The Final Four of the NBA is here. We get to to see three of the top MVP candidates, and the well-balanced starting five of the Hawks, attempt to lead there respective teams to the 2015 NBA Finals. Chaminade High School writers Alec Neimand (16′), Connor Hoyt (15′), and Matt Patterson (16′) give their predictions for the NBA Conference Finals.
Western Conference Finals: No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No 2. Houston Rockets
Neimand: Warriors in 5- The Rockets have made the Western Conference Finals! It is music to all the analytic supporters’ ears! However, the Rockets making it this far is not due to their commitment to statistics. I say this as a major analytics fan, there is no number in the world that could have predicted the epic collapse the Clippers suffered. Houston did not play last round like a team that should be four games away from a finals appearance.
That whole series appeared to be two teams playing a game of “Who can look worse?” and the while Houston looked bad early on, the Clippers made a major comeback in the last quarter of Game 6 and Game 7 to show that they are the worse team. In no point that series did Houston look actually good. Even when they were blowing Los Angeles out, there was still this feeling that they would give it up. I mean in Game 7, LA actually got within 8 with less than 2 minutes left before Houston pulled away again.
The Warriors on the other hand are coming off a series win where they showed championship resiliency. In games 2 and 3, Memphis looked to be the first team to have found its answer to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Tony Allen became the Golden State backcourt’s kryptonite, and things were not looking positive in the Bay Area, but when Allen went down with an injured hamstring, Golden State took advantage of the two games he was injured, and there was no looking back. Steve Kerr took his squad from down 1-2 to up 3-2, then in Game 6 Steph Curry went into full MVP mode and Golden State cruised into the Western Conference Finals.
The WCF will be an entertaining one no doubt. Curry and James Harden were 1 and 2 in MVP voting, and watching them play against each other will be wonderful, but remember how the Rockets believe numbers never lie? Well the numbers say that Curry has beaten Harden the last 5 time they played. Houston can maybe steal a game in this one, but nothing more.
Hoyt: Warriors in 5- Not too long ago, I was furious that Stephen Curry had been awarded with the MVP as opposed to James Harden. I had been advocating for Harden all season because I think that he can carry a team better than anyone else in the league. If you take Harden away from the Rockets, a reasonable case can be made that they likely do not even make the playoffs this season. In contrast, if you take Stephen Curry off of the Warriors, it is more than likely that they make the playoffs nonetheless as they are an extremely deep team.
That being said, regular season awards are entirely irrelevant in the playoffs. In a crucial Game 6 against the Clippers, for instance, James Harden disappeared in the fourth quarter— literally, he did not play one minute of the fourth! I understand that Houston’s bench was in a groove (wow, you won’t hear that very often), but for Harden to shoot as poorly as he did (just 5-20) and to sit the entire fourth quarter in what has now proven to be one of the most important games of his career speaks to the inherently different nature of the playoffs. Sometimes, people don’t perform up to par, don’t play as they are capable of doing (look at Harden in the 2012 NBA Finals for even more evidence of that). The playoffs are a different animal altogether and so for that reason, I’m not putting much stock into my de facto MVP in this series. While Houston is fresh off of becoming just the ninth team in NBA history to erase a 3-1 deficit and in so doing, remind us all that the Clipper Curse is very much alive and well, it did so about as sloppily as possible. At times, that series felt as though each time was playing to not lose rather than to win; they looked timid, passive, and at times, indifferent. Give credit to the Rockets, yes, but it doesn’t take a basketball expert to understand that the Clippers came apart at the seams and practically handed Houston its berth to the conference finals.
On the flip side, Golden State continued to impress, erasing a 2-1 deficit thanks not so much to its opponent’s incompetence, but instead, a rejuvenated defense. When down 2-1, Draymond Green was quoted as saying, “This is the first time we faced some adversity, really all year.” And quite frankly, the Warriors did not disappoint, winning the next three games of the series in convincing fashion, 2 of which were in Memphis. The Warriors are clicking on all cylinders and they clearly have the Rockets figured out, having beaten them by double digits all four times that the teams squared off in the regular season. Steve Kerr has reiterated what it means to be a championship defense and the Warriors are refocused as a result. There are simply too many factors pointing towards Golden State here; I see them beating Houston handily.
Patterson: Warriors in 6- The Rockets have lived by the three point shot, and this round, will die on the three point shot. If the jumpers aren’t falling, the Rockets have nothing else to rely on. They have nobody to throw the ball into the post (Sorry Dwight), and their defense is still no better than “decent”. Also, the Clippers exposed the one huge weakness of James Harden’s offensive game: his mid-range jumpshot. Throughout the series, the Clippers forced Harden to take contested two point jumpers, and it worked for a majority of the series. The trick was to force Harden to put the ball on the ground, then bring DeAndre Jordan out of the paint to cut Harden off at around 18 feet away, forcing him to shoot the pull-up shot. I expect Kerr and his staff to learn from their biggest rival, and try to do the same thing. Harden still managed to have a solid series, but that can be largely credited to the fact that he was being guarded by J.J. Reddick, Jamal Crawford, and Austin Rivers throughout the series. This time, he will have to face Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and maybe even Draymond Green. Yikes. Then there is Andrew Bogut waiting at the rim. Good luck Harden.
This is the issue on one side of the ball, the other end for the Rockets will be just as ugly. Jason Terry is going to have to guard Stephen Curry, or Klay Thompson. Both of those guys come off way to many screens for the Jet, giving his current age, to keep up with. Some say why not just stick him on Harrison Barnes, but Barnes proved last series that he can be a reliable scorer, with an effective post-up game. The only way that the Rockets could try to match up with the Warriors on the defensive end would be without Harden on the court, which isn’t happening.
The only reason I’m giving the Rockets two games here is that they are destined to have a few games that they are hitting their shots, and Josh Smith and Corey Brewer are looking like the real Splash Brothers. The Rockets have played two below average defensive teams, and now against the number one defensive team in the league, will be exposed of their basic and jump-shot reliant offense.
Eastern Conference Finals: No. 1 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers
Neimand: Cavs in 6- Man, that last Cleveland series was sad. The first 3 games had all the makings of an incredible series, competitive all throughout each game, two games ending with buzzer beaters, tension, and controversy. Unfortunately, this did not continue. The Bulls mailed it in and Cleveland easily walked in to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Then there’s Atlanta, who does not look like the team they once were. The Hawks seem to be in survival mode, just trying to win one game at a time. The Cavs have a championship mentality. They see the bigger picture and what is at stake, and I like that viewpoint a lot better than just surviving. “Survive and Advance” works for the NCAA Tournament, it does not work for the NBA playoffs. The “Survivors” in the playoffs rarely win the title, they eventually fall. Atlanta can take maybe one or two games, but there is no way that they can beat the championship mentality that Cleveland is bringing.
Hoyt: Cavs in 6- I definitely toiled with this one for quite some time and though I actually picked both of these teams to lose in the second round, I think both are very fitting to play for the conference title. The Cavs are banged up and everyone knows it. The Hawks will certainly look to exploit that throughout the series and if they can effectively do so, I would not be surprised to see them in the NBA Finals. I’ll admit it— this prediction hinges on whether or not Kyrie Irving is healthy. Generally speaking, he’s been able to play some good basketball against Chicago even despite his physical limitations, but as he’s had to shoulder more of the scoring load, he’s only grown unhealthier. More so than anything, I think that Kyrie Irving’s appearance will be a key point in this series. If he can play half-decent basketball and not lay an egg, then I think that the Cavs should be able to pick up his slack. If not, Atlanta will be in a position to end the Cleveland Soap Opera just a little bit early.
Though most players on both of these teams lack deep playoff experience, there is a certain someone who you might have heard of who has been here before. His name’s LeBron James, ring a bell? I genuinely trust LeBron to do whatever is necessary to get this Cleveland team over the hump and if his teammates can simply give him some support, I think that he can will them to the Finals on the back of a spectacular performance.
The Hawks have no big time player who’s been there and done that which I have to say makes me quite wary of picking them to go the Finals. Budenholzer has done a fantastic job, but I think that Atlanta’s run will finally come to a close.
Patterson: Cavs in 7- I was not impressed by either team in the last series’. The Hawks beat a Wizards team that was without their best player for a majority of the series, and the Cavs relied on LeBron to do pretty much everything, looking like the 2010 Cavs team. With a healthy Kyrie, I’m taking the Cavs in five, but it is clear that he is not 100%. There will be games that Kyrie won’t be as big as a factor as Coach Blatt needs him to be, and they will be simply outmatched by the well-balanced Atlanta Hawks team.
The key to this series is Jeff Teague. Teague is one of those guys that has a switch, that isn’t always on. To be truly elite, that switch must always be on, as Teague has the potential to dominate every NBA game, but sometimes looks as if he is not interested. Teague scored 26 points in Game 3, and shot 9-20 from the field. In Games 5 and 6, Teague scored a combined 20 points and took only 26 shots. If the Hawks want to beat LeBron and Co., they will need Teague to be not only the facilitator, but the go-to scorer. Yes, that means he has to do what elite point guards do in today’s game. Chris Paul, John Wall, Stephen Curry, all of their team’s best playmakers, and scorers.
At some point, the Hawks are going to need to go to need to give someone the ball in the last two minutes. Paul Millsap and Al Horford rely more on catch up and shoot mid-range shots, and have little post moves. DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver serve as spot up shooters in the offense, so Teague is the lone man standing. He has to make Kyire work on the defensive end, and take advantage of Kyrie’s weak ankle. It will come down to Game 7, and LeBron James will be LeBron James, on the biggest stage.