Throughout the first round of the NBA Playoffs, the conventional wisdom hasn’t changed much despite a good amount of competitive games. There were no major upsets, as Golden State and Cleveland showed they are still the teams to beat in their respective conferences.
San Antonio closed out Memphis in six games—a series Coach Gregg Popovich would have liked to have been a bit shorter after blowing out the Grizzlies in the first two games. Houston, meanwhile, looked impressive in their wins against Oklahoma City, and ended the series in five games. Many of the wins, however, were more indicative of the Thunder’s inability to close out games in the fourth quarter.
Toronto, once the premier challengers to Cleveland in the East, beat Milwaukee in six, but Demar Derozan, Kyle Lowry, and Serge Ibaka all shot below 45 percent. These three players will have to be much more efficient and consistent to challenge the Cavaliers.
No matter how many flashes of excellence we may see from the challengers to the big two, particularly from the Celtics and the Spurs, they remain a tier below, making a Finals rematch for the third year in a row seem inevitable.
Boston struggled mightily against a disheveled Chicago, despite closing out the series with four consecutive wins. The team’s heart and soul, Isaiah Thomas, scored 23 per game, which was well below his season average, and made one out of every five attempts from behind the arc.
Al Horford’s and Amir Johnson’s struggles on the glass led Brad Stevens to slot Gerald Green into the starting lineup. Green’s athleticism and quickness spreads the offense and helps the team grab boards.
However, against a team like the Cavaliers, with work horses Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love consistently hitting the offensive glass, Green’s contributions will be mitigated. Amir Johnson needs to step up and anchor the team’s defense by finishing defensive possessions with a rebound or Cleveland will wear them out.
Coach Brad Stevens has done an excellent job pushing the Celtics to the number one seed in the East, but the team can only overachieve for so much longer. The Celtics have the potential to give the Cavaliers trouble with their tenacity, but they simply do not have the consistency to put together such a showing in a seven game series.
Moving to the West, the San Antonio Spurs, led by Kawhi Leonard, stand as the Warriors’ biggest threat. Leonard has been an offensive force, averaging 31.2 points per game on 50–40–90 shooting and getting to the free throw line ten times per game. His offensive consistency and defensive stopping power give the Spurs the ability to win any game.
However, to challenge the Warriors, teams need more than one player. With Popovich at the helm, there is no question the team’s defensive ability and ball movement will be running efficiently. When facing a Warriors team who added Kevin Durant, however, there is no reason to believe anything has changed from last year when the Spurs lost to Oklahoma City in six games.
Tony Parker was second on the team in scoring against the Grizzlies, but he let Conley score 24.7 per game on 48 percent shooting. Against an even tougher point guard matchup in Steph Curry, Parker’s age will be apparent as his lack of quickness is exposed.
Despite how much NBA fans want to see some change in the playoff environment, the Cavs and the Warriors seem too good to lose to anyone but each other right now.