What’s a team to do? Do the underdogs have a chance in the Conference Finals?

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Early in the NBA Playoffs, when there are 16 teams and 8 different series going on, there are so many games that we’re forced to be a little bit patient with our game to game reactions.

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What’s a team to do?

Now that we’ve pared down the number of teams, there’s so much more time to look at things that we make grand statements and overreact on a daily basis.  Everyone is jumping onto the Thunder bandwagon and completely writing off the Raptors after the respective Game One’s, and there is some validity to the reactions that people have, but it’s important to remember how we reacted during the last round. After the Spurs’ blowout win over the Thunder, every story was about how screwed the Thunder were and whether this was the end of Kevin Durant’s time in OKC. Fast forward a week and a half, and the narrative has shifted to where people are practically inking his signature on Thunder letterhead for him. Similarly, the Raptors were written off multiple times in the series against both Miami and Indiana. When DeRozan and Lowry were doing their best old-Kobe Bryant impressions, they were a franchise that needed to blow things up. Now, they’re the resilient team that finally broke through into the Conference Finals. Like I said, there’s a chance that the Thunder have unlocked their potential, and a very strong chance that the Raptors are toast against Cleveland, but let’s look at how things could potentially play out moving forward.

Thunder vs. Warriors:

All season, the Warriors employed multiple small ball lineups hinging on Draymond Green at Center and flanking him with athletic, long armed players like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes. Dubbed the “Lineups of Death”, these combinations completely strangled opponents for long stretches of time every time they were on the floor. As a whole, the Warriors outscored their opponents by 10.5 points per game this season, but in the 1059 minutes that Draymond Green played at Center, they outscored opponents by 26.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s ridiculous. For a quarter of the available minutes this year, Golden State was nearly unbeatable. With that in mind, the only downside to this lineup is the susceptibility to being destroyed on the glass, and that’s where the intrigue of the series comes in.

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This is the face of a man who knows he’s doomed.

With Westbrook and Durant pairing up, OKC trots out a lineup that always features 2 of the top 7 players in the NBA. The struggle for the franchise since James Harden’s departure has been finding a running mate that can play off of the strengths of those 2 guys. With the emergence of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams against the Spurs, it looks like the Thunder have finally found a guy (or combination of guys) that can take the team to the next level. With Adams defensive abilities and elite quickness and rebounding to go along with Kanter’s elite low post offense, the Spurs’ bigs never had a chance in that series. While this was a solution in that round, basketball is all about match-ups, and the Warriors’ Death Lineups are pure hell for big men of Kanter and Adams’ ilk. With small and active shooters all over the place, those two get put in positions where they have to potentially guard a much smaller and faster opponent. This leads to either open three-pointers or easy driving lanes for Golden State once the initial possession match-ups break down. Thunder coach, Billy Donovan, is left in an untenable position where he has to choose between playing his strengths by going big, or avoiding his match-up disadvantages by going small. All season, teams tried to beat Golden State by changing their game plan to match the small ball, and the results spoke for themselves. Through one game, at least, Donovan is channeling his inner Al Davis who once said “We don’t take what the defense gives us, we take whatever the heck we want”. I both love and admire this attitude, since the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Rather than subbing out their bigs to avoid giving up easy buckets, OKC decided to pound the Warriors on the glass and count on their length to limit fast breaks and easy three pointers. If this strategy is going to pay off, the advantage they get from the rebounding has to overcome the advantage Golden State gets from fast break points and three pointers. In Game One, they out-rebounded the Dubs by 8, made 11 more free throws and were only outscored by a combined 11 points in fast breaks and threes. NBA series always come down to game by game adjustments, so I’m sure Steve Kerr will switch things up to maximize his advantages, but for one game at least, the Thunder unlocked the door to beating Golden State.

My Prediction: Warriors in 6.

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LeBron James: Still no regard for human life.

Raptors vs. Cavaliers:

With the glut of talent on Cleveland’s roster, a weak Eastern Conference and a highly motivated Lebron James, a Warriors/Cavs rematch in the finals has felt nearly unavoidable this season. Even during the social media nonsense of Lebron sub-tweeting his teammates, posting Instagram videos with Dwayne Wade and unfollowing the official Cavs handles on social media, it’s been silly to think this team wouldn’t coast to this point. For Cavs haters, the hope in Round 1 was that Detroit’s athleticism and physicality would wear Cleveland down. Despite some close games, the series reminded me of the mid-90’s Bulls: lackadaisical to start the series, but as soon as the Pistons tried to step up to them, Cleveland stepped on their neck. In Round 2, we hoped that Atlanta’s elite defense and good teamwork would put a dent in the Cleveland armor, but the overall speed and length the Cavs have, along with ungodly three-point shooting, woke us from that daydream pretty quickly.

This years’ Toronto Raptors team was undoubtedly the best in franchise history. They put 2 players in the All-Star Game with Lowry and DeRozan both drawing the honors, they’ve got a solid bench unit highlighted by Corey Joseph, Nick Powell and Bismack Biyombo and they have cap flexibility and all their draft picks for the future. All this led to a 56 win season and the second seed in the East. The best comparison I have to this team was the 2010 Chicago Bulls team that rode an MVP season from Derrick Rose, a great bench and all-world level defense to the number one seed in the East. Like the Raptors, they squeaked through the first round against the Pacers and ended up in the Conference Finals against a Lebron James led team. In both the case of the Bulls and the Raptors, they had controlled the regular season match-ups against the  LeBrons’ and were given more credibility than they deserved based on those results. In the Bulls case, they won Game One and then were swept off the floor in decisive fashion the rest of the series. After playing at their full intensity all season, they had no extra gear when things got tough. Their ball dominant little point guard got swallowed up by long arms and bigger bodies and their best shot at a title was gone.

Unfortunately for Raptors’ fans, it looks like their team is going to suffer a similar fate. Their best shot was to sneak a win in the first game over a rusty Cleveland team, then hope that Lowry and DeRozan could stay hot all series and ride the momentum of the home crowd to a competitive series. That shot died in Game One, with Lowry being hounded into a 4-14 shooting night with only 5 assists and 4 turnovers to go with a -16 plus/minus for the game. Cleveland was faster, stronger, bigger and more motivated and LeBron looked like he was completely locked in. The Cavs were able to blitz every Toronto offensive set with their length and intensity, and when Cleveland had the ball, they attacked the paint with reckless abandon, getting any shot they wanted throughout the night. Toronto had no answer to LeBron and Kyrie’s quickness and shot-making, and the rest of the team and crowd fed off that success.

The only hope the Raptors have moving forward is to catch the Cavs on a bad shooti

Drake, it might be your fault.

ng night while simultaneously shooting the lights out themselves. Cleveland has yet to shoot poorly in any game this postseason or suffer through any sort of team trauma. If Toronto wants to steal a game or two, their only shot is to (figuratively) punch Cleveland in the mouth in the next game. They have to come out completely on fire in Game Two, hope for a big lead, quiet the crowd and plant some seed of doubt in the Cavaliers’ minds. Cleveland is unquestionably the more talented team, and have also been the harder working and mentally stronger team thus far.  The Raptors can’t afford to get beaten in the mental and hustle aspects of the game along with the physical disadvantages. If they continue to let Cleveland play so confidently and comfortably while they jog through their offensive sets and defensive assignments, no amount of Drake antics can save them from an embarrassing sweep. I’m far from being an unbiased observer, as I both enjoy Toronto and hate Cleveland, but I also appreciate good basketball, and this Cavs team is playing some really good basketball. As much as I’d love to see some drama and fight in this series, I’m even more excited for the Finals match-up between Cleveland and whoever wins out in the West. I think Toronto has too much pride to go out quietly, but Cleveland is just too good.

My Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.

 

So as much as I tried to fight against the preconceived notions I brought up in the opening section, even I can’t be that much of a contrarian. It’s always fun to be the guy who goes outside the box and picks against the crowd, but it’s even more fun to be right. We were cheated out of an epic series last year with the Love and Irving injuries, so I pray to the basketball gods that everyone gets to the finals healthy. Whether it’s Westbrook and Durant or Curry and the Dubs’ matching up against Cleveland, it’s going to be ridiculous. We’ll have enough hot takes, mock outrage, real outrage and outright idiocy to break our brains during the finals, and I can’t wait.
I love this game.

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