As predicted, the opening round of the NBA playoffs was fantastic entertainment, showcasing some great basketball.
The second round is underway and it looks like we’re in store for another great playoff round.
However, while you and the bounced NBA players watch from your respective couches, here’s what to look for in each series.
What to watch for in the NBA semi-finals
Golden State Warriors v.s. Utah Jazz
I told you not to sleep on the Jazz and – shocker – I was right.
Yes, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin got injured in Game 3 and that was a huge loss for that squad. However, you need to give Utah credit for stealing two games on the road and taking the series with a relatively dominant Game 7 performance.
The Jazz should’ve felt good coming into the semi-finals. They shot the ball well against the Clippers and only allowed the Clippers to score over 100 points once in the series. This series also showed that the Jazz’s guards and wing players can carry the load when their bigs have tough match-ups.
Before Game 1 of this series, I would’ve advised you to watch for how much of an impact Joe Johnson will make – because he was an x-factor against the Clippers – and to expect Rudy Gobert to be more of a presence on the stat sheet, because the Warriors don’t have DeAndre Jordan to stop him.
In Game 1, those two players were relatively big contributors for the Jazz. Unfortunately, the others that helped get the team this far had a rough shooting night. Gordon Hayward shot under 27 per cent from the field, missing some wide open looks and looking hesitant at times to play his game.
George Hill only had seven points on 33 per cent shooting and Joe Ingles only scored five points, but also only took five shots.
Now, the Golden State Warriors were rested, are stacked and were playing very good ball on both ends of the floor, leading into Game 1 of the series.
Looking at the final scores of the quarter-finals, the Warriors swept but gave up a lot of points. However, a lot of that has to do with the pace both they and the Portland Trail Blazers play with. Also, the point differential was off the charts; in the four games combined, GSW outscored the Trail Blazers by 72 points.
No surprise, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant did most of the damage, but they were terrifyingly dominant. Curry averaged 29.8 pts, 6.5 ast, 5.3 reb 2 stl, shooting 45 per cent from the field, 42 per cent from three and 87 per cent from the line.
Durant averaged 21 pts and 7 reb, but was 59 per cent from the field (4/8 from beyond the arc) and shot 86 per cent from the charity stripe.
Then, off in the background, Klay Thompson averaged 18.3 pts – shooting just under 40 per cent – and Draymond Green ate up, averaging 13.8 pts (50 per cent shooting), 9.5 reb, 7.5 ast, 4.3 blk and 1.8 stl.
However, with all due respect, the Warriors didn’t shoot the lights out or really shut Utah down per se. Utah missed a lot of great looks that the Warriors hit and the Warriors got out and ran the floor better.
It’s tough to play seven games and then shift your focus to a team who was off for a week, let alone that team being GSW. However, if Game 1 is any indication, the Jazz need their wings to start putting the ball through the hoop, because despite the off shooting night, they only lost by 12.
San Antonio Spurs v.s. Houston Rockets
I don’t think anybody is really surprised to see this match-up. However, it’s arguably the most anticipated and it sucks that it’s happening in the semi-finals.
This will be Houston’s biggest test. If they can top the Spurs, then they are a very legitimate threat at a title. However, history tells us that run-and-gun teams struggle against San Antonio.
Flashback to 2007, the Phoenix Suns were, arguably, the best team that year and if they won the West, then they would’ve been champs. Unfortunately, they faced the Spurs in the conference finals and – despite being totally robbed by David Stern – they lost the series in seven.
In the OKC series, Houston shot the ball decently, but overall, they were abysmal from beyond the arc – James Harden and Ryan Anderson specifically. Will their percentages increase? Probably. But at the end of the day, Harden is Houston’s guy. While they do have several weapons, if the Spurs can force Harden to take jumpers and avoid fouling him, then the Rockets could be in tough.
Now, before I get too far ahead of myself, James Harden carved up the Thunder, averaging 33.2 pts, 6.4 reb, 7 ast and 1.6 stl in just over 37 minutes per game. Regardless of what team you are, that is lethal, given he only shot 24 per cent from the 3-pt line.
But you have to consider that the Spurs play slower, are extremely dominant and efficient on both ends and their MVP candidate – and likely defensive player of the year – Kawhi Leonard, is leading the charge.
Against Memphis, he averaged 31.2 pts (55 per cent from the field, 48 per cent from three, 97 per cent free throw), 6 reb, 3.8 ast and 2 stl – on the Spurs! – and has the league convinced he’s a cyborg.
Even if Houston can contain his scoring, Leonard is smart and the Spurs are so team-oriented and have just as many weapons as Houston, that it will be tough to stop them.
In Game 1 against the Spurs, it looked like Harden and the Rockets had turned a corner shooting-wise, pummeling San Antonio by 27, in San Antonio.
Outside of Kawhi Leonard, nobody on the Spurs really had an impact and the team, overall didn’t play well. They shot 37 per cent from the field as a team – 31 per cent from three – were outrebounded and gave up way more points than their season average.
However, going into Game 2, anybody who knows ball would tell you there’s no way the Spurs would play that poorly again. Those people were proven correct, because Game 2 was a completely different story.
San Antonio shot 55 per cent from the field, 38 per cent from three and won the fourth quarter by 20, which resulted in a 25-point win. Kawhi Leonard finished with 34 pts (on 81 per cent shooting), 7 reb, 8 ast, 3 stl and 1 blk in 37 minutes. The Spurs also had four other players finish with at least 12 points.
Harden shot 17.6 per cent from the field and the Rockets shot 44 per cent, but only 32 per cent from beyond the arc. The team’s shooting percentages were saved a little bit by guys, like Ryan Anderson, who were stroking it very well in Game 2. However, Anderson is not going to propel this team to the conference finals.
However, everything was not sunshine and rainbows for the Spurs, as Tony Parker went down with what appeared to be a knee injury. Can this team survive without Parker? Of course. But he’s been the floor general of this franchise his entire career, so losing him would really hurt the Spurs.
There are two other factors at play here. First of which is both teams are in-state rivals, so neither has to travel far, which means travel-fatigue isn’t an excuse.
Secondly, while I think regular season doesn’t necessarily weigh as much when it comes to the Spurs, Houston took the regular season series and showed they could beat them pretty handily during those games. They showed it again in Game 1 of this series, when they nearly thirtied the Spurs in San Antonio.
The Spurs responded in a big way – which was no surprise – and now this series just became very interesting.
Boston Celtics v.s. Washington Wizards
If the Spurs/Rockets series was the most anticipated, this has been the most entertaining by far.
Heading into the playoffs, the Celtics were all about team and they rode the hot hand. Games 1 and 2 showcased both of those things by going to the guys who were stroking the ball well and in the rotations head coach Brad Stevens made. The Celtics showed how good they can be as a team, as well as how disciplined they are under Stevens.
They’ve also had great individual performances from Al Horford (who was one rebound shy of a triple-double in Game 1), Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Terry Rozier has been fantastic off the bench. But Isaiah Thomas must’ve gone on a hunger strike because he is eating.
Thomas’ 53-point performance in Game 2 was one the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, especially with what he’s been going through off the court.
Collectively, as a team, Boston’s shooting the ball very well, they’re moving the ball, getting out in transition and taking advantage of mismatches (I’ll touch on that more in a second). However, despite their 2-0 series lead, they’ve climbed out of two early double-digit holes. That’s something they can’t keep doing, because eventually Washington will burn them.
Now, in all fairness to the Wizards only had one bad quarter in Game 1 and couldn’t hit anything in overtime of Game 2, so they’re right there, but just haven’t been able to seal the deal.
They’ve also had a fair number of contributors step.
In Game 1, Otto Porter Jr., Marcin Gortat and John Wall all had double-doubles, Bradley Beal poured in 27 pts and Kelly Oubre Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic scored double-digit points off the bench. But after that it literally dropped off, which – going into Game 2 – was something I said has to change for this squad, because six guys do not a team make.
Sure enough, in Game 2, seven guys had double-digit points and John Wall had another insane performance with 40 pts and 13 ast. However, they went cold in the latter part of the game and you could see it affecting them in their body language – to the point where I.T. knew Boston was going to win once overtime started.
Washington’s biggest problem, though, is their defense. Boston is a very good team, however, so is Washington and they’ve had two leads of at least 13 points, after the first quarter – in both games – and let Boston come back to win. That shouldn’t happen.
Also, they need to stop switching on big-to-small screens. Do you know why Isaiah Thomas kept burning Markieff Morris? Because both guys know, Morris can’t guard Thomas. It’s not just a Wizards problem either, it happens all over the league, but at some point Scott Brooks has to make an adjustment, or Washington is going home, no doubt about it.
Normally, I’d say Boston can’t let John Wall put up the numbers he has been and giving him the looks he’s gotten. But if Washington is going to let Isaiah Thomas do what he wants and not make adjustments, then why waste my word count.
Cleveland Cavaliers v.s. Toronto Raptors
Cleveland straight-up smacked Toronto in the mouth in Game 1, regardless of what the final score says, the game showed otherwise. However, they should’ve. The Cavaliers had over a week to rest and prepare for that game and try to set the tone for the series.
Then Game 2 happened.
I have never seen a team – collectively, not just one or two guys – shoot the ball so well from beyond the arc in my life. What’s crazy too is the Raptors were actually playing really well until about midway through the third quarter.
The Raptors’ story line for each game, however, is that they aren’t hitting shots and Cleveland is.
Going into the fourth quarter of Game 1, Cleveland hit 14 threes and were 22/25 from the line, compared to Toronto’s seven threes and 8/8 from the charity stripe. At the same time, the Cavs also took more shots at that point. But by no means did Cleveland dominate Toronto.
In Game 2, the Cavaliers didn’t start “dominating” the Raptors until close to halfway through the second half. But by that point, the Cavs had hit 10 more three pointers than Toronto – didn’t help that Toronto might’ve attempted one or two since the early second quarter at that point.
Had Cleveland only had five more threes made than Toronto in Game 2, it would’ve been a completely different game. It also would’ve been a completely different game if Demar DeRozan wasn’t ice cold.
DeRozan – and Lowry for that matter – cannot have off-nights against the Cavs. It just can’t happen. Because while Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker and Norman Powell – and JV last night – have stepped up, this team goes nowhere without its dynamic duo firing on all cylinders.
There’s a difference between the contribution needed for each of these teams. Cleveland can rely heavily on their big three because they’re three top-15 players and everyone else is there to take care of whatever they can’t. If one their role players has a hot night, then that’s just gravy.
Whereas Toronto needs help from other guys than their dynamic duo, because while DeRozan and Lowry are all-stars, Cleveland knows Toronto’s chances of winning dramatically decrease if they’re not big factors, so they’ve been double-teaming them. Cold shooting nights just plays into Cleveland’s game plan.
Now, I’m not ignorant. I play varsity ball and I’m a shooter. I know saying that is far easier than doing, but it’s true especially at this level. But I digress.
Toronto’s defense was suspect at times in Game 1 and Cleveland caught them napping in a couple of times in Game 2, but overall it’s just tough to stop the three. The broadcasters have been saying they need to contest some of the looks Cleveland has been getting – which is true, because they’ve gotten numerous wide open shots – but if the Cavs are hitting threes, it’s tough to stop them unless you match them.
The other issue – which, in my mind, has a been a hugely underrated x-factor in these two games – is the Raptors aren’t running in transition when they get the opportunities. Especially guys who should be like DeRozan. Keep in mind, Cleveland is actually a relatively old team with some below-average defenders, so capitalizing on those chances are big because you know the Cavs will. Hustle has to be there for the Raptors.
Ultimately, when it comes down to it, the Cavaliers are the defending champs and LeBron’s legacy is on the line, so they have their motivation. But if there was ever a window to make an NBA Finals, this year is it for the Raptors. However, they will squander the opportunity in front of them if they play the way they have been.
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