Cavs Still the Team to Beat in the Eastern Conference

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The Cavaliers have assumed their more rightful place, not as the favorites, but the underdogs. It’s funny. James seemed loose and relaxed as he leaned against the wall after Wednesday’s practice and answered questions, then later as he played a modified around-the-world from behind the 3-point line with Kryie Irving, complaining as Irving lapped him that “it’s a stupid game.”

We don’t know anymore than anyone else, but the thought did occur to us that James seemed to welcome the new role. Nobody expects much from the Cavaliers anymore, and judging from how they responded the last time that happened in January, it might be a mistake.

The dominant narrative in search of some validation much of the season has been that the team’s somehow dysfunctional, whether it’s the under-attentive “rookie” coach or the smoldering discontent between the stars. This despite the fact that the Chicago Bulls won a championship while its major characters were having fistfights, calling into question how much off-the-court chemistry is really required. But hey, it’s work right, right?

Somehow basketball has become about providing testimonials of support like they’re running for office not competing for a championship. Where this comes from we have no idea. We can kind of understand supporting your own players for MVP, but it still seems a bit nebulous as far as intrigue.

With half the country’s media attention you’d think there’d be more of a smoking gun than an Instagram photo and favoring a collegiate buddy in a meaningless popularity contest that neither are going to win anyway, right?

Does it matter that J.R. Smith spoke to Love’s character and value, or that James did, now that he’s finished for the season? Does Dellavedova telling us after practice that the outward appearance of trouble in December and January had no relation to the way it felt within the squad where they knew they felt close to putting it together.

With all that in mind, we want to revisit our playoff prognostication of a couple weeks ago and provide an update going forward.


WEST

Grizzlies/Warriors. Nailed it! We had Memphis in 5 and Golden State in 4, though the Pelicans had us sweating that a couple times. We feel like the Grizzlies size won’t be a significant problem for the Warriors, but we were impressed by the Grizzlies defense against the Trailblazers. Zach Randolph might really pose a threat to Draymond Green, though the reverse is also true – how is Z-Bo going to do extending to the 3-point line?

It’s going to be a physical contest and we might have overestimated the Warriors resilience to tough playoff-minded muscle. The injury to point guard Mike Conley throws everything into question, but we’d like to hedge our suggestion that the Warriors would win in 5, but bumping that up to 6. We see the Warriors with a convincing win in Memphis to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

Rockets/Clippers-Spurs. The Rockets won in 5 just like we expected and the Clippers-Spurs are going to 7 just like we expected. If the Clippers win we will have called the first round perfectly. We’re excited to see how the Rockets and Clippers go at it. We especially wonder about Big Baby Davis’ status after he went down with what looked like an Achilles injury. Our best wishes and hopes go out to him.

The Clippers aren’t particularly deep, but after a raft of injuries the Rockets aren’t either. Our main question revolves around who the Rockets use to guard Chris Paul. The Spurs have put their best defender Kawhi Leonard – the Defensive Player of the Year, incidentally, and that hasn’t stopped Paul from taking over games at crucial points.

We suppose Corey Brewer will get the task. They’ll probably hide Jason Terry on J.J. Reddick and Harden on Barnes, Terrence Jones is a solid match-up defensively for Blake Griffin. DeAndre Jordan versus Dwight Howard ought to be a hoot.

We’re sticking with our original guess, and saying that Clippers overcome the Rockets in 7 but it’s such a close series, an injury or suspension could tip it one way or another. But we like the way Jordan’s been playing and don’t think the Rockets can stop Paul.

EAST

Wizards-Hawks/Nets. It’s so hard to be unbiased so great is my desire to see Paul Pierce go up against his old mates after throwing them under the bus to begin the playoffs. Was it a ploy to energize the team and spare them matching up with the Eastern Conference’s best team by record?

Suddenly the Wizards who looked like that flopping fish from Faith No More’s “Epic” two months ago look like a tough team playing a small ball lineup with Paul Pierce as a stretch 4. For the Cavaliers sake we hope it happens because we don’t think the Nets are very good. Sure Lopez is a low-post threat, and Lionel Hollins is a good coach, but Brooklyn is a pumpkin-to-be, let’s hope the series ends before midnight.

As for the Wizards, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of them. Second-year forward Otto Porter is Georgetown-trained and a rangy defender with still tentative offensive skills. With him at small forward, they’re a lot more athletic and can mix Nene and Gortat at center depending on how big they want to go. We predicted a step up performance from John Wall, and said their backcourt would play well, which they have.

If the Hawks ultimately prevail, which we still feel is more likely, the Wizards are still an interesting matchup. Pierce/Nene is a decent match-up for Millsap/Horford. The problem for the Wizards is that Demarre Carroll is also coming into his own and prepping his own coming out party.

Though Teague underwhelms me in just about every way on the stat sheet, he always seems to perform and get the Hawks where they need to be. We still think the Hawks’ regular season dominance is no proxy for their post-season chances and the Nets series is demonstrating that.

We had the Hawks taking the Wizard in 5. Due to the Hawks newfound weakness and the Wizards renewed strength we believe it’s more likely to go to the limit if the Hawks make it, but we still believe the Hawks will prevail, in part because we don’t have much respect for Wizards Coach Randy Wittman’s skills.

(If the Nets make it we expect the Wizards to roll. Williams and Jack would be utterly unable to stay in front of Wall and Lopez poses less of a defensive threat in the lane than a stalled minivan. Wizards in 5 over the Nets.)

Cavaliers-Bulls. We believe it’s important to note that we knew the Bucks were going to be a touch matchup and suggested the Bulls would take 6 to dispatch them. (We also thought the Celtics would win a game, so what did we know, right?) Now that we’re here the landscape looks decidedly different, thanks to Norwegian-looking Gillooly Kelly Olynyk, forever staining those of androgynous moniker and bearing with his reckless act.

That said, the Bulls aren’t so scary. They’re big, and losing a big when facing a big team is an issue, but the fact is that the Cavs will have a lot easier time guarding Nikola Mirotic with a smaller player than he will with the cross-switch. The Bulls’ issues at SF will be somewhat ameliorated by the fact that James is much more likely to play up front, probably checking Noah.

If you’ve watched the games you’ve probably noticed, Pau Gasol kind of struggles with Timofey Mozgov. Offensively, Mozgov has made 12 of 22 shots this year with Gasol guarding him, and when the situation’s reversed, Gasol has shot 9-27. (He’s 7-14 with Thompson covering him.)

It seems to us that you could probably play Thompson at power forward against the Bulls and put him on Noah, allowing James to freelance off of their non-threatening combination of Tony Snell and Mike Dunleavy. Honestly it’s beyond us how the Bulls never attempted to upgrade the small forward position. Believe me, Mirotic is a stretch 4, not a small forward and it’s apparent on defense.

However it might be even more challenging for the Bulls if James plays power forward. Even if you choose to play Noah on him to avoid cross-match issues, the onetime defensive player of the year is not moving nearly as well as he did once in his career.

If the Cavs go small, and the Bulls choose to stick with Butler on him that means the Bulls pretty much have to play only two bigs as opposed to the three-headed Gasol/Mirotic/Gibson/Noah monster. But they just won’t be able to stick with J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert when the former returns. Shumpert’s rebounding ability will negate some of the size advantage as well.

The key for the Cavavliers obviously is getting something out of their bench by which we mean Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and James Jones. If not overexposed and kept to 10-15 minutes/game Blatt may be able to piece a hot hand together until Smith returns and the Cavs better matchups win out.

Further, we question Rose’s ability to full integrate with the Bulls offense. He does a lot of freelancing it seems, and we wonder if the Cavaliers in their new more defensive post-Love pose will present difficulty. The issue is that without Timofey Mozgov, the Bulls will be able to really pound the Cavs inside. Keeping him out of foul trouble is paramount to the series.

In the end, we believe the days of MVP Derrick Rose are a memory and that the on-court chemistry of the Bulls isn’t a lot better than the Cavaliers. Though their size presents a difficulty and Pau Gasol’s great low-post game is a challenge, it’s not something the Cavaliers can’t offset with their great speed and the presence of basketball’s finest player.

We think the Bulls will steal a game in Cleveland and force the Cavs to win one back on the road, but they’ll be equal to the task.

Conference Finals

Warriors/Clippers. We’ll stick with the Warriors in 7, as their greater depth and versatility outmatches the Clippers. The wildcard is that Kerr is a real rookie coach, and Doc Rivers is a seasoned vet. We suspect that may come into play, but we still like them overall.

Cavaliers/Hawks. This will be a real dogfight now. The Hawks match up better with a Cavaliers team that is less dynamic offensively. In the end we feel that Kyrie Irving will step it up to another level during the Finals and play with a Russell Westbrook-level of abandon. Our secret hope is that John Wall will be there because a Wall/Irving matchup would be even better than Teague/Irving, but we believe the Hawks will pull it together. Cavaliers in 7.

If the Cavaliers make it to the NBA Finals, everything else will be gravy, but if it’s against the Warriors, it’s easy to wonder if LeBron’s playoff experience gives him an advantage over their very inexperienced team. The loss of Love was epic, but one should never count LeBron James out. Since he was a youth he’s been defying expectations, and if they won even without Love, that would be one of the most extraordinary feats of his career. Do you think he doesn’t know that?


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