The second round of the playoffs has proved more entertaining than the first. Even without Steph Curry, Golden State has been incredibly entertaining. Steve Kerr’s offense happens to be incredibly effective. Moving on in the West, San Antonio’s series against Oklahoma City has provided the most entertaining basketball of the playoffs. And finally, the meeting of old rivals in Cleveland begs the question: will the Cavs lose a game in the Eastern Conference playoffs?
Warriors vs. Blazers:
This is arguably the most interesting series for a few reasons. First, Portland beat Golden State in the game after the All-Star break by double-digits this season. Because of that, many thought that Portland could win one or two games against the Warriors, even with Curry healthy. The logic is basically this: Portland is effectively a poor man’s Golden State; because of this, if the Blazers’ backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum gets hot, they could potentially exhaust the Warriors on defense; consequently, in a shoot out, Portland could outscore Golden State.
This logic was pushed even more after Steph Curry’s injury. Essentially, pundits argued, when Draymond Green has to run the offense it would slow down their pace, consequently resulting in less points. The Warriors offensive efficiency would decrease and Portland’s would stay the same.
Here is the issue that these daydreamers aren’t recognizing: Golden State is a significantly better team than Portland. For example, depending on the game, Festus Ezeli or Marreese Speights is the Warrios 10th man, or fifth guy to come off the bench. Both of those players would start for the Trailblazers.
This gets to another issue I have been having: the national discussion has basically coalesced around a “debate” regarding, if the Warriors lose this season, should the winner have an asterisk because Steph Curry was hurt. This should not be a debate, because frankly, the answer is obviously that no asterisk is needed for two reasons.
First, Golden State is still stacked without Steph. Sure, they have taken four less three pointers a game in this playoff series against Portland than their season average, their offensive efficiency is down 3%, and they are easier to defend. However, in an extremely limited sample size, the Warriors defense is better by nearly two points per 100 possessions against Portland than it was this season. Are they a better team without Curry? Absolutely not. But they are not a group of pushovers, either.
Though, that first reason is not the most appealing, because historically nobody should care that Steph Curry is injured. Here is a list of teams that lost their star player(s) in the postseason where no asterisk was applied:
- 2015-16 Los Angeles Clippers: lost both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the first round against Portland before we could even see what they could do.
- 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers: lost both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and took the eventual champion Golden State Warriors to six games.
- 2014-15 Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley was injured at the end of Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals. At this point, the Grizzlies were up 2-1 against the eventual champion Warriors.
- 2013-14 Oklahoma City Thunder: lost Serge Ibaka for the first two games of their playoff series against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. Both losses were blowouts; however, when Ibaka returned the Thunder won two games, and their two losses were significantly closer.
- 2012-13 Oklahoma City Thunder: following a finals appearance, the Thunder finished with the best record in the Western Conference, however Russell Westbrook was injured in April and declared out for the playoffs. Without their superstar point guard, the Thunder advanced to the second round, and then lost to the Memphis Grizzlies.
- 2011-12 Chicago Bulls: after clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference, MVP point guard Derrick Rose tore his ACL in game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Rose was the youngest MVP in league history and the Bulls set historically great defensive metrics throughout the year. Additionally, they also lost starting center Joakim Noah.
- 2009-10 Boston Celtics: Celtics starting center Kendrick Perkins suffers a serious knee injury in Game 6 of the NBA finals with Boston leading the series 3-2. The Lakers would go on to win the finals.
- 2008-09 Houston Rockets: the Rockets, a team plagued by not being able to get past the first round of the NBA playoffs, finally advanced to the second round. Yao Ming had a monster first game – 28 points and 10 rebounds – but was injured in Game 3 with the series tied 1-1. The Lakers went on to win the series in seven games, and the Rockets were never the same after losing Yao.
- 2004-05 Miami Heat: Heat superstar Dwayne Wade gets injured in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Detroit Pistons. They subsequently gave up their 3-2 series lead and lost.
- 2002-03 Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki was having the best playoffs of his career. He had huge performances against Portland and Sacramento. In the Western Conference Finals, though, he sprained his knee against the eventual champion Spurs and never returned.
- 1999-2000 San Antonio Spurs: following an NBA championship victory, the Spurs lost star center Tim Duncan right before the playoffs began. This resulted in the defending champions losing in the first round of the playoffs.
These are only a few examples of injuries to elite teams who were poised to win a title. I am frustrated that Curry is hurt, too. Moreover, I think they still have a very significant shot to repeat as champions. Nonetheless, if they do not win it all, we should not put an asterisk by the champion because Curry missed a few playoff games.
Spurs vs. Thunder:
Game 2 of the San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder was arguably the best game of the entire playoffs. Never mind the awful end of the game, this was a competitive matchup of two different Goliaths.
What I am loving most about this series is, in a lot of ways, it is an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object. This season the Thunder are the second best team at defending post-ups in the NBA. On the other hand, the Spurs were the best team at utilizing post-ups in the NBA this season.
Furthermore, the Thunder were the third best team at defending the roll man in pick-and-rolls this season. Yet, in the playoffs, the Spurs have transformed from the second worst team at attacking with the roll man off of a pick-and-roll into the best in the playoffs. This is mainly due to their success hitting LaMarcus Aldridge as a roll man against the Thunder in the first two games.
Consequently, this series will be decided based on how well the Thunder readjust to the Spurs’ post-up and roll man attack. If Oklahoma City can channel their regular season success at defending these plays, then Westbrook and Durant will be able to take over, and the Spurs may very well lose the series. If the Thunder cannot figure out how to defend these plays, it is unlikely they will have another out-of-body game like Game 2, and this will result in the Spurs winning the series.
Cavaliers vs. Hawks:
This series had all the potential to be great. It is a reboot of last year’s Eastern Conference finals; except, the Cavs have regained Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, whereas the Hawks now have Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver. Thus far, however, it has been pretty brutal.
In the first quarter of the first two games, the Cavs are outscoring the Hawks 65-39, the Hawks are getting out assisted 54-39, and Atlanta is turning the ball over 28 times to the Cavs 16 times. The most important stat, though, is that the Hawks have made 22 three-point shots in the series, the Cavs have made 40. That means, on three-point shots, the Cavs are outscoring the Hawks 120-66. If the Hawks cannot figure out how to erase this deficit they will not win any games during the series.
But, to avoid focusing too much on the Hawks, the Cavs are playing a great series. JR Smith struggled as a second offensive option last year against Golden State. This playoff run, though, as a fourth option, Smith is lighting it up. 55.7% of his shots are open or wide-open, and he is shooting at nearly 65% eFG% on those attempts. Moreover, on his attempts while covered, is still well above 50%.
It is unlikely he will continue to shoot at this rate throughout the entire playoffs, however, that may not matter. JR warrants coverage, and he moves a lot without the ball. Out of 215 players to play in the NBA playoffs, JR averages the 37th highest distance per minute. This, combined with his three-point shooting, results in him needing some sort of defensive coverage. Consequently, JR’s mere presence on the court opens up the floor for Kyrie and LeBron to drive-and-kick with freedom on offense. This makes Cleveland just as tough to beat as Golden State or San Antonio.
In conclusion, the second round of the playoffs have not been much better than the first, at least outside of the Spurs-Thunder series. Nonetheless, the Warriors are still trucking on without Steph Curry, their should be no asterisk if the Warriors do not win it all, San Antonio and Oklahoma City will more than likely put on the best show in the first two rounds, and the Cavs are scary good and may not lose a game throughout the entire Eastern Conference playoffs.