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  • Can any team in the East slow down the Cavaliers? The second round looks light on teams capable of contending with LeBron and Co.
By Michael Shapiro
May 01, 2017

With four teams remaining in the Eastern Conference playoffs, one question remains: can anyone dethrone LeBron James? The King has held a firm grip over the conference for the past six seasons, advancing to the Finals each time. And to be honest, he hasn’t faced much resistance, either. Sure, Lance Stephenson’s pestering and Roy Hibbert’s verticality pushed James’ Heat to seven games in 2013, but teams with LeBron are more accustomed to waltzing their way to the Finals.

Toronto will look to spoil a potential Cavs-Warriors trilogy, while the East’s other matchup looks to be a battle between teams with a burgeoning rivalry. James still lords over the East, but all four of the remaining teams could still be playing in June. Will this be the year that the King loses his crown?

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Most Intriguing Matchup: Celtics vs. Wizards

Game 1 between the Celtics and Wizards provided a window into what we can expect throughout the rest of the series. John Wall and Bradley Beal were the engine behind Washington’s attack, and Isaiah Thomas shimmied his way to a game-high 33 points. But while the series’ stars will continue to shine, this matchup will ultimately be decided by each team’s supporting cast.

For Boston, three point shooting is critical. When the C’s shooters connect from long range, there’s little opposing defenses can do to stop them. Thomas can find his way into the lane seemingly at will, and consistent outside shooting will keep Washington’s rim protection at bay. Just look at Game 1. After falling into a 16–0 hole early in the first quarter, Boston caught fire, hitting a season-high 19 triples en route to a 123–111 victory. If the Celtics continue to connect from deep, this could become a short series.

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As for the Wiz, they must find ways to stay alive with Wall off the floor. Washington’s starting five has been lethal this year, registering the second highest net rating in the league during the regular season. But when their All-Star point guard leaves the floor, Washington hemorrhages points at an alarming rate.

The Wizards post an offensive rating of 103.9 without Wall through five playoff games, a mark that would tie the 76ers for worst in basketball over the course of the season. Without Wall steamrolling to the lane, the Wiz fail to generate good looks, settling for Jason Smith midrange jumpers and Kelly Oubre contested threes. Washington has no way to match Boston’s production off the bench, but they must keep the C’s at bay when Wall rests.

Second Fiddle: Cavaliers vs. Raptors

Unless Toronto can conjure up a mammoth performance from both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, this series looks to be a retread of last year’s Eastern Conference finals. The Cavs still have the best player in the league regardless of what Gregg Popovich says, and Cleveland’s seemingly endless rotation of shooters makes them the toughest cover of any team in the league outside of the Bay Area. Throw in Lowry’s perplexing playoff woes, and Toronto faces quite the uphill battle.

The Raptor’s best hope in the series comes from its two recently acquired assets. P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka beef up Toronto’s front line, and will look to muddy each contest. Tucker will be tasked with stonewalling James’s drives to the rim—a role DeMarre Carroll failed in last year—and Ibaka will need to neutralize Kevin Love.

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There’s no real answer to stopping Cleveland’s points parade. But Toronto could become increasingly comfortable letting Kyrie Irving shoulder the offensive load. Yes, Irving is a superb scorer with wicked handles and a silky jumper, but he often becomes overly reliant on isolations, pounding the air out of the ball. This strategy may prove silly if Irving unleashes a couple of 40-point performances. However, when defending the Cavs, you have to pick your poison.

Toronto was able to take the Cavs to six games last year, winning both games three and four at home. The series was never as close as the final series result would indicate, though. James felt little pressure against Toronto last year, telling the media after Game 5, “I’ve been a part of some really adverse situations and I just didn’t believe this was one of them.” Cleveland blew the Raptors out on their home floor two days later, and closed the series in six games. Expect a similar result this year.

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Three Storylines To Watch

• Can Boston bigs crash the boards? With one of the league’s most electric point guards and a backcourt filled with elite perimeter defenders, Boston is uniquely suited to limit the production of Wall and Beal. But as we saw in round one, Boston is increasingly susceptible to getting beat up in the paint.

Rajon Rondo’s transcendent first two games spurred Chicago to a 2–0 lead over the Celtics in the first round, but nearly as important was the performance of the Bulls frontcourt. Robin Lopez and company bullied the finesse of Kelly Olynyk and Al Horford, building a +23 rebounding margin through two games. And while the Bulls’ clogged-toilet offense ultimately doomed them, they did provide a blueprint for defeating Boston. Washington thrives on second-chance points, threatening to bang open Beal and Otto Porter threes after offensive boards. Boston must keep Marcin Gortat and Marcus Morris off the glass in order to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

•​ Which Lowry will show up? The Villanova product has been Toronto’s unquestioned leader over the past few years, pairing with DeRozan to form one of the league’s most fearsome backcourts. Like Mike Conley in Memphis, Lowry has an uncanny ability to find his sweet spot on the floor, sliding around screens for an open jumper or a drive to the hoop. But in the playoffs, Lowry has often been a disappearing act.

He entered these playoffs with the worst playoff shooting percentage of any player with at least 500 attempts, shooting under 38% from the field. And a 2–11 effort against the Bucks in Game 1 of the first round only raised questions about his playoff prowess.

Last year’s Eastern Conference finals were a nightmare for the 11-year vet. He went a combined 8–28 from the field in the series’ first two games, compiling nine turnovers and and just eight assists. Things came to a head in Game 2 when he headed to the locker room not for an injury, but to “decompress” as he put it postgame. Lowry is one of the league’s best point guards, and a floor general of the highest order. But another set of playoff struggles will make things increasingly difficult for Toronto.

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•​ Will Cleveland’s defensive woes continue? Cleveland advanced past Indiana in round one on the back of a dominant offensive performance. The poor Pacers looked helpless at containing James’s assaults on the basket, nor could they slow down the Cavs’ barrage of threes. Cleveland scored over 112 points per game in four contests, a mark that would lead the league during the regular season.

Despite their offensive onslaught, however, the Cavs still have serious issues to work out on the defensive end. The league’s 21st ranked defense over the course of the regular season looked more engaged against Indiana, but still allowed too many transition buckets and open threes. The Pacers shot 47% from the floor, and buried 10 or more treys in three of the four contests.

Nobody is expecting Cleveland to channel the ‘04 Pistons defensively, but they have shown the ability to defend at a high level in the past. If the Cavs can bring the defensive intensity they brought to last year’s finals, they’ll dispatch Toronto in short order.

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X-Factor: Marcus Smart, Celtics

Boston’s most dogged defender will chase Wall and Beal around the perimeter throughout the series, serving as Boston’s agitator-in-chief. Similar to Patrick Beverley in Houston, Smart is at his best when he’s in the jersey of opposing guards, unwilling to back down from whomever stands in his way.

Smart’s defensive prowess is nearly a guarantee. The offensive end is where question marks arise. He’ll see plenty of playing time in this series, but must convert from long-range to avoid the dreaded Tony Allen, Andre Roberson role. Smart will get plenty of open looks in this series, and must shoot at a decent rate from beyond the arc for Boston to advance.  

Series Predictions

Celtics in 6: Wall and Beal will carry Washington to a couple of victories, but Boston’s depth will overwhelm the Wiz.

Cavs in 5: Cleveland’s defensive woes won’t catch up to them just yet, and LeBron will comfortably ride to the Eastern Conference finals.

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