Playoff Field Whittled Down to Four
We were told these playoffs would be lacking. That due to the absence of Lebron James and the foregone conclusion of a Golden State Warriors three-peat, there would be no intrigue to the 2019 NBA postseason. All that has happened is an MVP-favorite guiding his team to its first Conference Finals since 2001, two teams showed us they might be capped as currently constructed, and a host of game-winning daggers. And there was the first buzzer-beater in Conference Semifinal history. But now, with only four squads left, we can expect to not only keep seeing the awe-inspiring moments but perhaps see more of them.
Battle of the Backcourts
Golden State will kick off the Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday. The two teams split their regular season meetings at two apiece. There is postseason history here as well as the Dubs eliminated the Blazers in the Conference Semis in 2016 (five games) and swept them in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. There have also been comparisons between the two teams leading men, Damian Lillard, and Steph Curry. The nature of the series even has extra meaning for the Curry family as Steph and younger brother Seth get set to do battle, at least some of the time.
Golden State Warriors
Kevin Durant is set to miss at least the first game of series as he recovers from a calf strain. That is no small loss as Durant is the leading per game scorer in these playoffs (34.2 PPG) and averaged 28.8 versus Portland in the regular season. They will look to Steph and, Splash Bro, Klay Thompson to pick up the slack much as they have since KD went down. Klay went for 27 points on 50 percent shooting and 7-13 from three while keeping the team afloat for three-plus quarters in the closeout game against the Houston Rockets. Steph was frigid to start that game, going scoreless for the first half only to finish with a team-high 33 points.
The Warriors also got some vintage performances from Draymond Green (13.2/10.7/8.2.) and Andre Iguodala (13.5 PPG, 48% from three) in the last round. Green should be able to keep it up after the Blazers allowed Denver’s Paul Millsap to average 17.4 points and 8.7 boards despite Portland’s bigs all being at least 6’9”. Iggy might have a tougher go of it. Will Barton, who fills a similar role for the Nuggets, averaged 10.1 PPG and shot 34.5 percent from long distance. The length of Portland could force Iguodala to do more of the other things that make him valuable.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland was written off by some (*cough* me *cough*) when they lost center Jusuf Nurkic for the rest of the year to a gruesome injury at the end of March. They finished the season 7-2 without the Bosnian Beast and have gone 8-4 in the playoffs. His loss has been softened by the play of late-season acquisition Enes Kanter (averaging 12.9 PPG and 10.5 RPG in the playoffs) but could be felt if Boogie Cousins returns this series. The Blazers have to be hoping that Rodney Hood’s injury doesn’t linger; they will need the 14.7 PPG on 57 percent shooting and 50 percent from deep that he surprised with last round.
One of Maurice Harkless or Al-Farouq Aminu (or Sunday’s surprise contributor Evan Turner) will need to find whatever led to their outbursts from this postseason and do it every game. All conventional wisdom favors the Dubs so Portland will have to try to steal one, preferably the first one, to have a real chance. They allowed Jamal Murray (23.6/6/5.6) and Gary Harris (13.7/4.6/2.1) to put up numbers at or above their regular season outputs. As good as those two are, they are no Splash Bros. Dame (28.4/4.8/6) in the playoffs) and C.J. McCollum (25.6/5.8/3.4) will need to continue doing the heavy lifting even if the other Blazers contribute close to their playoff best.
Anomaly Meet Throwback
Our second Conference Finals matchup is anything but second fiddle. Featuring the two top teams in wins and two of the games top five players, Bucks-Raptors should more than live up to expectations. Milwaukee took care of the Boston Celtics in short order (five games) while Toronto needed seven games (and a Herculean effort) to advance. There is so much riding on this series and that is not considering the actual goal of winning a championship. Will the gregarious Giannis Antetokounmpo prevail? Or will the quiet, calculating Kawhi Leonard reinsert his name among the game’s best?
The Greek Freak is the odds on favorite for MVP. And while it is a regular season award, his performance in the playoffs has been in-line with the rest of the year. He is still leading his team in points (27.4) and rebounds (11.3) per game, and he only slightly trails Khris Middleton in assists in the playoffs. He is also averaging 12 free throws a game which would have led the league. Giannis is not flying solo, however. The Bucks have five players averaging double digits in the playoffs, six averaged double figures last round, and seven reached the mark in the closeout game. That kind of effort will go a long way for Milwaukee; not only this round but perhaps in the NBA Finals.
The Bucks shoot a lot of threes; they came in second to the Rockets in attempts per game during the regular season and in the playoffs. But their defense against the Cs should not be overlooked. They held Boston to 104.4 PPG, 41 percent shooting and 35.8 from distance. That was down from their 112.4 PPG, 46.5 percent from the floor, and 36.5 from deep of the regular season. Now, the Celtics themselves played a large role in their own demise, but the Bucks did have the number-one defensive rating in the NBA. The return of Malcolm Brogdon could prove huge. Also in their favor is that Toronto is averaging roughly 11 points per game less in the playoffs than they did during the season (114.4 to 103.6) and shooting only 32.7 percent as a team from deep.
Kawhi essentially dragged the Raptors to the finish line in game seven versus the Philadelphia 76ers. He dropped 41 points and grabbed eight boards with three assists and three steals. He shot poorly, as did most of the other Raptors. But he was also often the only one looking to score late. Leonard has drawn lofty comparisons over the last few weeks as he is averaging 31.8/8.5/3.6 and slashing 53.9/40.8/86.8 in the playoffs. Against the Sixers, it was 34.7/9.9/4 with the Klaw seemingly growing stronger as the playoffs have worn on.
There is only one way this could be going better for Toronto when it comes to Leonard and free agency. Serge Ibaka (17 points!) was the only teammate above 11 points. Kyle Lowry scored just 10 points, but he did have six dishes and six rebounds with only two turnovers. Pascal Siakam is either hurt or the moment is too big for him. He is averaging 20 points and 7 rebounds in the playoffs but was very passive on Sunday. Marc Gasol has been awful shooting the ball and his 102.7 defensive rating is the worst on the team. Danny Green hasn’t been much better as the entire team is shooting 32.7 percent from deep, well below their 36.6 from the regular season.
There has been something for everyone in these playoffs and that should continue with the Conference Semifinals beginning Tuesday. Can Dame and CJ break through? Plus, Curry versus Curry in what could be the last stanza for the Hamptons Five. The Greek Freak versus the Klaw as an MVP hopeful takes on a player reminding us of some of the all-timers. Will it take a ring to keep Leonard from running West? Can Giannis cap a potentially MVP-winning season with a shot at the Larry O? We get closer to finding all of that out Tuesday night.