(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/Ken Blaze)
Both conference finals series have followed a similar script, with all four teams recording blowout victories as we are yet to see a margin of victory closer than nine points. This makes trying to predict who will advance to the finals tough as we have seen the best and worst of each team remaining in the chase for NBA glory. It also makes the next week of basketball compelling viewing to see who will buck the trend of trading punches and land the knockout blow.
Western Conference finals
With Golden State holding a 2-1 series lead and a game on their home court to come, they are in the box seat to take out the series and move on to their fourth successive NBA Finals series. It would be a brave person to count Houston out, as one victory on the road is all they need to wrestle back home court advantage. The key to the series for both teams will be to stop the superstars.
Houston somehow need to contain the offensive prowess of Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, or pick their poison and focus their energy on stopping two. So far, Durant has had his way with the Rockets scoring 37, 38 and 25 points in the first three games. Curry was well held the first two games before exploding with 35 points in game 3. Thompson burst out of the gate with 28 points in Game 1 before being held to just 21 combined points in games 2 and 3.
No other Warrior has scored over 11 points in a game so the Rockets need to make someone else beat them. If they can focus their attention on limiting the effect of Durant and Curry and making the rest of the Warriors put up a winning score, they will be well on their way to advancing to the championship decider. This is a lot easier said than done.
Golden State Warriors
Golden State need to have the same mindset and put their energy into stopping James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon. Harden has scored 41, 27 and 20 points across three games and is a wizard on the offensive end. Gordon was excellent in their Game 2 victory with 27 points off the bench, but otherwise kept to just 15 and 11 points respectively in their losses showing his impact on the Rockets' success. Paul has been well held with 23, 16 and 13 points and this has been a key to the Warriors holding the edge.
In their Game 2 victory, PJ Tucker and Trevor Ariza combined for 41 points. In the Game 1 loss, they combined for nine points and in the Game 3 loss only 12. The key for Golden State will be to make the Rockets support cast the ones to put up a winning score across a seven-game series.
Verdict: Golden State in six games
Eastern Conference finals
Both teams held home court and are tied at 2-2. The series now shifts back to Boston for a pivotal Game 5 in what is now a best-of-three scenario. With Boston hosting two of these three games at home and holding a 9-0 home record in the playoffs, it will be a tall order for Cleveland to take out the series. But this is the playoffs and nothing comes easily so expect the Cavaliers to bring everything they've got to TD Garden to come away with a victory.
The obvious key for the Celtics to win is to stop LeBron James. However, a much more manageable task will be to stop everyone else. LeBron is perhaps the best form of his career and is dominating all facets of the game. Brad Stevens is a realist. He knows it will require all hands on deck to stop James and he will question if that is the best strategy to adopt.
If the Celtics are to advance past a rampant LeBron James, they should follow the blueprint of their Game 2 victory. LeBron recorded a 42-point, ten-rebound, 12-assist performance on that occassion, but Boston recorded the win. Outside Kevin Love's 22 points and Kyle Korver's 11 off the bench, no Cavalier topped double figures. The starting backcourt of George Hill and JR Smith played a combined 60 minutes for a combined total of three points. If Boston's defense can hold the supporting cast to this low level of production, they will march towards the NBA Finals.
Boston are a well-oiled machine with a variety of contributors night in and night out. Their offense never solely relies on one or two players, rather a combination of seven or eight players doing their role for the team and chipping in on the scoreboard. The key for Cleveland to overcome the Celtics will be to defend the paint, protect the rim and force outside shots. Boston have been at their best this series when they can move the ball around and get easy looks at the rim, so the Cavs will need to stifle that slick movement.
Controlling the paint will also be key for Cleveland. The Celtics' primary scorers in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are solid shooters but are much better off the dribble slashing to the rim. The same goes for the backcourt duo of Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart. Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes do their best work inside despite shooting the 3-ball at a respectable clip. If Cleveland can contest every inside shot and hold down the paint, they will be well on their way to a fourth consecutive finals appearance.
Verdict: Cleveland in seven games
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