Evan Kinser & Jimmy Canuso
The NBA Playoffs are the time of year that casual NBA fans turn into avid fans. It’s when avid fans lives are absolutely consumed with switching between TNT and ESPN, while still keeping an eye on the top of the screen to see the little score guide. We usually just love the Western Conference first round games because there is a chance for someone to make a big run. The East? Not as exciting. There is a guy up in Cleveland that likes to spoil teams hopes of getting out of the East. Some of you may know him as King James, LBJ, or if you like Sports Illustrated, it might be “The Chosen One.” But this year seems different for LeBron and the Cavs. They aren’t the so-called “favorite” this year, being a 4 seed and going to a Game 7 in the first round. With a much tougher East this year, (thanks to the rapid growth of the Philadelphia 76ers and consistency from the Raptors) it doesn’t look like this will be a cake walk to the Finals for LeBron. Who will win the East though? Evan Kinser and Jimmy Canuso share their thoughts on that and the Western Conference Playoffs:
EK: I personally like the 76ers, it seems like their time has FINALLY come. They don’t need to wait on anybody else to join them and Joel Embiid doesn’t think so either. It’s crazy to think that this team won only 10 games just 2 seasons ago and finished as the 2nd worst team in the Eastern Conference last season. Regardless of how you feel about “The Process,” the 76ers are fun to watch and are winning ball games! Ben Simmons feels like a future all-timer, Joel Embiid is the 3rd best player in the East to me, Saric can do just about everything, JJ Redick can shoot with the best of them, and Brett Brown empowers the players and lets them do their thing. This roster feels like the team of the future, and unless LeBron’s teammates step up, the 76ers should be in the Finals come July. I know there are doubts surrounding the Sixers because of their game one performance against the Celtics. But I don’t think THIS Celtics team has enough fire-power to knock of Embiid and the 76ers. Their game one performance was something for the ages, but it will take than and more to advance to the conference finals.
JC: I would have to agree that the 76ers are playing at the highest level of all of the teams in the Eastern Conference. They came into this playoff with so much momentum, a 16 game win streak. During this stretch, the driving force of their team, Ben Simmons, averaged double digits in both points and assists. Marco Belinelli, an off the bench role-player who got more minutes with the loss of Embiid, emerged from the season as the 5th leading scorer for the team, and is the 4th leading scorer for the team in the postseason. And even Justin Anderson, an off the bench guard who averaged 5 PPG this season, had a couple 20+ point games in there. This just goes to show the depth of this team, and that everyone from the top guy to the bottom can step up and play.
Of the two second round matchups in the East, which series intrigues you more: Celtics vs 76ers or Raptors vs Cavs?
EK: It’s gotta be Raptors/Cavs for me. With Boston being without Kyrie Irving and another key rotational player Daniel Theis, I just really don’t see them putting up much of a fight against the Celtics. As we saw in the first round, they can still win games (won series against Bucks 4-3), but they clearly aren’t the team they would be with Kyrie. If the roster had the healthy pieces that were available, this series would be a different story. Depending on health (and the LeBron situation), this is looking more and more likely that this will be next years Eastern Conference Finals matchup.
Speaking of Raptors/Cavs series, the fact that Raptors have closed the gap on the Cavs means this series may also go to a 7th game. A crazy stat is that no player on the Cavs scored over 20 in any of the 7 first round games against the Pacers, and without the additional help I don’t see the Cavs stopping Lowry and Derozan. As we have seen in the past, the Raptors aren’t the same team that they are in the regular season during the playoffs. But, I believe the combination of experience and a dynamic bench, this may be their year to finally get past LeBron. This series will come down to which team can make the bigger shots. Just having LeBron always gives you a shot to win, but he can only do so much. LeBron is averaging his most points per game (34.4 ppg)in the playoffs since the 2008-09 playoffs (35.3 ppg). In retrospective, the Cavs second and third best players that year were (drum roll please) Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Pretty impressive supporting cast, huh? This year’s supporting cast has been highlighted by the 11.4 ppg of Kevin Love and the 8.3 ppg of Kyle Korver. Take this into consideration: Toronto’s 4th best player, Jonas Valančiūnas, would likely be the Cavs second best this series.
JC: The Cavs/Raptors series will be the more interesting series to watch in the Eastern Semi-Final round. There are a lot of important factors playing into who will come out the victor. The Cavs and the Raptors have faced off in the playoffs the past two postseasons in the Eastern Conference finals, both of which were won by the Cavs. However, the circumstances are a little bit different this year. The Cavs are leaning on Lebron James a lot more than they have in past seasons and we have yet to see anyone else on the Cavs roster have a notable performance in the postseason. The only other player that has averaged double-digit points besides James is Kevin Love. Love still isn’t very reliable right now; his 3-point shot and field goal percentages are down a lot from last season, and he has been very inconsistent. The Raptors, on the other hand, are dealing with a lot of depth on their roster, with everyone who has been playing over 23 minutes a game averaging double digit points (with the exception of Serge Ibaka, a huge contributor on defense). The other factor here is 3 point shooting. When the Cavs swept the Raptors last postseason, they shot a ridiculous 47 percent from beyond the arc while taking 41 percent of their shots from that territory, which led to them outscoring the Raptors by an average of 25.5 points per game during the series. This season however, the Raptors have stepped up their ability to defend/prevent 3-point shooting. During the regular season, they allowed only 29 percent of opponents shots to be taken from beyond the arc, which was the second lowest in the league. They also only allowed the Wizards to take 26 percent of their shots from beyond the arc in the first round. If they can defend the same way against the Cavs, this series will be a much different story. The Raptors also have a much better 3-point game than last season. Finally, the Cavs in the previous two postseasons have come into their series with the Raptors with a good amount of rest and time off from the first round, whereas this year they barely squeezed by the Pacers in 7 games, with Lebron putting up an exhausting 45 point performance in game 7. The bottom line here is that the Cavs always have a chance as long as King James is on their team, but James is merely human, so any inconsistency on his part will lead to the Raptors inevitably coming out on top and heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now I initially thought the Sixers would be able to dominate the Celtics in this series. They are indefinitely without leading scorer Kyrie Irving and without second leading scorer Jaylen Brown for game 1. They also barely squeezed by the 7 seed Bucks in 7 games, while the Sixers cruised past the Heat in 5. It turns out this series could be more interesting than I expected after the Celtics dominated the Sixers 117 to 101 with Rozier, Tatum, and Horford scoring a combined 83 points. They also had a combined 72 points in the last game of their round 1 series against the Bucks. However, I believe there are some very simple reasons why this won’t be the story come game two and beyond. First of all, it was obvious that the Sixers were heavily slacking on defense, allowing way to may open shots and focusing too much on preventing dribble penetration while failing to contest outside shots. They were also being lazy on the offensive end, putting up low percentage shots and failing to find good open shots. As we’ve seen this season, 3 point shooting is one of the main predictors of the Sixers’ success in games. In game 1, the Sixers shot 19.2% from the 3 point line, which is similar to the 19.4% they shot against the Heat in game 2 when they lost to them, while the Celtics shot a blazing 48.6% from downtown, with guard 2Terry Rozier contributing with 7 made threes out of 9 attempts to shoot 78%. Because of Philly’s inability to shoot the long ball in game one, they had to rely heavily on Joel Embiid’s performance in the post. Embiid had to put up a 31 point, 13 rebound, and 5 assist performance just for the Sixers to stay in the game. In the postgame press conference, Embiid said “Defensively, we were unlike ourselves. But next game we just got to be aggressive and play tough defense.” Scary Terry will continue to be hot throughout the rest of the series, but if the Sixers start to play like themselves again and contain Rozier, this series will go to Philly. Brown could also be a problem as an added 3 point threat, but the Sixers simply need to work harder to contest these outside shots.
Have Eastern Conference Playoffs been more entertaining than the West?
EK: Not much debate here. In the West, only one series went to a Game 6, and if you watched that wildly entertaining Jazz/Thunder series, you would know that Game 5 had belonged to the Jazz before Paul George and Russell Westbrook went off (34 & 45 points respectively). On the other hand, the East had two series go to a Game 7, and one went to a Game 6. Because the West is so top-heavy, the playoffs can get a tad boring while in the East it is typically everyone against LeBron. I would say that for me the most entertaining series was definitely the Jazz/Thunder series, but I was mostly entertained in seeing the Thunder disband into THE ABYSS OF SUPER TEAMS PAST (see 2012-13 Lakers). We all know Paul George is coming to the Lakers, right? RIGHT?!?!? But seeing Donovan Mitchell light up the Thunder and seeing Westbrook shoot 19 three’s (his 7 attempts per game from three are still down from his 9.8 attempts last year) will be the best thing to come of this years playoffs.
JC: I’d have to agree that watching Donovan Mitchell continuously dismantle the Thunder defense off the dribble and put up 22 points in a single quarter as a rookie was a pleasure to watch. However, the Eastern conference series has been more entertaining to watch overall. Watching the rivalry unfold between Lebron and Lance Stephenson of the Pacers was always interesting. The Cavs and Pacers series, which went to a game 7, was so back and forth that I could never say definitively who had a better chance of coming out on top. Again, the Cavs are, and will continue to be for the rest of their 2018 run, a team whose success is based on the performance of Lebron James. James has a good team around him, but they fail to be consistent in terms, the Pacers had an almost 20 point win in game one, but that was shrugged off by most to be due to a lackluster effort by King James. But then when the Pacers put up a 121-87 performance in Game 6, I favored the Pacers to pull through in game 7, until Lebron had a 45 point performance and carried his team to victory. The Eastern conference was also more entertaining because of all of the unpredictability. In the West, you knew Harden was gonna be hot all the way and get the Rockets to the second round, Anthony Davis would dominate in the paint and be too much for the Trailblazers to handle, and that the Warriors would be the Warriors. Then there was the East. Sports analysts were all over the place with how the Celtics-Bucks series would turn out with the Celtics being without Kyrie and the Bucks having their full roster, but a different coach. The Bucks, who are also one of the worst rated defenses in the NBA, never let up, and the Celtics ended up having a tough, well-fought, 7 game series that they escaped to make it to the second round. The 76ers, who were arguably playing at the highest of any team in the East coming into this series, were still very questionable because of the inexperience they have on their roster, with most of their highest scoring players never having been to the playoffs, but they still were able to get by the Heat. Even the one seed Raptors were given a run for their money from the 8 seed Wizards, with John Wall and Bradley Beal having a couple ridiculously high scoring games. The eastern conference matchups coming up in the second round shouldn’t be any less exciting.
Will it be the Rockets or the Warriors advancing to the Finals?
EK: If you take anything from the play of the Warriors and Rockets from Game 1, it should be that these teams mean business. It is yet to be determined what Steph Curry that the Warriors will be getting once he returns from injury, but for now I am giving the edge to the defending champ Warriors. I’m not betting against a team with 2 of the top 5 players in the world and the team that has won the West 3 straight seasons. Now do I think the Rockets have no chance to advance? No. But this will be a tall task for the Rockets if they plan on pulling the minor upset. This SHOULD be the best matchup in the playoffs this year, including the Finals. The Rockets provide the greatest threat to the KD-era Warriors since being assembled because they are obsessed with “beating the Warriors.” This team was built just to knock off the reigning champs and it looks like Daryl Morey has put the Rockets in position to at least take this series to 7 games. The Rockets have the most notable names for a bench in the league, with 6 proven vets (Joe Johnson, Nene, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, Luc Mbah a Moute, and PJ Tucker) providing solid defense and shot making. Whether or not they actually become the first team to knock off the Warriors in the west bracket since 2014, this team has been very impressive & should continue to improve.
JC: I would have to say that I can’t jump to any conclusions until I see how Steph Curry plays this series coming off of his injury. However, the Warriors have more than made up for the absence of their star point guard. And now that Iguodala is back to playing full minutes, I couldn’t bring myself to vote against them matching up with the Rockets, who lost in six games to the San Antonio Spurs in the semi-finals last year. If the Rockets are going to win this thing, however, they are going to have to win it defensively. The Rockets have a 2-1 record against the Warriors in the regular season. In the one game the Rockets lost, Klay Thompson and Steph went off from beyond the arc in the 4th quarter to pull out a 124 to 114 victory. The Rockets have to contest outside the perimeter like their lives depend on it. And if James Harden and the Rockets just keep doing what they’ve been doing offensively, they will stand a chance to take down the Warriors.
All Stats Via www.basketball-reference.com