The dawn of a new era…Atlanta, Cleveland, Golden State and Houston: what a weird Final Four! It’s not weird in the sense that any of them are lucky to still be playing, it’s just uncommon to see recent powerhouses/dynasties like the Spurs, Lakers, Heat and Thunder absent in the pursuit to win it all. Outside of LeBron James possibly getting to a fifth straight! NBA Finals, many of these players are newbies to late May basketball.
Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, James Harden, and so forth…the changing landscape of the NBA benefits these gunslinging squads (remaining teams finished in the top 4 in 3-pointers attempted) the most. Small ball, no longer a “gimmicky,” Don Nelson-produced, strategy is now deemed “positionless” basketball. Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat and Gregg Popovich’s Spurs squads showed how emphasizing three-point shooting and stretch fours yields the best results.
So, in the Conference Finals, we could see a shootout of epic proportions. The “usual suspects” (San Antonio, OKC, LA) are nowhere to be found…time for someone else to rise up and make their mark.
1 Atlanta Hawks v. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James and the Cavs are looking to return to the NBA Finals for only the second time in franchise history. After impressively dispatching the favored Chicago Bulls in Round 2, the Cavs are banking on a healthy Kyrie Irving and confident supporting cast to push them over the top. Without homecourt advantage, can Cleveland’s role players be just as effective?
That remains to be seen but Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones are all playing at very high levels right now. ATL’s bench unit, featuring Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore & Mike Muscala, gets excellent ball movement on offense but struggles to defend at times. Whoever controls the pace should have the edge.
The Hawks’ success hinges on their ridiculously tight starting five, featuring four All-Stars (Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver) and a Star UnderDOG (DeMarre Carroll). ATL has the edge in terms of shooting and spacing but is Carroll equipped to “handle” LeBron similar to Jimmy Butler in the Semifinals?
DeMarre is as tough as they come but LeBron will definitely be in attack mode for the majority of the series. And though the Hawks are a well-oiled regime (led by Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer), can either Teague, Millsap or Horford take their game to the next level?
Horford seems like the most likely candidate because he is a matchup problem for Timofey Mozgov. If he gets going, it will open up the floor for shooters and his running mate, Millsap. Tristan Thompson’s ability to limit Millsap is another important storyline: can he impact the glass as much as he did in the last series? So many questions!
But in the end, we feel ATL will advance to the Finals. However, it has to be done by Game 6. Though the Hawks would play a potential Game 7 at the Highlight Factory, we’d be foolish to bet against LeBron & Kyrie in a do or die situation to compete for the sport’s top prize.
Al Horford: Projected Top D.O.G.
HAWKS IN 6
1 Golden State Warriors v. 2 Houston Rockets
This is gonna be fun…a classic, Western-Conference style slugfest! In the Blue Corner, we have the Super Splash Bros. (Steph Curry’s MVP trophy allows for an evolved nickname) representing Oakland, California. And in the Red Corner, we have The Beard & Superman, representing Houston, Texas. Four All-Stars with four more victories to capture before heading to the Finals.
Houston HAS to be on Cloud Nine after coming back to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers despite trailing the series, 3-1 (only the ninth team in NBA History to do so). Dwight Howard came alive in Games 6 and 7 & role players like Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones and Corey Brewer made incredible plays. Brewer, Smith and Ariza combined for 48 of Houston’s 113 points in Game 7.
The problem for them, though, will be making the correct adjustments against Steve Kerr’s versatile group. Coach Kevin McHale deployed Smith in the starting five last series but will that work against the Dubs?
Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut obviously complement both Klay Thompson and Steph Curry brilliantly. What that means is Houston will likely cross-match with Golden State to try to keep up. We envision Ariza will spend a lot of time on Curry/Klay, Harden will defend Barnes and Jason Terry will get a quick hook if the MVP torches him from the get go. Pablo Prigioni is a “better” option but the absence of Patrick Beverley is too much to overcome.
Chef Curry v. Chef Harden is the main draw but we expect the Dubs to ride their firepower and versatility (Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David Lee) to a series win.
Barring a Dwight Howard explosion (will need to avg. at least 25 and 12 for the series), Game 1 of the NBA Finals will be held in Oakland.
Stephen Curry: Projected Top D.O.G.
WARRIORS IN 6