As we all know, it's getting down to the end of the NBA season, and only four teams are left: The Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics. The Warriors will play the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals for the second time in four years. This being said, this new and vastly improved Rockets team will serve as their toughest opponent yet in the four Western Conference Finals the Warriors have been to.
On the other side, the Cavaliers will be squaring off against the Celtics in their second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals meeting, however, the narrative is much different this time. Both Eastern Conference teams have very few players from last year returning, with the Celtics at 4 and the Cavaliers at 5. Who will make it out alive?
We break it down below to find out what each team needs to do to maximize their chance at advancing to the NBA Finals.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are one of the most elite teams in the history of the NBA. The pace and tempo they play with is extremely daunting for even the fastest, most athletic teams to keep up with. Their opponent, the Rockets, are probably the closest resemblance to the style of play they use. Run and gun is what I like to think of it as. Get the ball up the court as fast as you can, find an open shot and take it. The more you can score, the better chance you have to win, right? In the case of this series, that may not necessarily be true.
As I said before, the Rockets run a very similar offensive scheme, because the players on their roster don’t know how to play any other way. This can be a weakness the Warriors can feed off of. If they can run a half-court offense and slow the game down, the Rockets will be out of their element. The Warriors are capable of making that switch, I’m not sure the Rockets are. Also, the Warriors have four All-Stars, all of which have different things they bring to the table.
Stephen Curry is the purest shooter to ever play the game, but yet his playmaking skills go unnoticed due to the highlights he puts up nearly every night. Klay Thompson is one of the best two-way players in the NBA, being an amazing shooter and a serious problem as a perimeter defender. Kevin Durant is just Kevin Durant. He is one of the most elite scorers in NBA history and has drastically improved his defense over the last few years, making him a first ballot hall of fame player. Last but not least, Draymond Green is always a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, making his presence felt all over the court.
As long as these guys play their game and stay disciplined as they usually are, they should have no issues getting past the Rockets for their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance.
Andre Iguodala: His defense and athleticism can give guys like James Harden and Eric Gordon a hard time scoring, plus he can drive and finish or kick to guys like Curry/Thompson/Durant.
JaVale McGee/Jordan Bell: Clint Capela will be someone who will wreak havoc on the Warriors if they aren’t careful. Mcgee is a decently athletic shot blocker who can give Capela a hard time scoring buckets he usually has no problem with at all. Along the same lines, Bell is a guy with a motor that never stops, who would also be disruptive in Capela’s type of offensive scheme.
The Rockets have been amazing this year, with the MVP caliber play of James Harden to the acquisition of Chris Paul. They can be a very dangerous team when they are shooting the ball well, which is exactly what they need to do if they want to have any chance of beating the Warriors.
The Rockets game plan should be to spread the floor as normal but use Clint Capela’s huge frame to take advantage of whoever is guarding him. Spreading the floor will allow him to go to work, which if successful, would force the Warriors to put slower guys on the court (Pachulia/McGee/Bell). This would only be detrimental to their overall defense, allowing the Rockets to counter with faster, more athletic lineups that can get transition buckets. The play of their backcourt will make or break them. The Warriors have enough personnel to allow one of their stars to have a bad night, the Rockets do not.
James Harden and Chris Paul need to play their best to give their team a fighting chance in this series. If they can play at an elite level, they have a chance at taking down the defending champs.
PJ Tucker: PJ Tucker is really the only one on the Rockets roster who could muster up enough strength to play with Draymond Green. His defense will be key in this series to prevent Green from putting up any monster stat lines that usually result in resounding Warrior victories.
Ryan Anderson: Another antidote for Draymond Green, except on the offensive side, Anderson is a good three-point shooter. This would force Green to play on the perimeter and opens up the paint for Capela to work one on one against his defender. Look for him to be firing shots away from deep this series to keep the defense honest.
Having The King is always nice, right? After defeating the sorry Toronto Raptors four games to none in the semifinals, the Cavs are onto their fourth straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Their opponent is an injury-plagued Boston Celtics, but they are certainly not a team they should be counted out. The Cavs best weapon in this series is the experience. LeBron James has played more playoff minutes than the entire Celtics roster combined, already giving the advantage to the Cavs. That being said, barring LeBron, the Celtics may have slightly more talent than the Cavs overall.
One of the Celtics weaknesses is consistent scoring. If LeBron can play good defense on guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, he can take away multiple offensive options for them, making it even harder for the Celtics to score. Team defense is a must against this young, confident Celtics team, considering shaking their confidence is really all they need to do to make them fall apart. Spreading the floor will also give the Cavs more of an opportunity to score. Al Horford is an excellent defender down low, and using someone like Kevin Love who can knock down the three would drag him out to the perimeter where Horford can’t bother anyone down low.
The Cavs will need players like Kyle Korver, JR Smith, and George Hill to be shooting well to make the defense honor them and not sag off to help in the paint. As long as this experienced Cavs team can continue to ride off of LeBron's ridiculous postseason play, then they will be looking at their fourth straight finals appearance.
Kyle Korver: If Kyle Korver can get hot, there is no telling what this Cavs team can’t do. If he is hitting his shots, that’s going to be a focal point for the Celtics defense. This should be Korver’s cue to hit guys rolling off of his screens when all eyes are on him expecting him to shoot. Look for him to get a liberal amount of minutes, and possibly a rise in his assist numbers as well.
Tristan Thompson: The Celtics have a notorious problem with rebounding, which is where Thompson can be a huge problem. Thompson is one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, which can lead to a lot of second-chance points for the Cavs, putting the Celtics in a deeper hole than they need to be.
Although they were expected to get to the Eastern Conference Finals at the beginning of the season, everyone began to count them out once Gordon Hayward, and especially since Kyrie Irving went down. But the team has had each other's backs and has instilled confidence in each other that no one thought possible. That being said, they are undermanned and they are playing the best player in the NBA, LeBron James, who is currently playing some of the best basketball of his career. They will need to use the strategic mind of head coach Brad Stevens to have a chance at beating the Cavs and advancing to the NBA Finals.
Their first action should be to pick on their frontcourt on offense. The Cavs will most likely start George Hill and either Kyle Korver or JR Smith, maybe both if they slide LeBron to the power forward for some small ball. This is where Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown should be licking their chops. Both Rozier and Brown can take any three of those guys off the dribble and score, and Brown can certainly post up all three as well. As of late, most of the Celtics offense has been coming through four guys: Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford. If the Celtics frontcourt can play a little bully ball with the Cavs frontcourt, it will be successful.
However, no matter what you do on offense, it won’t matter if you can’t stop, or at least slow down The King. To the Celtics advantage, they have the best defense in the NBA and have plenty of bodies to throw at LeBron to slow him down. His primary defenders will probably be Brown and Tatum, but off the bench, Semi Ojeleye and Marcus Morris will get increased playing time to (attempt to) muscle LeBron up. The goal is not to stop him from scoring, because no one in the history of basketball has ever done such a thing, but to make every basket physically demanding on his body. This way, towards the end of games, he might not make those fadeaway jumpers, or he might not make those crisp cross-court passes. Making him work every possession is enough to make even the tiniest flaws in his game show up in times where it may be desperately needed by the Celtics.
In conclusion, the Celtics could make it to their first NBA Finals since 2010 if they can continue to play both ends of the court with confidence and purpose.
Semi Ojeleye: Who? Although he is someone decently deep in the Celtics roster, this Brickhouse is one of the main forces the Celtics will need to use to slow LeBron down. He played huge minutes in their series against the Bucks, primarily guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo and ultimately giving him serious issues on the offensive end. Look for an uptick in minutes for Semi.
Jaylen Brown: Jaylen Brown is coming off of a hamstring injury, and is starting to look like he might be back to 100%. He will have to play an integral part in the Celtics offense in order to beat the Cavs. If he can take advantage of the smaller Cavs backcourt, he could easily average 20+ points in this series.