams in the league will fight it out, and the winner will head to the NBA finals as the favorite. In summary: watch these series’ – they’re gonna be good.