By Matt Straub
It's down to the conference finals in the NBA. One series is a fascinating clash of styles, the other is the personification of everything wrong with the sport I love and sports in general today.
Both series, however, feature the two best teams in the conference, meaning we've gotten the Final Four any fan who wasn't rooting for a specific team would hope for.
So let's look at each series, breaking down what the teams have to do to win and what the structure of each team says about the sport's future.
Eastern Conference Finals
No. 1 Atlanta vs. No. 2 Cleveland
This series features two teams who couldn’t have been made in more different ways. The Hawks are a collection of players meant to fit together to run the offense to perfection, much like the Spurs, whose influence is especially strong on this team since its creators came from San Antonio.
The Cavs are built like the Heat used to be, and in a way which most teams would these days if they could. Get LeBron James, let him get some friends, put him with another good player and wait for the conference finals to start. Unfortunately for Cleveland, two of its Big 3 come into this series injured. Kevin Love is out, and Kyrie Irving is banged up, and his status for Game 1 is unclear. Fortunately for the Cavs, their bench has some actual NBA talent on it, unlike the Clippers. Also, one of the players who comes into this series is James, who can win a series almost by himself if he plays well and really has to.
For the Hawks to have a chance in this series, they must turn James into a jump shooter. Irving’s effectiveness is in doubt based on his leg injuries, but James has won with broken down Dwyane Wade before, so don’t count him out. Still, a lot of Cleveland’s offensive options are limited without a full Irving, meaning James may have to go more into his point forward role. If this gets James driving, Irving’s injury could actually help Cleveland, since he’s not much of a jump shooter. If James stays outside and either looks for bullet passes or settles for jumpers, Cleveland could be in trouble. You’ll be able to tell in the first few minutes of Game 1. If the Cavs are doing a lot of standing around, the Hawks are in good shape. If they are getting to the basket and getting the ball to open areas, they are in good shape.
The Hawks play an ideal style to watch, trying to imitate the Spurs, but their offense has stalled in the last three months. The Spurs offense is gorgeous and full of movement, but worked in the Finals last year in large part because they had Hall of Famers running it. The Hawks have an underrated star in Jeff Teague at point and a bunch of role players who haven’t been the same in the playoffs. Teague is probably a great second fiddle on a championship team but he doesn’t have the stars to give it to in this series.
If you like watching a bunch of decent players become more than the sum of their parts, Atlanta is fun to watch. This is the NBA, however, the most star-driven league of any of the major sports we watch in America. Cleveland has the stars and the advantage here.
Matt’s Prediction: Cleveland in 6
Western Conference Finals
No. 1 Golden State vs. No. 2 Houston
I confess, I don’t like these teams. The Warriors represent everything that’s wrong with today’s NBA, bombing threes left and right in hopes that sheer volume gets them through. What we don’t talk about enough, however, is the Warriors’ defense, which while not as good as people think, is still solid. They have big, athletic guys who can take away wings, and are tough inside with their depth. They can play most styles, and are more than the “Splash brothers”.
Houston annoys me because they represent what’s wrong with all sports these days. They have a GM who wants to be the star and thinks he can reinvent the game with different stats. The media eats it up because he’s easily accessible, and the national media loves guys who talk to them, and gives him a pass when year after year they lose. Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s GM, is the baseball equivalent of Houston’s Daryl Morey. Morey is worse, however, because he’s a fraud. For all his talk of stats, he consistently goes out and tries to get the big stars, the kind of guys who make stats relatively meaningless. I didn’t need a computer to know to go out and get big stars, but Morey even messed this approach up. He went out and got Dwight Howard and James Harden, both of whom have big questions attached to them. They are two stars who you might not be able to win with. Stat guys who don’t believe in intangibles don’t think about things like that, but Howard has a history of messing up teams and Harden hasn’t yet proven himself a winner.
Morey does deserve some credit since his team is in the conference finals, but he didn’t get there as much as the Clippers lost it for Houston. Doc Rivers screwed up the series, blaming his team’s inability to get motivated (his job) or to make changes (his job). Worse, the man who left the Celtics for a job in which he could pick the players then blamed the roster he created. This despite taking over a team which won 56 games the year before he got there.
As for the stuff on the court, the teams will both shoot and run, which will actually make this interesting to watch for the average fan who doesn’t want to worry about too many Xs and Os. It will come down to who can do a better job inside and who can play the best defense, which means Golden State rolls.
Matt’s Prediction: Golden State in 5