NBA Conference Finals Predictions
It is crazy to think but just a season ago, both these teams were under .500, though Atlanta did make a playoff appearance before being ousted by last year's top seed in the Eastern Conference, Indiana. Things have changed quite a bit in a year; Cleveland has the NBA's top player, a point guard who continues to make big plays and a much deeper bench than in 2013-2014. Meanwhile, the Hawks have used superb passing, career years from Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and more to improve to the Conference's best team. But, the Hawks looked relatively average against the eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets (who had zero business being in the playoffs) and if not for an injury to John Wall, would most likely have been overmatched by the Wizards in the second round. Now, they will have to stop a determined LeBron and a Cavaliers team that absolutely dominated Chicago down the stretch in their series. The real advantage for Atlanta will most likely by their size advantage; even before Kevin Love was lost for the rest of the postseason following a shoulder dislocation, size certainly was not a strength of Cleveland. Since being acquired midseason, Timofey Mozgov has been terrific, using his 7'1" frame to block shots and showing an improved and more aggressive offensive game. But, beyond him who are the Cavs' big men? Kendrick Perkins and Tristian Thompson? Atlanta has two of the best all-around offensive weapons in the NBA in Al Horford and Paul Millsap. Sure, neither is bound to put up 30 every night but both have solid mid range games and open up the floor by stretching defenders deep, which certainly helps Jeff Teague and the other penetrators the Hawks possess. Horford was terrific down the stretch against Washington, and Atlanta will certainly need him to be just as assertive in this series. Another key X-factor for Atlanta will clearly be defending LeBron James, the most important thing on everybody's mind heading into a series against him. But, that also poses a huge question. Demarre Carroll is the most obvious choice for defending LeBron; he has a wide, athletic frame who can bang down low but also moves well in open space. But, beyond that, Atlanta doesn't have very much reinforcements, they are a really a poor defensive team. Both of these teams feast of transition opportunities and which ever team creates more opportunities will have the upper hand. Cleveland has been prone to turnovers throughout the season but as the team has played together more, they have cut down on them. I still worry about Kyrie Irving going up against Teague. Irving isn't exactly a turnover machine but he has been prone to them at times, just trying to make too much happen, and Teague is a quick defender with quick hands. Though, certainly Cleveland is the more athletic team, something they certainly will take advantage of. A popular belief is that the winner of Chicago/Cleveland will role to the NBA Finals, and Cleveland was great throughout that series. I don't think this series will be a sweep or not even close, I think the Hawks can seriously give Cleveland a challenge. They have the shooting if Kyle Korver comes ready to play and a lot of solid weapons, there is a reason they were the top seed in the Conference. But, they still lack the scoring punch and "killer's mentality" I think the Cavs have, something you need this deep in the Playoffs. This could be interesting, but Cleveland is my favorite to win the title right now, and the Hawks just don't have enough.
Cleveland in six
1 Golden State Warriors vs. 2 Houston Rockets
Things have changed quickly in the Western Conference Playoffs as well. Following a route of Houston that increased their series lead to 3-1, the Clippers appeared like the team to beat. But, in typical Los Angeles Clippers' fashion they choked miserably, becoming part of a rare elite in the NBA to lose the final three games of their series. While that derives us from a classic, California battle between the Warriors and Clippers, this current Western Conference Final could be just as interesting. It features the final two candidates in the MVP race, Stephen Curry and James Harden. While Curry ended up winning the award, Harden could get his own form of vengeance with a victory here. Harden might be the best scorer in the league today; he uses his large frame, good ball-handling and smarts to get to the line better than most. Whoever has to guard him will face a tough task and could be pushed into foul trouble early. But, Harden is definitely not the only weapon Houston possesses. Despite a year riddled with injuries, Dwight Howard has still had a wonderful Playoffs and he will be matched up against Andrew Bogut. Clearly a defensive-minded big man, Bogut has the size to certainly counter Howard and it will make for an intriguing matchup. The Rockets also possess a number of wing players that will contribute in Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry. While Terry is a shell of his former self, he is still a great shooter and provides plenty of experience in big games. On the other side, the Warriors' offense is led by the "Splash Bros", Klay Thompson and Curry. When the two are hitting their shots, there is not a more dynamic offense in the NBA. Both have great handles, quick releases and can extend over the top of defenders. But, like anyone they are prone to struggles and in the earlier part of the Memphis series both struggled to hit shots. Andre Igoudala and Draymond Green provide much needed scoring on the wings, though Green's main role this series will be defensively. A snub for Defensive Player of the Year, Green is a strong, gritty defender who might possibly see minutes against Harden. Green is also a strong rebounder, important because the Warriors are certainly not the biggest team in the NBA and they will already have to contend with Howard and hard-working Terrence Jones underneath. While the Rockets don't have their own "Splash Bros" this was still a team that had an injured Howard and no Chandler Parsons and still improved to earn a 2 seed. While the Warriors certainly could be flaming hot this series, they are too inconsistent for my taste and still inexperienced. They don't have a clear cut defender that could shut down Harden and/or Howard and at some-point I think an offense predicated around three-pointers with a rookie head coach is going to catch up with them. Even so, this series is sure to be evenly matched, and still could come down to the wire, the Warriors do have an MVP after all.
Houston in seven