Another round in the books, and another undefeated string of predictions by yours truly, Mark Leopold. This time, I was only a single game away from selecting the exact series results of each of the 4 match-ups in the Conference Semifinals. Now, as the Top 2 seeds of both divisions square off, who will emerge as Conference Champions and whose dream will fall just short? If there is anything we know about Leopold’s 12-0 record, it’s that one would be hard-pressed to go against him when the games matter the most. Let’s take a look at who will be competing in the NBA Finals.
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (2) San Antonio Spurs
The Warriors advance into their 3rd straight conference finals without having lost a game in the 2017 playoffs, despite coach Steve Kerr being sidelined with a back injury. Well, off the sidelines in this case. That said, Mike Brown has done an exceptional job stepping in during Kerr’s absence as Golden State appears destined for another shot at reclaiming their title. What’s most exceptional is that the superstars haven’t even played their best basketball yet. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant struggle to find chemistry and work together. Meanwhile, Draymond Green hasn’t been the dominant force he’s known to be in the lane, and Klay Thompson has yet to catch fire.
I would think these struggles are primarily due to a lack of playing time. A sweep in the first round left the Warriors waiting nearly a week to find out who their next opponent was to be, as the Utah Jazz took 7 games to defeat the L.A. Clippers. Now, after another quick sweep of a tired Utah team, GSW was forced to wait another 6 days to play again on Sunday night. One could argue that Golden State may never find their rhythm due to the unfortunate scheduling nature of the playoffs. Then again, the extra rest hasn’t hurt them a bit so far. Although, they haven’t yet drawn a team as talented as the Spurs.
San Antonio has a lot of heart. After suffering a crushing home loss in Game 1 of the Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets, Kawhi Leonard and Co. fought hard to win 4 of the next 5 games. Tired and a little beaten up, they face an incredible Warriors team. With no time to celebrate or rest and recover, the Spurs are forced to jump right into Oracle Arena in Northern California and make a statement. Yikes. It’s not impossible, but San Antonio will need every ounce of luck they can get.
Spurs 6th man Patty Mills has been playing out of his mind as of late, and Lamarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol have held down the block pretty well. With Leonard’s clutch shooting, it’s no surprise they’ve made it this far. However, the focus shifts to Leonard’s right ankle. He was forced out of Game 5 with the injury, and was unable to play in Game 6. It goes without saying, but the Spurs will need their superstar on the court if they want any chance of outlasting the Warriors. Even if he’s not 100%, his presence and leadership can give the Spurs the energy and confidence they need to make all the right plays. However, if he’s not good enough to go, it’s not far-fetched to expect the well-rested Warriors to shake off the rust and dominate every game en route to another sweep.
Prediction: Both of these perennial Western Conference favorites have great home crowds, and this series will be the most interesting for the Warriors yet, but nothing keeps them out of their 3rd straight NBA Finals. They clinch in 5.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (1) Boston Celtics
Speaking of back-to-back sweeps, the Cavaliers are shredding the Eastern Conference in the same fashion as the Warriors are in the West. Lebron James and Kyrie Irving are gelling to perfection, and with textbook ball movement each time down the floor, Cleveland looks unbeatable. Not to mention, as their starters get rest in between scoring runs, the bench steps up to keep momentum with Cleveland. Draymond Green of the Warriors has stated that he credits Cleveland’s run due to poorer competition than that of the Warriors, but regardless, it’s been impressive to watch. Looking ahead, they face a tired but resilient Celtics team that has overcome almost every obstacle imaginable to be here, and they’re not ready to be denied a chance to extend their season.
So, the key for Cleveland is to avoid looking ahead to a potential return to the Finals, and to just play the game they have been known for all season. Trusting their teammates and playing good defense will allow them to control the pace of play as they hope to inevitably become too much for Boston. Obviously, this is easier said than done, and after a full 10 days of rest before Game 1 on Wednesday, anything can happen. There have been tactical moves between coaches Tyronn Lue and Brad Stevens all season, and this chess match will be no different. I’m very excited to see how the hot Celtics play against the rested Cavs in Game 1.
Right, the Celtics are hot. Coasting off momentum from an emotional Game 7 win against their bitter rival Washington Wizards, the Celtics must bring the momentum into the Q for Game 1. Delivering a huge blow by stealing one on the road to kick off the series would do wonders for their ‘upset’ hopes. Despite being favorites on paper, it’s an uphill battle for Boston to overcome the Cavaliers. Point guard Isaiah Thomas has had the best stretch of his career during these playoffs, and it’s crucial that he keeps up this play during the Conference Finals. His ball distribution and court vision are unparalleled, and it gives Boston a huge advantage against Cleveland’s normally-average defense.
Meanwhile, alongside Thomas’s heroics are the clutch performances of his teammates in every game. Whether it’s Al Horford, Avery Bradley, or Kelly Olynyk putting on a clinic, the Celtics always seem to find the hot hand. Keeping up this unselfish basketball and letting the energy flow through each other has been an integral part of Boston’s success this season. So will they continue to exploit unaware defenses, or has Cleveland read the scouting report and expect to shut them down? Only one way to find out..
Prediction: A very fun series to watch might go longer than some expect as these teams bring out the best in each other, but there is no denying Warriors vs. Cavaliers III. Cavs drop Game 1, but win 4 straight to advance.