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NBA Playoffs Hot Take 5–13–18

Fearless Predictions for the Conference Finals

I got busy with work and missed the window to write my second round predictions, but aside from the miraculous reverse-jinx curse that Bill Simmons put on the 76ers, none of those series carried much of a surprise.

Here are the same criteria I used to make my first round predictions:

  1. Who has an offensive system that creates lots of easy shots?
  2. Who has a competent modern coach?
  3. Who has an unstoppable offensive force?
  4. Who has a player that can slow down the opposition’s superstar?

Eastern Conference

Boston

System: Boston’s offense now consists of a ragtag group of irrationally confident players jacking up and making long 3-pointers until teams go insane and then give up layups. The leader of this group is Scary Terry Rozier, who has played so well that I am confident Danny Ainge will trade Kyrie Irving for another boat load of draft choices. In college, Rozier averaged 33.1% from behind the smaller arc, followed by two professional seasons where Rozier was a combined 63 for 206 from deep (30.5%). Because Brad Coach apparently found a witch doctor to join the team as a shooting coach, Rozier jumped up to 38.1% in the regular season and a red hot 42.3% in the playoffs. In addition, Jaylen Brown improved his 3-point shooting to 39.5%, while Al Horford had a career shooting year at 42.9%.

In game 5 against Philadelphia that Boston won by two points, and Aaron Baynes — who made a grand total of four 3-pointers in his first six years in the league… let me repeat that

Four made 3-pointers in six NBA seasons…

Baynes was 1 for 2 from beyond the arc. He also hit 1 of 2 3-pointers in a 3-point win over Philadelphia in game 3 of the series. Overall, Baynes shot 43.8% from beyond the arc against the 76ers to lead Boston. And for the playoffs, Baynes leads the entire team (as well as the rest of the league), making 47.4% on his 3-pointers.

Coach: I’ve written consistently and in depth that Brad Stevens is the best young coach in the NBA. With Popovich near the end of his career, Stevens might be the best coach in the league by next year. What he has done with the revolving cast of characters is nothing short of miraculous. He basically won a game by himself against the 76ers with two ATO (after time out) plays that yielded layups. His defense was so good he made people start to doubt that Ben Simmons was the Rookie of the Year and even trot out doubts about his long term ceiling if he never learns to shoot from outside.

Unstoppable Force: Aaron Baynes. Just kidding, we now know it’s Scary Terry. After this season, they’re going to rename that Bill Simmons idea about how teams inexplicably play better without their injured star player as “The Irving Theory.” Rozier can get off game winning 3-pointers regardless of who is guarding him.

Defensive Stopper: The Referees. Boston has the #1 defense in the league primarily because of the law of phantom fouls. This law is kind of like that theory about what happened to every one of those socks that disappear after you do a load of laundry. After a season, you’ve got an entire drawer of single socks, with no explanation on the location of the missing ones.

Well, the law of phantom fouls will finally explain where those socks go.

Do you know where fouls originate? In Boston, where they simply drip off Marcus Smart like one of those shaggy dogs that goes in the swimming pool and then shakes itself dry in the living room.

Watching him play, it’s impossible to wonder how he doesn’t draw three fouls in the same play. In one especially funny play against Philadelphia, he not only fouled Saric in the post, but faked a flop while hooking his arm around his opponent to pull Saric down on top of him. Smart makes a huge number of defensive plays where he steals the ball along with a few layers of the offensive players’ skins.

He’s like a pick pocket who steals not only the wallet but the entire pocket, leaving a trail of men walking around with gaping holes in their trousers, while the cops never notice.

But there’s a reason for these fouls to never show up on a box score in Boston…

It’s because they’re needed in Houston.

Every year, one offensive superstar gets pretty much every call. Fouls are magically called where none could possibly exist.

James Harden basically plays football on the hard wood. He doesn’t just create contact, he uses defenders as tackling dummies. He has a technique where he hooks a player’s arm with his right arm while dribbling, then jumps up, pulling the player with him as he throws up a wild shot.

It doesn’t matter how much a player stays vertical, leans backwards, or runs away from contact, fouls mysteriously materialize out of thin air, just like those socks you keep losing, and those are the fouls that are not called against Smart.

By the way, this is the reason that Boston cannot play Houston in the Finals. It’s like those sci-fi movies where anti-matter can’t touch matter, or a person traveling back in time can’t come in contact with themselves without risking a massive and potentially catastrophic tear in the time space continuum.

Marcus Smart guarding James Harden is kind of like that perpetual motion machine created when a piece of buttered toast is attached to the back of a cat and the cat is then tossed off a kitchen counter. While a cat always lands on its feet, a piece of buttered bread always falls butter side down on the floor. Just before the cat falls to the floor, it stops and begins to rotate as each of these unstoppable forces continuously try to touch the ground.

In the same way, the referees would be forced to simultaneously blow and swallow their whistles at the moment of the opening tip off. They would be paralyzed and quickly suffocate, forcing the league to bring in, and then lose referees in a never ending cycle, preventing any game from ever beginning or ending. Time would come to a complete stop. The Earth would stop spinning on it axis, and all matter would simply float away into space.

For the sake of mankind, we must pray there is something or someone who can stop the Celtics.

Cleveland

And there’s really only one word to describe that “something or someone” and that’s “Lebron.”

Prediction

But even he won’t be enough to counteract Stevens and the Boston home court advantage. The Celtics win game 7 by one point because of a Brad Stevens ATO that features Scary Terry as a decoy to pull Lebron out of the play, while Marcus Smart goes into a three-point stance and tackles the closest Cavalier defender to prevent him from contesting the game winning 3-pointer by Aaron Baynes.

Western Conference

This series should be the NBA Finals, as both teams are a level above their Eastern counter parts. While fans will miss on the storybook ending of the two best teams playing for the title, this series will be so good, it will unfold like like a fairy tale, the one called Beauty and the Beast.

The Beast

System: Houston’s team is built around one of the most potent offensive forces in the history of the NBA. Houston’s team is built around one of the ugliest offensive forces in the history of the NBA. That pretty much sums up the Beard, as does this story by Marc Titus which describes Harden’s ability to travel with immunity while hunting for fouls:

(As much as Harden’s game annoys me, he’s the absolute star of Game of Zones!) I can’t say enough about James Harden. He takes everything I hate about soccer — flopping, drawing fouls, and holding the ball for what seems like an eternity before starting an offensive action — and transplants them into my favorite sport.

Coach: Mike D’Antoni is one of those great innovators who revolutionize their sport, but never reach the promised land. He has led the league in wins, but never had enough defense to go all the way.

Unstoppable Force: James Harden, but only in the regular season, so far. His playoff averages have been slightly worse throughout his career, as the refs allow more physicality.

Defensive Stopper: Clint Capela has improved tremendously as a rim protector, but they don’t have any one who can guard Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry simultaneously.

The Beauty

System: Golden State’s offense is built around movement, sharing the ball, and the most selfless superstars the game has ever seen. Stephen Curry is perhaps the greatest shooter in the history of the game, along with the sneaky ability to finish off either hand when players try to close out on him at the 3-point line. What blows my mind is to watch him set screens and pass up a fairly wide open jump shots to give the ball to any even more open guy. Kevin Durant has stated that he doesn’t want to be the leader on the team, even though he won the NBA Finals MVP award last year. And Klay Thompson is a deadly shooter who is in constant motion looking to score on spot ups, so he never needs to handle the ball. In a game in December 2016, Thompson scored 60 points while holding the ball for 90 seconds and taking 11 dribbles… the equivalent of one James Harden possession.

Coach: Steve Kerr may have the best pedigree in the history of professional sports. He won three titles with the Bulls, under Phil Jackson, then won two more titles with the Spurs under Greg Popovich. From Jackson, he got the ability to work with and motivate the stars on the team, and be a steady, calming presence for the young players because they know he’s been in pressurized championship situations before. From Popovich he got an offensive system to emphasizes movement and sharing the ball, and he’s got the personnel to do it.

Unstoppable Force: Gravity. The threat of Stephen Curry’s 3-point shooting from anywhere on the court pulls defenders away from the paint and out of position. He draws double teams that allow Draymond Green to lead a mini 4-on-3 fast break that either ends with a shot at the rim, or a kick out to an open 3-point shooter. And when Curry takes a breather, Kevin Durant can get to any spot on the floor in isolation and shoot over any player.

Defensive Stopper: Kevin Durant has graduated to the rarified air occupied by All-Defensive NBA team members. His work against Lebron James in last year’s Finals was the difference in that series, and along with former DPOY Draymond Green, he provides surprisingly good rim protection. Even with their small ball lineup, the Warriors led the league in blocks this year.

Prediction

While people point to Houston’s 2–1 series season edge and their amazing regular season record, the Rockets don’t really have another gear. They shoot over 40 3-pointers per game, and are one of the best teams in the league at protecting the ball on each possession. If they get hot, they can be deadly. But they are only a league average 15th in 3-point percentage.

On the other hand, the Warriors have been on cruise control for most of the season, fighting ennui and injuries and just hoping to be healthy and rekindle their energy after playing in three straight finals (which adds up to an extra 62 games in the playoffs). They have put Zaza at the end of the bench (along with Javale McGee and Nick Young), and are starting a well rested Andre Igoudala. And the injuries have given time for young guys like Kevon Looney and Quinn Cook to become valuable role players, along with mainstays David West and Sean Livingston.

The biggest reason the Warriors have another gear in the playoffs is their defense. After leading the league in defensive efficiency for two of the last three years, the Warriors fell back to 9th, while Houston entered the top 10 (#6) for the first time in 10 years. But if you look at their defensive rating for the playoffs, the Warriors are leading the league at 99.3, almost 5 full points under the regular season average.

I think the Warriors’ combination of defense and ball movement will create a lot more easy baskets in transition and keep the pressure on Rockets to keep hitting a high percentage of 3-pointers to stay in the games.

Finally, Houston’s wins against the Warriors all came with Igoudala not playing. And the 1-point win in the season opener came when Draymond Green left the game with an injury in the second half, and the Rockets overcoming a 13-point 4th quarter deficit.

Warriors in 6.

Written by

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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