As the conference finals begin, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors stand as the clear favorites amongst both basketball traditionalists and stat heads to emerge from their respective matchups and duke it out for the title.
It’s not difficult to see why. In this star-driven league, pundits are going to side with the teams that boast the newly crowned MVP, Stephen Curry, and LeBron James, the best player of this generation on their rosters. They’re entirely justified in doing so—after all, James has taken part in the last four NBA Finals, and Golden State just reeled off a franchise-best 67 wins in a campaign that saw them lose at home only twice.
But is it possible the oddsmakers are overestimating the Warriors and Cavs? The Rockets are just the type of resilient, grind-it-out team that seems to thrive in the postseason, evidenced as they defeated the Clippers to become just the ninth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit.
The Hawks are also riding a three-game winning streak after halting Paul Pierce and the Wizards with mighty contributions from Jeff Teague and Al Horford, who helped Atlanta capture its first conference semifinals victory in 18 tries.
With the help of some PointAfter visualizations, let’s pick five reasons why each underdog squad could ruin the NBA’s dream Finals matchup.
1. LeBron compiled great numbers against the Hawks during the regular season, as he is wont to do. He averaged 29 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.9 assists per 40 minutes to go along with a 61.9 true shooting percentage in three games against Atlanta.
However, Cleveland only won one of those contests, as the Hawks still outscored the Cavs by 3.9 points per 48 minutes when James was on the court. Cleveland will need LeBron to be his usual self and get major offensive contributions from the sum of its injury-depleted parts.
2. At no point will Cleveland be able to put five average defenders on the floor. That doesn’t bode well in a matchup against the most balanced offensive team in the NBA.
In taking three of four games over the Cavs in the regular season, the Hawks let the speedy duo of Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder run ragged on pick-and-rolls that eventually led to backdoor cuts for easy baskets.
Accordingly, Cleveland let Atlanta shoot 59.7% on two-pointers, by far its worst mark against any team. The Hawks are well-equipped to exploit Matthew Dellavedova and banged-up Kyrie Irving with a healthy dosage of drives to the basket. Though Dellavedova is a poster child for scrappy, try-hard defense, Teague has already shown he has the agility and handles to carve him up.
3. DeMarre Carroll and James were both on the court for just two of their teams’ regular season clashes. In those two meetings, Carroll proved he might be the best option to defend King James one-on-one in the Eastern Conference. When Carroll was his primary defender, James shot a measly 3-of-15 from the floor, scoring just nine points to go along with five turnovers, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Small sample size? Sure. But it’s hard to ignore just how ineffective James was against Carroll, who is one of the most underrated defenders in the game and will be out to prove himself this series. If Carroll can force James into taking jump shots, an area where he’s struggled thus far in the playoffs, it’ll go a long way toward clinching Atlanta its first foray into the NBA Finals.
4. Al Horford finally had a signature moment in Game 5 against Washington, saving the Hawks with a ferocious offensive rebound and putback with less than two seconds left. That basket, along with a three-pointer in the waning moments of Game 6, led much of the nation to shower Horford with the “clutch” label.
But Horford has actually had ice water in his veins for quite a while now. Over the last five seasons, Horford has consistently been the best clutch shooter in the playoffs. He’s shot 61.3% in the clutch moments, which are defined as possessions in the last five minutes of a game with the lead or deficit below than five points. That’s the best mark of anyone with at least 20 shot attempts by nearly 10%, with the next closest player being noted dagger-thrower Paul Pierce (51.7%).
Incredibly, Horford might have been even more valuable on the defensive end. He was a man possessed against Washington, patrolling the paint with the ferocity. Horford racked up 14 blocks against the Wizards, and as SI’s Rob Mahoney points out, Washington shot just 50% from the restricted area when Horford was on the floor. That would have ranked as the best figure in the NBA by a wide margin during the regular season, when Chicago forced opponents into shooting a league-leading 56%.
And that performance was against Marcin Gortat and Nene, two guys who are far superior interior scorers to any big man Cleveland can put down low. For all his defensive prowess, Mozgov is still a mess on offense.
5. Kyle Korver was diligently face-guarded by Bradley Beal last round, which greatly inhibited the sharpshooter’s impact on the series. In this matchup, all signs indicate that J.R. Smith will handle Korver, with Irving and Iman Shumpert taking on Carroll and Teague.
While Beal proved his ability to relentlessly chase Korver around never-ending screens, Smith has never graded out as a diligent defender by any stretch of the imagination.
Korver is the key to Atlanta’s offense—a key that shot 7.7% on “open” threes and 25% on “wide open” threes against Washington, per NBA.com. If the Hawks’ human barometer can find more open looks than he has thus far in the playoffs, it could be hugely problematic for Cleveland.
1. Even with all the disadvantages confronting the Rockets in Game 1 (road game, Dwight Howard’s injury), they hung tough and could have won had it not been for a dismal offensive performance down low.
Houston made just 26 of 51 shots at the rim—an absolutely horrid conversion rate that simply won’t sustain. If the Rockets had even made a couple more of those baskets, we could be sitting here analyzing what the Warriors must do after losing home-court advantage.
2. Klay Thompson wasn’t his usual splashy self against the Rockets during the regular season, finding nylon on just 25.9% of his threes (7-of-27) and 42.9% overall. That pattern continued on Tuesday, as Thompson shot just 6-of-18, including 1-of-7 from downtown.
Chasing James Harden around on defense is obviously affecting Thompson on offense. He’ll only get more fatigued as the series goes on, but how he responds could be the x-factor.
3. Josh Smith, on the other hand, has inexplicably transformed from one of the most maligned shooters in the NBA into a bonafide marksman during these playoffs.
Smith had improved to the ledger of “average” after signing with Houston midseason, converting 33% of his treys with the Rockets. But his long-range stroke in the postseason has been something else entirely, as Smith has knocked down 45% of three-pointers above the break.
The Rockets wouldn’t be here without Smith, who teamed with Howard to spark the famous fourth-quarter comeback over the Clippers in Game 6. If he can stay hot from long range for just a few more games, the Rockets will be awfully tough to contain.
4. The Warriors noticeably perked up on Tuesday night after going with an extreme small-ball lineup that featured 6'7" Draymond Green at center, a move largely necessitated by Bogut’s foul trouble. Such an adjustment would figure to favor the Rockets, given the presence of a 7'0" behemoth in Howard.
But Howard was clearly hobbled by a knee injury he sustained in the first quarter, so Houston couldn’t benefit from the huge size advantage. Instead, Golden State closed the first half on a 21-4 run, which was aided by three turnovers from Howard.
The big man was limited to 26 minutes in Game 1, yet still hauled in 13 rebounds even though his mobility was clearly limited. To this point, Golden State has been quite lucky regarding Howard’s health—he also missed two of their regular season clashes.
If Howard’s knee injury ends up being just a minor ailment, “Superman” should bully Green in the post and prove himself as the kryptonite to Golden State’s small-ball ways.
5. At this stage in the postseason, we always hear that experience matters. And Houston has far more players who have been here before.
Five Rockets (Harden, Howard, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Jason Terry) have previously made it to the conference finals. Golden State only has one such player in backup guard Leandro Barbosa.
Golden State responded to a 16-point deficit with poise and grace on Tuesday night. But if the same had happened in Houston instead of Oracle Arena, would they have exhibited the same coolness necessary to pull off such a comeback? Given the back-and-forth nature of Game 1, we’ll likely find out at some point.
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