D. Gulley for the Shop Report with my picks for the 2015 NBA Conference championships. Let’s get right to it.
Western Conference Finals
(1) Golden State Warriors (67-15) vs (2) Houston Rockets (56-26)
Let’s quickly get the obvious out of the way. The Warriors bring 2015 league MVP Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and a high tempo offense. The Rockets counter with MVP runner-up James Harden, Dwight Howard and an ever-resilient Rockets team with inside-outside versatility.
Now let’s get to the unknown…
The Warriors have been surprisingly the best team in the league from wire to wire in the regular season with a first year coach Steve Kerr. Offense gets the glory but defense wins championships, and the Warriors are a thickly veiled defensive juggernaut. Teams shoot worst overall against the Warriors than anyone else, and teams shoot fifth-worst from 3 point land, thank Andre Iguoldala and Harrison Barnes for this. Both the Warriors and Rockets collect rebounds as effectively as one another, which gets lost under the lights of the shooting prowess let by Curry and Thompson. The Warriors are sixth in the league in steals, which turn into extra possessions, and extra points. Most surprising is the Warriors are second in the league in blocks while Dwight Howard and Josh Smith and company are a respectable tenth in the league. Consider this, the Warriors went through the Pelicans featuring Anthony Davis, and the “Grind House” Grizzles, teams with an inside presence if nothing else, and beat them soundly to advance to this point. Clearly, the Warriors can win the inside game, now they must face a team with both an inside and outside presence featuring Harden and Howard. A lot of attention gets made to James Harden’s disinterest in playing defense, but he averages nearly 2 steals per game and 1.5 in the playoffs. Needless to say, Harden is the straw that stirs the drink for the Rockets’ offense, and Dwight Howard is the ice that keeps it cool. The dual threat of an interior and exterior presence that will test the dexterity of the Warriors defensively. The Rockets, however, survived a pressure cooker of facing elimination and winning, coming from a 3-1 deficit against the Clippers. This is a tremendous effort, enough that lacking home court advantage is not a problem for the Rockets.
All in all, the Warriors have what it will take to advance to the NBA Finals because the depth of their offensive contributions and stealthily stellar defense.
PICK: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Eastern Conference Finals
(1) Atlanta Hawks (60-22) vs (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29)
The Atlanta Hawks arrive with the Eastern Conference’s best record but not the conference’s best talent (arguably). I’m certain they beg to differ. Unfortunately, team sports are most identified by singular star power, and the Hawks are the case in point. But 60 times this season, their opposition recognized just who they were. On the season, the Hawks lack a single 20-point scorer, with power forward Paul Millsap averaging 16.7 points followed by center Al Horford with 15.9 points. Small forward DeMarre Carroll at 17.1 points actually has the Hawks’ highest scoring average in the playoffs. Night in and night out, Hawks veteran shooting guard Kyle Korver proves to be a problem for teams that don’t account for him. Only the Golden State Warriors have more assists on the year than the Hawks, that means everyone is a part of their success; the whole is greater than the sum total of its parts. It is in this fashion that he Hawks have been referred to has the Spurs-East. And it will take every bit of the collective effort to beat the Cavs. What’s special about both the Hawks and the Cavs is that they do not send teams to the charity stripe a lot, as they are second and first respectively in free throw attempts allowed. Key for the Hawks is that they force turnovers and are fifth in points allowed, this is where they’re most Spurs-like.
Now about they’re opposition…
The Cleveland Cavs are as bi-polar a team as you can get. Due to trades and injuries, they are not at all the same team that started the season and held a losing record at one point in January. Featuring LBJ, arguably the best overall player in the league and Kyrie Irving emerging as a dual first or second option on offense, they are easily the toughest matchup the Hawks will face in the playoff run (save a potential matchup with the Warriors). What stymies most of the Cavs competition, is that they refuse (or fail) to allow Lebron James to be a factor while containing the others, making him as deadly a threat as ever. This is compounded by Timofey Mozgov at center and J.R. Smith at guard who are capable third and fourth scoring options at all times. Last, and most certainly not least, Iman Shumpert embraces on the ball defense which he has been lauded for since he arrived in the league only 3 seasons ago.
Key to this series is understanding the moment, and the emotions therein. This is an advantage that the Cavaliers have because of Lebron James – like him or not. Tangibly, the ability to rely on a clutch scorer, or volume scorer is yet another advantage that the Cavaliers hold, though the Hawks have been successful at times in their regular season matchup. The Cavs bring more to the table than the Hawks and I would therefore be pleasantly surprised to see the Hawks emerge in this series. Alas, this is about what I expect, not what I would be surprised to see, therefore look for the Cavs to win.
PICK: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
We’ll surely be back with the NBA Finals preview, stay tuned.