NBA Conference Finals Preview
By: Chad Shimozaki
Eastern Conference Finals: Bucks (1) vs. Raptors (2)
Following the first ever game-winning buzzer beater in Game 7 of a playoff series, Kawhi "Four-Bounce" Leonard and the Toronto Raptors will face the Milwaukee Bucks, who have patiently waited for a week since defeating the Celtics last Wednesday.
This series will feature the two most dominant players in the playoffs thus far: Leonard and probable regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kawhi and Giannis lead all remaining postseason players in usage (Usage Percentage), and are the first and second most efficient and impactful players throughout the entire playoffs (Player Efficiency Rating and Player Impact Estimate), per NBA.com.
The first two rounds of the playoffs demonstrated that both teams adapted from their regular season playing styles (as all great teams do). The Bucks began switching on defense, something they rarely did prior to theKyrie IrvingandAl Horfordhigh pick-and-roll, in an effort to contain Irving from driving to the basket and Horford popping out for threes. The Raptors increasingly shortened their rotation and funneled their offense through Kawhi, who took a mind-boggling 39 shots in Game 7 (more thanJoel Embiid,Jimmy Butler, andBen SimmonsCOMBINED).
Khris Middleton vs. Pascal Siakam Middleton and Siakam are both future All-Stars and the second best players on their respective teams. Middleton is shooting 46.7% from behind the arc and leads all players in plus-minus during the postseason through two rounds. Siakam has struggled since injuring his calf during Game 3 against the Sixers, shooting below 36% from the field and 21% from three in that stretch.
Whichever "Robin" contributes more scoring to help ease the load of their "Batman" will have an enormous impact on the outcome of this series. During the regular season, Middleton shot 40.7% from behind the arc in Milwaukee wins, but only 31.6% in losses. Siakam is the Raptors' second leading scorer (20.8 PPG) behind Leonard, with no other Raptor scoring more than 13 points per game in the postseason.
On defense, Middleton was the primary option to cover Leonard during three regular season matchups and will likely share the bulk of the responsibility of guarding the Raptors' most versatile scorer with Antetokounmpo and Nikola Mirotic. Siakam defended Giannis on 93 possessions over three regular season matchups and will be one of the many bodies trying to slow down Antetokounmpo (good luck!). The Raptors have the most bodies outside of Golden State to deal with Giannis in Siakam, Leonard, OG Anunoby (when he returns), Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka.
Bledsoe was largely outplayed by George Hill against the Celtics, scoring in the single digits in two of the five games. Bledsoe is at his best when he is attacking the rim and defending the opposing team's point guard at the other end.
Despite Lowry's struggles and recent heckling on social media, he actually leads the Raptors in plus-minus during the playoffs and makes winning plays. In Game 3 of the Raptors' first round series against the Magic, Lowry sprinted in from the center court logo to grab an offensive rebound with 18 seconds left in a one possession game. In the final 90 seconds of Game 7 against the Sixers, Lowry intercepted a pass intended for Embiid several feet beyond the three point line knowing the shot clock was winding down, leading to a breakaway layup for Siakam that would put the Raptors up by four. Both point guards have underperformed on offense thus far in the postseason, but are always an excellent front line for the top two defenses in the league.
Antetokounmpo vs. Leonard Giannis and Kawhi are two of the best forwards playing right now no matter how you rank them with Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Paul George. The Greek Freak continues to replicate Shaq-like numbers scoring 14.2 points per game on 68.8% shooting less than 5 feet from the basket, while the Klaw just scored the third most points in a playoff series ever.
Kawhi is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and Giannis may be the runner up for the same award this year. It will be a treat if we get to see two of the most versatile defenders guard each other consistently throughout this series.
The Raptors are shooting 32.7% from behind the arc in the playoffs. If Lowry, Siakam, Danny Green, Ibaka, Gasol, and Fred VanVleet cannot hit open threes at a higher clip, the Raptors won't be able to keep up with the Bucks' offense, second-best in the playoffs behind only Golden State. Toronto's seven game slugfest against the Sixers forces a short turnaround for the Raptors. Bucks in 6.
Western Conference Finals: Warriors (1) vs. Trail Blazers (3)
The Warriors vanquishing the Rockets for the fourth time in five years was the storyline of the weekend until CJ McCollum and Leonard's late game heroics capped off an exhilarating second round.
The Portland Trail Blazers are back in the conference finals for the first time since 2000. After getting swept by the Pelicans a year ago, many fans and media said to "blow it up". After Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg, most said "the Blazers will be lucky if they make it out of the first round". But Portland's dynamic backcourt and supporting cast have justified keeping this consistent 50-win team together. Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers have a real shot at challenging the defending champions with Durant sidelined for at least the first two games of the series.
With Durant out, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson's usage skyrocket. The number of plays that end with Curry taking a shot, getting to the free throw line, or turning the ball over when Durant sits increase from 23.2% to 33.2%. His number of isolations also spike as his percentage of unassisted field goals increase from 51.6% to 64.3%. Similar to Curry, Thompson's usage increases from 17.7 % to 33.2% and his percentage of unassisted field goals triples from 11.5% to 33.3% when Durant is out, per NBA.com.
Stephen Curry vs. Damian Lillard The two greatest long distant threats in the game: Mr. Tunnel Shot and Logo "Lizard" Lillard. Curry and Lillard combined to shoot a surreal 41.9% on shots that were 30-39 feet from the basket during the regular season. The league average three point percentage during the 2018-2019 regular season was 35.5%.
"Bad shots" for some players are great shots for Curry and Lillard, who force defenses to extend to nearly half court.
Klay Thompson vs. CJ McCollum These two shooting guards are almost polar opposites. Thompson loves to spot up off of screens and thrives defending the opposing team's best guard (look for him and Andre Iguodala to guard both Lillard and McCollum in this series). Thompson led the league in catch-and-shoot attempts in both the regular season and the playoffs. In contrast, McCollum constantly drives for layups and step-back mid-rangers with his shorter, huskier frame. McCollum leads all players in field goals made off of drives during the postseason.
Both guards were the best players in their respective close out games in the conference semifinals. Thompson scored 21 of his 27 points (7-13 on threes) in the first half of Game 6 against the Rockets, keeping the Warriors afloat as Curry struggled. In Game 7 against the Nuggets, McCollum delivered a masterpiece scoring 37 points on 17-29 shooting; however, McCollum did all of his damage from inside the arc, only darining one three. This dichotomy in playstyles is only one of the many reasons why these are two of the best and most dynamic backcourts in the NBA right now.
Small Ball vs. Kanter During the 2016 Western Conference Finals, Enes Kanter was relegated to the depths of the Thunder's bench, a result of atrocious defense against the Warriors' small ball "Death Lineup". Kanter's minutes evaporated as the series wore on - averaging 17 minutes during the first three games and only 8 minutes during the final four games. Kanter has a chance for revenge after signing with the Trail Blazers and emerging as an essential piece following Nurkic's injury.
PJ Tucker exposed the Warriors' weakness to offensive rebounding in the second round, scrounging for five offensive rebounds in each of the Rockets' two wins. Kanter is averaging 3.6 offensive rebounds per game this postseason, third most among all players. Kanter's shoulder is something to monitor as his field goal percentage dropped from 57.4% pre-injury to 47.4% post-injury. If the Warriors neutralize Kanter as they did Clint Capela in the previous round, the Trail Blazers will be forced to turn to lineups featuring Al-Farouq Aminu or Zach Collins at center.
The Benches The Warriors demonstrated that "Strength in Numbers" still existed when the bench excelled in Game 6 against the Rockets without Durant, scoring 33 points in 80 minutes. During the first five games of the series, the Warriors' bench averaged only 11.8 points over 62 minutes per game. Thompson and the Warriors' bench kept Golden State within striking distance for majority of the game so that Curry could explode for 23 points in the fourth quarter to vanquish the Rockets.
Thompson and Green averaged over 40 minutes per game in the second round. Curry would have as well had he not been in foul trouble during Game 6. Durant averaged 45 minutes per game before getting injured. Steve Kerr should continue to extend his rotation even after Durant returns.
Portland's rotation now goes nine players deep with the emergence of Zach Collins. Collins still struggles with foul trouble, but recorded nine blocks and two three pointers facing elimination in Games 6 and 7 against the Nuggets. Collins played 29 and 23 minutes, respectively, the most he has played in a two-game stretch the entire season and was a +20 in those minutes.
Rodney Hood has earned himself a solid place in the league during the Trail Blazers' series against the Nuggets, hitting the game winner in the quadruple overtime thriller in Game 3 and scoring 25 points facing elimination in Game 6.
Aminu and Maurice Harkless continue to struggle from the field, shooting a combined 39.7% from the field and 27.7% from behind the arc during the playoffs.
The Trail Blazers need to steal at least one game in Oakland before Durant returns if they want to have a chance in this series - the talent disparity is too wide. Force Durant to come back early or you risk him coming back at full health and having to win four-out-of-five against the defending champions. Warriors in 5.