To NBA fans who don’t have allegiance to the Warriors, Rockets, Cavaliers, or Celtics, the NBA conference finals have been almost unwatchable. Through the first six games, the smallest margin of victory was 13 and the average margin of victory was 20.3. It wasn’t until last night’s 95-92 Houston win that we saw a game come down to the wire. No one wants to watch blowout after blowout. The Celtics managed a last second dunk in Game 4 so that they only lost by nine points, but the Cavaliers were up double digits for the majority of the game.
What needs to change in order for the games to be closer and more exciting? Let’s start with the eastern conference finals.
On the road, the Celtics have only won one game this entire playoffs and have given up an average of 106.4 points (they gave up 100.7 points per game in the regular season, third best in the league). Each one of their starters, with the exception of Jayson Tatum, has scored more in home games than away games. As a team, they shot 44 percent and 51 percent from the field in the two games in Boston compared to 41 percent and 39 percent these past two games in Cleveland. Brad Stevens has done an incredible job coaching a team minus two All Stars all the way to the conference finals, but they do not play with the same intensity on the road. The Celtics will need to find a way to compete on the road to make things interesting.
The Cavs’ story throughout these playoffs has been pretty straight forward. If LeBron has help, they win. If he’s forced to do it all alone, they get blown out. They played some of their best team defense of the season over the past two games against the Celtics in Cleveland. In Game 3 LeBron James only took 12 shots. After averaging just 11.4 points and 9.3 rebounds in the first round against the Pacers, Kevin Love has averaged 17.9 points and 11.8 rebounds since. If the Cavs’ role players can continue to contribute consistently, and the Celtics can close the gap on their road woes, what started as a lopsided series should see fantastic finish down the stretch.
Out West we have quite a different story. Despite being the No. 2 seed, the Warriors are the best team in the league. This is the same team that won 73 games in a season and then got Kevin Durant. The only way to beat them is to play an almost flawless game and hope and pray they have an off night. That’s what happened in Game 2. Houston made 16 three pointers on a 38 percent clip and Golden State only hit 9/30 from beyond the arc.
In order for these games to be close, the Rockets will need to take advantage of every Warrior mistake. They’ll need to capitalize on every turnover, missed three, and defensive lapse. Durant, Curry, and Klay Thompson don’t have many off nights, and it’s even more rare that two of them are cold on the same night. The Rockets need to force as many mistakes as possible, take advantage of them, and minimize their own, because the Warriors will not let a careless pass go unpunished.
The Rockets led the regular season in three pointers made per game and the Warriors led in three point efficiency. Through three games, the Rockets made 40 threes and the Warriors made 35. These games will continue to be shootouts, but the Rockets are going to need to hustle a lot harder to keep the score close. In Game 2, the Rockets out-rebounded the Warriors by 11, won the turnover battle 15-13, and shot above 50 percent from the field. If the Rockets can do everything right, that should ensure a close game, and that’s exactly how Game 4 played out.
They received a boost right off the bat with the news that Andre Iguodala, one of the Warriors best defenders, would be sitting out. They then went on to play their best defensive game of the season, highlighted by James Harden picking Durant’s pocket twice in a row for easy fast break layups towards the end of the first half. They forced the Warriors into 16 turnovers and a field goal percentage of 39. P.J. Tucker muscled his way to 16 rebounds with four of them coming on the offensive end, and their superstars shined bright as Harden and Chris Paul finished with 30 and 27 points respectively. It’s unlikely we’ll see the Warriors get blow out again, and if the Rockets can continue to bring their best every night, the games will remain close and exciting. If the Warriors play at their best however, that series is over.
The conference finals are supposed to feature the most exciting matchups of the season. The two best teams from each conference going head to head. While they haven’t looked the part thus far, Game 4 has been the closest game in both series, and I believe the coaches will continue to make adjustments to keep the rest of the conference finals even.
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