#1 Warriors vs. #4 Rockets
After dispatching the Clippers and Jazz respectively, here we are with a do-over of the Western Conference Finals from last year. The series everyone has been waiting for. James Harden versus his old teammate Kevin Durant. And despite Harden’s dominance this season, in games one and two of the semifinals, it was KD and the Warriors holding serve. This postseason, we’re learning quickly about the value of team depth. And when Durant can answer Harden’s thirty-five points with thirty-five of his own, like in game one, it’s easy to see which direction the game is headed. In the first two games,all five Golden State starters scored in double digits, while the Rockets P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela combined for only four total points in sixty-five minutes on the court. In the opener, with Harden MISSING twelve three-point attempts, the MVP-candidate shot 9-28 from the field for a woeful 32%. It doesn’t matter what else is going on, when your best player is that inefficient against the reigning champs, you’re in a world of trouble.
In a bizarre twist, the Rockets have turned the heat up on the refs and the league itself, with a report that claims some level of taint in last year’s game seven. Paired with Harden’s agitating for more fouls to be called when he misses three-pointers, it seems clear that the Rockets don’t exactly have their heads in the game. Harden’s leg-flailing and complaining aside, the Rockets simply don’t look as competitive as they did a year ago for a few reasons. First, they don’t have home court advantage this year. That’s a big deal. Second, the injury to DeMarcus Cousins might have turned into a blessing in disguise for the returning champs. In this series, they’ve gone back to the “death lineup” as the starting group, and it’s clear that Houston isn’t prepared for that much defensive speed.
The Rockets have made their living lobbing balls in to Clint Capella all season long, he’s averaging almost 17 PPG and 12 rebounds per game. In the first two games of the series, Capella is averaging 9 PPG and 8RPG. He’s being completely negated by having a faster, if slightly undersized, defender on him, in Draymond Green. After struggling with early season injuries, Green has dropped weight over the second half of the series, and it shows. He’s beating Capella to space preventing points and coming down with huge rebounds on both sides of the court. Not to mention that the insurance policy of bringing Andrew Bogut back late in the season has paid off with sturdy defense and easy put backs that Capella is powerless to stop. How bad is it for Houston? Really bad. So far this series, Capella’s plus/minus is an unfathomable -18 when he’s on the court. That can only happen when you play a guy who’s in out of his depth for way too many minutes. Which is exactly what the Rockets have done thus far. The Rockets are +3 without him. If they want to right the ship and make this a series by holding serve at home in games three and four, they’ll need to limit Capella’s stretches and perhaps play some small ball to keep up with the Warriors. Even if they do, I’m not sure that they have the horses to head back to Oracle Arena with the series tied at two apiece. The fact that Kevin Durant has averaged well over thirty PPG since his stumbles early in the first round has made the Warriors something like unstoppable again. As if we didn’t see that coming…
#2 Nuggets vs. #3 Trail Blazers
It’s clear that Damian Lillard has come into his own this postseason. From his elevated play in crunch time to his on the court leadership, Lillard has become the player that the Trail Blazers always assumed he would be. The question is, without Jusuf Nurkic to slow down Nikola Jokic (say that five times fast), can the Trail Blazers keep up with the Nuggets big man, especially without the benefit of home court advantage. Lillard outscored the Jokic thirty-seven to thirty-five, but anyone who’s seen the Nuggets this season (What? No one?) can tell you that scoring is only a part of the seven-footer’s game. Jokic is a truly gifted passer and rebounder who is a threat for a triple double every single night. Teammate Paul Millsap compared Jokic to another gifted passer…six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. He’s that smart, that good and makes that few mistakes. Jokic might not have the aggressively athletic physique that we traditionally associate with dominance as an NBA big man, but he has all the skills, and can shoot, too, going 3-5 from three-point range in game one. By comparison, Lillard went 4-12 from range. If the seeds were reversed, with the Blazers holding homecourt advantage, I could see them overcoming this young and talented Nuggets team, but Denver has been a house of horrors for opponents all season long. They were the number two seed in the stacked Western Conference despite being a game under .500 on the road. THAT’S how good at home the Nuggets are. If the Blazers can’t find a way to squeak out a game two win, I’m not sure that there’s a path to the West Finals that’s really viable.
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