We are underway in the conference finals, and there are a few surprises in store.
1. Celtics continue to savage the East
The facts: The Celtics wrecked the Cavaliers in the first half, building a 61-35 advantage by half that was barely threatened the rest of the way. Boston continued their unlikely ascent to the top of the East with the same formula they embarrassed the 76ers — better defense, opportunistic scoring, and reliance on balanced scoring to rip LeBron’s quest for another Finals appearance.
The reaction: Everyone is eagerly anticipating how LeBron will respond to yet another game one loss. He just finished stepping through the wreckage of what was previously known as the Toronto Raptors. If we’ve learned anything over the course of his career, his 1st quarter in game 2 is practically written in stone. James will come out aggressive, come out firing, and will likely mix a bunch of fadeaways with attacks on the rim to put the Celtics on their heels. It has worked before, and against a previous version of these Celtics too.
Will it matter though? I’m not sure. Because here is the thing that has defined the Celtics this year more than any other — they don’t get rattled. We saw it ourselves. Not once, but twice. And, one might even be willing to argue, that those two losses say more about the state of both the Celtics AND the Thunder than just about anything else.
If James starts off 9-11 with 23 in the first 15 minutes, so what? Boston plays the game to win in the 4th, and if they do it again, we’re going to see how James responds to an 0-2 hole. Last time that happened? 2016 Finals.
Will LeBron lead the Cavs to a rebound win in game 2?
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2. Kevin Durant towers over Rockets as Golden State steals home court
The facts: In a back and forth affair, the Rockets watched their season’s best record and #1 seed go all for naught as the Warriors took game 1 on the road. The game was knotted at halftime, but the Warriors used a 3rd quarter surge (as is their style) to create some separation. By the time the 4th rolled around, Houston was largely a one-man show in James Harden, and the Warriors wore them down to get a big win and take a 1-0 lead.
The reaction: A few things jumped out at me, including this from Ramona Shelburne:
What you saw from D’Antoni’s Rockets on Monday night was isolation basketball taken to another level. According to Second Spectrum, Houston had 45 isolation plays in Game 1. That is the most by any team in any game -- regular season or playoffs -- over the past five seasons and more than double what they averaged in the regular season (22, first in the NBA).
To which I have a smirking reaction, because it is often the Thunder — not the league-leading Rockets — who have most often been painted with this pejorative. What it tells me though is that it isn’t ISO ball that is the poison to offenses, it is what is supposed to happen after the offense initiates out of an ISO set. James Harden and Chris Paul will initiate, and then the next part of the play is either a corner pass or a PnR lob to Clint Capela. If the primary action doesn’t work however, in game 1 instead of going to secondary action, it most often simply reset at the top of the key in the hands of the same two players. Which is fine, because they were the Rockets’ two best players, but without any other action, it made the Warriors’ defensive job much easier.
Speaking of which, I was surprised at how often the Warriors were willing to allow Stephen Curry to be switched onto Harden. But apparently it was by design. Which raises the question, why would you allow your, to be charitable, least effective defender to be switched onto the league’s best ISO player? My guess is that the Warriors know they have enough offense to overcome a 40-50 point night from Harden. But what makes their jobs much harder is if Harden gets 30, CP3 gets 25, and then Eric Gordon/Ryan Anderson/Trevor Ariza/Gerald Green/P.J. Tucker go nuts from beyond the arc. So Golden State is willing to sacrifice Curry for the greater good.
Speaking of Steph, his legs still aren’t right.
Lastly, one Kevin Wayne Durant had himself a pretty good game. But his effectiveness is entirely predicated on sticking with the things he does well. As soon has he started to dance around with the ball, bad things happened. But if Golden State created the switch to get Paul or Tucker onto him in the post — and the degree to which Durant towers over those little guys is comical — a quick pivot and elevation ended up with a bucket more often than not. As we know quite well though, you don’t defend Durant with your length. You defend him with your legs. So look for Houston to start to wedge underneath Durant to start pushing him farther and farther away from the rim to disrupt his rhythm.
Will the Rockets find themselves down 0-2 when they have to head to Golden State?
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