Spring fever has a knack for afflicting us right around when the Conference Finals start. One of its most egregious symptoms this year? Overreaction. That’s right, folks: as we move ever closer to June, the NBA universe is collapsing over a pair of Game 1s. If after 96 combined minutes of top-tier hoops you’ve resigned yourself to a Celtics/Warriors matchup in the NBA Finals, please get up, dust off the pollen, and keep reading, because these series are far from over.
Are We Really Sleeping on the King?
Hear that? In the distance? That’s the sound of LeBron James guffawing. I guess you couldn’t read between the lines, because he threw Game 1 just to spite you.
Maybe “threw” is an overstatement (especially since that very interesting Supreme Court decision hadn’t even been handed out yet on Sunday), but should we not be accustomed to these feel-out games by now? It’s hard to hand the series to the Celtics when the other team’s most valuable player took a calculated absence.
“Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me, if you’ve ever followed my history,” said LeBron after the 25-point loss Sunday evening in Boston. LeBron quickly reminded us commoners that it is more useful for him to employ his eidetic memory as an observer than to make a concerted effort to win the first game of seven. You don’t necessarily need to look further back than the Cavs’ first two playoff series this year, but LeBron’s history of doing this is, indeed, on his side. Through 13 years of NBA postseason basketball, LeBron James is 8-6 in Game 2s that come after Game 1 losses. Ignore the Golden State Warriors for a fleeting moment, and you’ll see that those four other Game 2 losses came in 2008 or earlier. So, yeah, weird: the last time LeBron trailed 0-2 in a series against an Eastern Conference team was ten years ago against the Boston Celtics in the Semifinals.
Don’t expect that specific tidbit of LeBron’s legend to repeat itself. Just look at the last five weeks: LeBron wasn’t aggressive in Game 1 of the first round, and the Cavs lost by 18 at home to the lower-seeded Pacers; LeBron called Game 1 of the Semifinals “one of [his] worst games of the season”, yet the Cavs pulled off a come-from-behind overtime win on the road in Toronto. While the latter says more about the Raptors–they held LeBron to 12-for-30 shooting and handed him the W anyway–the point is that LeBron can afford to not care about the final scores of these series openers.
The Cavaliers shot just 36% in Game 1 of the Conference Finals, and their 4-for-26 three-point shooting was certainly an anomaly. Kevin Love had 17 points, LeBron had 15, and the rest of the starters combined for 14. Tristan Thompson came off the bench and added eight points and 11 rebounds, and there are grumblings that he’s earned a Game 2 start. The adjustments the non-Bron Cavs need to make are there for the taking: making open shots, shutting down the fast break, attentive pick-and-roll defense, and communication.
Meanwhile, despite committing seven of the Cavs’ nine turnovers and being a -32 for the game, LeBron has “zero level of concern at this stage” because he’s now equipped with “a great sense of the way [the Celtics] played me [Sunday] and how I’ll play going into Game 2.” We should probably trust him–in Game 2s this year, he’s averaging 44.5 points, 10 rebounds, 9.5 assists, and a win.
Houston, Y’all Have (Fixable) Problems
The greatest team in NBA history won a basketball game on Monday night. Did this surprise you? The Golden State Warriors snatched Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals in a mockery of their alleged underdog status. Kevin Durant, predictably, was unstoppable. His 37 points felt more like 57 as he went through insane stretches in the first and third quarters where he could not miss. Klay Thompson added 28, including a game-icing 11 in the fourth.
On the other side, James Harden led the Houston Rockets with 41 points on 14-for-24 shooting. He attempted his customary 10 free throws and was lethal from beyond the arc. Harden is an offensive marvel, but he can’t overthrow tyrants on his own. 41 is practically light work for the MVP hopeful at this point, because he has little choice at this point.
Chris Paul had a double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds, and shot 8-for-17 from the field. On paper, this looks fine. Good, even! Unfortunately for Chris, James, and the Rockets, this is not going to cut it. The superstar guards need to be scoring efficiently, often, and at the same time. They were able to leave the car on cruise control through the first two rounds, managing wins while exchanging big performances. But these are the Warriors. If Chris and James are as preoccupied with their playoff legacies as we think they are, they’ve got to buckle down and grind this series out together.
Counting points scored off of Harden and Paul’s assists, the All-Star backcourt accounted for 81% of the Rockets’ offensive production. Impressive, yes–but it’s not a good sign. This sort of top-heavy output is not sustainable against the defending champs. As long as P.J. Tucker and Ryan Anderson are combining for one entire point, Luc Mbah a Moute is shooting 0-for-6, and Trevor Ariza is accruing more fouls than made field goals, Houston is in trouble. If their best defense is their offense, and the Warriors own the best postseason defensive rating, the Rockets need to make changes now. Eric Gordon and Gerald Green will have to anchor the bench with at least 25 points between them per night. Tucker, Ariza, and Mbah a Moute must mirror their defensive exploits with catch-and-shoot dependability.
Clint Capela notched 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting on Monday and played the most excellent defense he could muster, considering he was a fish out of water in the context of the players around him. Capela, talented as he is, finds himself having to come out to guard on the perimeter–an exploitable weakness relished by Golden State.
He’s treading water defensively, but the biggest impact Capela can make is above the rim. As a member of Houston’s big three, Capela is going to have to get more touches. He has potential to be a true difference-maker in this series, so long as he’s put in a position to dominate. Posting up might not be his strength, but as long as he’s matching up with Draymond Green, it wouldn’t be ludicrous to get Capela going in the pick-and-roll–especially when Harden and Paul might be low on gas. Utilizing Clint’s athletic and size advantages will be key to a competitive Game 2.
So much for “seven seconds or less“. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has traded his infamous marathon-style offensive system for an isolation-heavy scoring procedure that caters to Harden and Paul’s strengths. This, in turn, weighs down the marquee duo with massive responsibility, and trims their margin for error to mere millimeters. When either one of two point guards dribbles in the half-court for upwards of 20 seconds, his four teammates suffer–especially when the team on the other side of the ball plays the inverse of their style.
In Game 1 against the Warriors, the Rockets committed three shot clock violations. It could easily have been six or seven, given how many times that 24-second buzzer went off while a desperate heave lingered in the air. Credit the Warriors’ defense, of course, but keep in mind that a dated reliance on iso-ball isn’t going to do Houston any favors in the coming week. It would instead do Houston well to incorporate spurts of D’Antoni’s retired philosophy, one ironically adopted and perfected by the Warriors.
Carrying over from the Semifinals, the Warriors started their small-ball death lineup for the third straight game–and for a few minutes, they actually looked flimsy! By the time Andre Iguodala picked up his second foul in the first period, the Warriors were down 12-4. The five wouldn’t join up again until the second half. To the Rockets’ chagrin, they combined for 39 points and outscored Houston by 10 in just over 13 minutes in the final two quarters. The [mega]death lineup went on a quintessential third-quarter run that took the life out of Houston, and made a seven-point game at the beginning of the fourth feel as out of reach as a 27-point deficit might.
Up until the Conference Finals, the Warriors and Rockets were leading playoffs scoring with 110.3 and 109.5 points per game, respectively. Monday’s final score, 119-106, proves that the Rockets were less than engaged on either end of the floor. Houston ranked sixth in defensive efficiency in the regular season thanks to a proclivity for switching, energized by offseason acquisitions Mbah a Moute and Tucker who can each guard 1 through 5. This defensive style is crucial to at least attempting to stop the Warriors as long as Green is thriving at the 5.
By his ethereal standards, Steph Curry had a bad game. He shot 1-for-5 from three, and was pretty much physically abused by the Rockets without any payoff at the charity stripe. The Rockets picked their poison, let KD cook, and lived with Curry scoring just 18. They were able to hang around until late in the fourth, but the prolonged offensive incapacities of players not named Harden sealed the result.
That Houston was able to avoid a blowout and force all five Warriors starters to stay on the floor until the final buzzer is encouraging, considering the intra-squad scoring disparities. In their preparations for Game 2, the Rockets need to address turnovers and fouls in addition to the aforementioned adjustments involving Capela and isolation play. The Rockets have to commit to playing their very best basketball. They truly have a shot at this, but must prove it on their home floor come Wednesday night. Otherwise? Back to the drawing board.