Liam Smith ’20
It has come down to the final four teams. The Rockets and the Warriors are in a high-noon standoff to see who runs the Western Conference. The Cavaliers and the Celtics look to face off in a duel for the Eastern Conference. Houston, Oakland, Cleveland, and Boston all have their sights set on the oh-so-near Finals, but let’s take a look back on how each team persevered to get to this stage.
Well, the word persevere might not exactly pertain to the Rockets. Houston sailed through the first round, steamrolling the Minnesota Timberwolves in five games. Next, they faced the sizzling hot Utah Jazz, who were coming off an upset win over the OKC Thunder. Though the rookie point guard sensation—Donovan Mitchell—made us all sweat with a win in Houston, the Rockets cleaned up their act winning two games on the road. Chris Paul ended his thirteen-year Conference Finals drought with a triumphant 40 point showcase to close the series.
Golden State Warriors:
The golden-boy of the league had no trouble getting to the Conference Finals. They beat the fundamentally sound San Antonio Spurs without their two-time MVP in Steph Curry. After recovering from his injured meniscus, the Warrior’s ace in the hole helped to close out the New Orleans Pelicans in five games. Now that their line up is back to peak position, the defending champion Warriors are primed for a repeat.
The Celtics without out Gordon Hayward in the regular season? No problem. All-star point guard Kyrie Irving will gladly lead the team to the playoffs. But what happens when Kyrie is out for the playoffs? In unfortunate times like these, your team just has to give their best collective effort, right? The Celtics won a grueling tooth and nail series with the Milwaukee Bucks. Next, enter the Philadelphia 76ers, that one team nobody expected to make it this far. Now, the Sixers were coming in like Rocky, ready to quickly knock out Boston on their Cinderella journey to the Finals. Celtics in five. You can’t point out one guy to attribute all of the Celtic’s success in this Playoffs. In a league filled with star players, Boston seems to be the best “team” left.
If the Celtics have the best “team”, the Cavs have the best player. Accounting for nearly five 40 point games and two buzzer-beaters this Playoffs, LeBron has carried his team to the Conference Finals. The Indiana Pacers were a game away from knocking off the Cleveland in the first round. The Cavs rebounded, though, with a shocking sweep of the first-seeded Toronto Raptors. Now they’re looking to ride the momentum of their sweep heading into the Conference Finals.
Eastern Conference Finals matchup:
Ever heard the saying “defense wins championships”? In order to make his eighth straight Finals appearance, LeBron must figure out how to beat the team with the best defensive rating in the league while carrying a team who gives up 112 points per game. As for the offense, if LeBron has oneday off, the Cavaliers will collapse with him. If the Celtics keep a consistent attack, then all they have to worry about is shutting down LeBron. If Cleveland can support their star player wherever they possibly can, the rest of the series will fall to in LeBron’s hands.
Western Conference Finals matchup:
As was said previously, it’s high noon in the Western Conference finals with each contestant having enough firepower to wipe out any unsuspecting defenses with a barrage of threes. The Rockets have tailored their lineup for this fateful foe boasting the pick and roll/rebounding machine in Clint Capela and defenders like P.J Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute who can also hit open threes. The Rockets, who were once a one-trick pony with their offense last season have now evolved into a two-headed monster with fighter’s chance against the defending champs. Golden State looks to defend their title primarily with their insanely talented offense. For perspective, half of all the shots the Warriors take go in. Nearly 40% of their three pointers fall, too. Golden State has the loudest crowd in the league, which makes winning at home all the more crucial. Since the Rockets have the higher seed and the best road record in the league, they will look to defend home court vehemently and hopefully steal one game while away. There are many analytical angles to take on this series (defensive matchups and how each team will strategically switch), yet there’s one philosophical question that will be answered in time. Who’s going to play championship defense? Both teams are built to match each other, staring eye to eye with no one left to challenge them. Whoever wins is favored to go on to win the NBA Finals. Who will blink first?