2018 NBA Finals Preview

Déjà Vu.

After a First Round that saw many close games and even a couple of upsets, the NBA Playoffs once again fell into the same cycle of predictability we have come to know it by for the last five years. That predictability has resulted in history being made once again with the NBA Finals featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors for the fourth straight season, a previously unheard of feat. 

In the Cleveland Cavaliers, what you have is a Rolls Royce driving around with spare tires. LeBron James has had a postseason that could quite possibly go down as the best an individual player has ever had, averaging 34 points, 9 rebounds, and nearly 9 assists per game while shooting 58 percent from the field. Not a single player on the Cavaliers has averaged more than 15 points per game this postseason other than Janes. The only player who comes close to this mark is stretch big man Kevin Love, who has only averaged just below 14 points per game this postseason, and his health remains a serious question mark after suffering another concussion in the Eastern Conference Finals.

LeBron has carried the Cavs kicking and screaming to the NBA Finals, his historic eighth straight appearance. LeBron hit a clutch game winner in game five and had a heroic game seven in the First Round against a more cohesive team in the Indiana Pacers. He was able to put the Toronto Raptors back into extinction in a sweep that also featured an impossible game winner in game 3 of said series. He was able to overcome the youthful, superstar-less, but dynasty in the making Boston Celtics with a sixth straight game 7 win. LeBron James has all but ended the G.O.A.T. conversation with his historic postseason. Even if he loses in the Finals again and his record in such series falls to 3-6, who carries a team like his this far into the postseason? Only LeBron.

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LeBron James has all but ended the G.O.A.T. conversation with his postseason run in 2018.

The Golden State Warriors mostly breezed by the first two rounds of the NBA Playoffs despite two time MVP Stephen Curry missing significant time due to injury. It was only when the Warriors ran into the Houston Rockets, a team built with the sole goal of defeating the Warriors, did they experience any hiccups. The Warriors squandered a double digit lead in game 4 of that series with a historically bad fourth quarter by scoring only 12 points, no thanks to a disappearing act by Kevin Durant. That same disappearing act occurred again in game 5, but then the injury gods smiled upon Golden State once again by taking away the Rockets’ best performing player in the series, Chris Paul. With Paul lost due to a hamstring injury, the Warriors overcame a 3-2 series deficit to defeat the Rockets in seven games, keeping their impending dynasty alive.

Last year, there were questions as to whether or not the Warriors could overcome the collapse of their 3-1 series lead in the 2016 Finals with the arrival of the talented, but at the time not reliable, Kevin Durant. Durant ended most of that doubt with a Finals MVP earning performance, as the offensive juggernaut disposed of LeBron and the Cavaliers in five games. With a far less talented Cavs team in the finals this year, the collective offensive firepower of future hall of famers Stephen Curry, Kay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green should be able to overcome injury concerns with supposed LeBron stopper (there is no such thing) in Andre Iguodala, the Finals MVP in 2015. It’ll take a superhuman LeBron James to keep the series competitive, and while he’s more than capable of answering the bell, the Warriors dynasty shall be cemented with their third championship in four years.

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The Warriors have a chance at solidifying their dynasty in the 2018 NBA Finals.

Prediction: Warriors in 5.

Finals MVP: Stephen Curry.

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NBA Eastern and Western Conference Finals Preview

Eastern Conference Finals: 4. Cleveland Cavaliers Vs. 1. Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics have defied all odds in making it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Most had the Celtics DOA after prizes free agent signing Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome leg injury minutes into the season, but other prized off-season acquisition Kyrie Irving was able to propel Boston to the top of Eastern Conference in his absence. If not at the beginning of the season, most people especially had the Celtics as good as dead after Irving was pronounced out for the season due to knee surgery. They kept winning.

This is a testament to the great coaching prowess of Brad Stevens, who has gotten the most out of his young roster and has made a strong case for not only being the Coach of the Year, but also the best coach in the league. Reserve players like Terry Rozier have made star turns this postseason, and the development of young talent like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have the Boston Celtics future decade long run at success all but a given. 

Boston Celtics Introduce Brad Stevens
Brad Stevens has quickly ascended to the top of the NBA coaching ranks and has the Celtics primed for a decade long run of success.

Unfortunately, they have now run into their reckoning: LeBron James. LeBron has carried the Cavaliers well beyond the point most of his detractors had him going, especially since it took a herculean 7 game effort from “The King” for the Cavs to beat the Indian Pacers in the First Round. Very few had them beating the first seeded Toronto Raptors in the Conference Semifinals despite owning them the past two postseasons. James and the Cavs swept the Raptors and now have them partaking in an overhaul in their leadership. 

Even if the Cavs role players revert back to struggling like they did in the First Round, Boston is too young to dethrone “The King”. The likes of Brown and Tatum are no match for James, and much like how LeBron renamed the city of Toronto “LeBronto” in the Conference Semifinals, Boston will be renamed “LeBoston” after yet another dominant series against the Celtics and reach his eighth straight NBA Finals. 

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Much like he did against Toronto, LeBron James will re-name yet another city en route to his eight straight NBA Finals appearance.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.

 

Western Conference Finals: 2. Golden State Warriors Vs. 1. Houston Rockets

The current makeup of the Houston Rockets was constructed by analytically driven general manager Daryl Morey in an attempt to not only be the top team in the Western Conference, but to dethrone the Golden State Warriors as the Western Conference Champions. So far, the Rockets have accomplished the first step, as they have home court advantage over the Warriors after winning a franchise record 65 games in the regular season. 

The latter half of Morey’s master plan can accomplish its final goal in this upcoming series. Despite some hiccups, the Rockets have blasted past their playoff competition in convincing fashion, with a 50 point quarter in the first round and a close out performance of the ages from off-season acquisition Chris Paul, who has thrived along with the presumed MVP of the league James Harden. Houston is confident heading into the series, as center Clint Capela boasted the Rockets are better than the Warriors back in January after defeating them twice in their three meetings this season. 

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General Manager Daryl Morey acquired Chris Paul in the off-season as an attempt to take out the Golden State Warriors.

If the postseason play of the Warriors against the San Antonio Spurs and the New Orleans Pelicans is any indication, Houston shouldn’t be. Despite Stephen Curry not playing for over a month, including the First Round of the playoffs, he has been seamlessly reinserted into the lineup and Golden State looks as unstoppable as ever. Kevin Durant has more than picked up the slack, and continues to be the cherry on top of the already stacked sundae the Warriors have served for the last four seasons. 

Head coach Steve Kerr commented on how he felt about his team heading into the much anticipated match-up against Houston, saying he feels comfortable with where they’re out because his players have rings on their fingers. While it’ll definitely be an offensive fireworks show, one cannot blackout memory of Rockets superstar James Harden failing to get off a game winning shot and falling to the floor in Game 2 of the 2015 Western Conference Finals. He and Houston are built better to compete three years later, but it won’t be enough to execute the second part of their master plan. 

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Stephen Curry and head coach Steve Kerr aren’t fazed by the “new and improved” Houston Rockets.

Prediction: Warriors in 6.

NBA Playoffs: Conference Semifinals Preview

The east and west’s final four duke it out for the right to be in the NBA’s final four.

After a first round that saw some series have predictable results and others that were nothing short of shocking, we have reached the halfway point of the NBA Playoffs. While the Western Conference Semifinals have already gotten underway and should yield expected outcomes, the Eastern Conference Semifinals should prove to be a much more compelling watch.

Western Conference

2. Golden State Warriors V. 6. New Orleans Pelicans, GS leads series 1-0

Remember when the sky was falling due to the Warriors finishing the last seventeen games of the regular season 7-10? That proved to be an aberration, a team that was bored and wanted to play in the postseason already. Golden State blew past an over matched San Antonio team, and that was without their heart and soul, Stephen Curry. The Pelicans undoubtedly surprised most by sweeping the higher seeded Trailblazers in the first round, and with the emergence of Anthony Davis and the two guard combo of Drue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, looked like they could prove to be a worthy foe against the Warriors. If game one was any indication, the Pelicans may not be as strong as we thought they were. And with the impending return of Curry to the Warriors’ lineup, the Pelicans may be blown away in this series.

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Prediction: Warriors in 5.

1. Houston Rockets V. 5. Utah Jazz, Hou leads series 1-0

The Jazz are a nice reminder that well built teams still exist in the NBA today after defeating the more talented Oklahoma City Thunder. The rise of rookie Donovan Mitchell is a sight to behold, and should the Jazz be able to keep the core of Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, and Rudy Gobert together a few more seasons, Utah could prove to be a contender for years to come. Unfortunately, their scrappy defense has nothing on Rockets MVP candidate James Harden, as Houston is the far more talented team and should dispose of the Jazz quickly, especially if Ricky Rubio is battling an injury.

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Prediction: Rockets in 5.

Eastern Conference

2. Boston Celtics V. 3. Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have become the popular pick to emerge as the Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals after their series win over a Miami Heat team that was a shell of their former glory days. “The Process” seems to have panned out for young stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who dominated against Miami. They face a tough challenge in the Boston Celtics, however. Sure, it took them seven games to dispose of an underachieving Bucks team, but the fact this team was able to win a playoff series without star players Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving is a testament to Celtics coach Brad Steven’s coaching prowess, as he is able to get the most out of rotational players like Terry Rozier of all people. It’s a classic showdown reminiscent of the teams’ 1980s playoff showdowns, and is without question the most compelling of the remaining playoff series since it could go either way.

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Prediction: Sixers in 7.

1. Toronto Raptors V. 4. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Raptors seemed to have gotten the monkey off their back after winning a tough series against a game Washington Wizards team, but now they must face their arch nemesis who has dominated them time after time: LeBron James. Sure, it took the Cavaliers seven games to beat a better constructed team in the Indiana Pacers, but the herculean effort of “The King” proves LeBron James is a team all by his lonesome. One can’t believe James’ supporting cast won’t show up at all for a second straight series, but LeBron’s path to the NBA Finals may prove to be more bumpy this season than previously anticipated.

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Prediction: Cavaliers in 6.

 

NBA Season Preview

It’s the Warriors’ world, everyone else is just living in it.

With the start of the 2017-2018 NBA season upon us, every fan has the hope and dream that their team can ascend to the top of the league and be crowned as NBA champions. If the last three seasons are any sort of indication, that’s wishful thinking at best. There’s no doubt the Golden State Warriors are the team to beat, but it would be unwise to say the Western Conference didn’t get a little more interesting after an off season that resembled the wild wild west.

In the Eastern Conference, it’s still LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers sitting at the top of the mountain. However, even the king and his soldiers look beneath them and see a potential rising power in the otherwise lowly Eastern Conference.

Here’s how the conferences will finish when it’s all said and done.

Western Conference

1. Warriors 67-15

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A team that steamrolled through the playoffs last season en route to an NBA championship managed to retain all of their key players and add more depth to their bench. It’s not fair.

2. San Antonio Spurs 60-22

Gregg Poppovich is still coaching, and they’ve got an MVP candidate in Kawhi Leonard returning from injury. The off season acquisition of Rudy Gay will also help this squad as well.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder 55-27

The combination of last season’s MVP PG Russell Westbrook and all-stars Carmelo Anthony and Paul George gives them enough offensive fire-power to hang with the best the NBA has to offer. It’ll be on coach Billy Donovan to manage these 3 big personalities.

4. Houston Rockets 53-29

Head coach Mike D’Antoni will have his hands full trying to manage ball dominant guards James Harden and Chris Paul. There isn’t much reason to believe this relationship will work or last, but their talent alone keeps them at the top of the conference.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves 51-31

The popular pick to make headway in the Western Conference this season, there’s no doubt a starting lineup that contains superstars Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, and Andrew Wiggins should help catapult this team to new heights. Maybe not as high as their 2003-2004 season when they appeared in the Western Conference Finals, but higher than they’ve been in over a decade.

6. Los Angeles Clippers 44-38

Yes, losing PG Chris Paul hurts, but they’ve got PGs Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams to fill in for him. They also still have PF Blake Griffin, C DeAndre Jordan, and a good head coach in Doc Rivers who finally gave up his head of basketball operations hat to the logo, Jerry West. They’re no longer title contenders, but they’re good enough to be in the playoff discussion.

7. Portland Trailblazers 41-41

PG Damian Lillard and SG C.J. McCollum have enough firepower to keep this team around the .500 mark, but they’re going to need a mid-season acquisition if they want to rise from the bottom of the playoff picture.

8. New Orleans Pelicans 40-42

The twin towers combo of PF Anthony Davis and C DeMarcus Cousins didn’t excel last year. However, having a full off season under their belts and the additions of defensive stopper SG Tony Allen and a once healthy PG Rajon Rondo should be enough to sneak into the postseason.

9. Sacramento Kings 38-44

The off season additions of  SG Vince Carter, PF Zach Randolph, and PG George Hill along with Rookie of the Year candidate PG De’Aaron Fox will make the Kings a compelling watch. However, can a dysfunctional front office led by GM Vlade Divac and owner Vivek Ranadivé finally stay out of the way? More than likely not.

10. Denver Nuggets 37-45

They’ve got offensive firepower, averaging 111 points per game last season. But if they’re expecting an aging PF in Paul Milsap to be the difference between them making the playoffs and them missing the playoffs, they might be in for a rude awakening.

11. Los Angeles Lakers 35-47

There’s a buzz to this team with the arrival of Rookie of the year candidate PG Lonzo Ball, but will his father, LaVar Ball, be too much of a distraction for the big baller? Also, if you think the off season additions like C Brook Lopez and SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will help you get into the playoffs, you’re living in LA LA Land.

12. Memphis Grizzlies 34-48

There’s always been a grittiness and toughness about the Memphis Grizzlies the last decade or so, but that’s nearly gone with the departures of PF Zach Randolph and SG Tony Allen. Sure, they’ve still got a solid PG in Mike Conley Jr. and a superstar in C Marc Gasol, but losing the heart and soul of your team is nothing short of crippling. Take that for data.

13. Utah Jazz 33-49

Losing SF Gordon Hayward hurt this team immensely. They still have a rising star in C Rudy Gobert and a good coach in Quin Synder, but this will be a down year for the team in the wake of recent success.

14. Dallas Mavericks 32-50

They have a Rookie of the Year candidate in PG Dennis Smith Jr., but as the Dirk Nowitzki era winds down, their best offensive play is SF Harrison Barnes. Let that sink in. Mark Cuban will be spending more time on Shark Tank this year.

15. Phoenix Suns 26-56

Potential Rookie of the Year candidate SF Josh Jackson may showcase his talent enough to suggest the future is bright in Phoenix, but he’s also the guy who called Stephen Curry “Small and unathletic.” After an idiotic statement like that, maybe the future isn’t as bright as the Suns hope.

Eastern Conference

1. Cleveland Cavaliers 54-28

Despite all the drama surrounding the Cavaliers this off season and the rumors that coach, GM, and best player in the world LeBron James is bolting his hometown for the Lakers next year, the Cavaliers’ additions of SG Dwayne Wade, SF Jae Crowder, and PG Isaiah Thomas (*once he’s healthy*) keeps them at the top of the East. Plus, LeBron is not going to let Kyrie Irving beat him, especially with another shot at the Warriors on the line.

2. Boston Celtics 52-30

Sure, the off season acquisitions of SF Gordon Hayward and PG Kyrie Irving make the Celtics more appealing on paper, but for a team that was the number one seed in the East last year to have only 4 returning players from the previous year is troubling. They’re definitely the future best team in the Eastern Conference, but they’re not getting past the King.

3. Washington Wizards 50-32

The dynamic guard duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal is enough to keep this team at the top of the East, but paying SF Otto Potter Jr $106.5 million is ridiculous. It makes you wish you were an average NBA player, you’d be financially set for life.

4. Toronto Raptors 48-34

Why PG Kyle Lowry decided to stay in Toronto is puzzling, as the Raptors aren’t nearly as good as they were 2 years ago when they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. When SF C.J. Miles is your best pickup of the off season, that should be an indication of how appealing of a destination Toronto is to free agents.

5. Milwaukee Bucks 46-36

SF Giannis Antetokounmpo, otherwise known as “The Greek Freak”, is a superstar that can carry the Bucks back into the spotlight. The development of PG Malcolm Brogdon and a healthy PF Jabari Parker can only further this team’s chances of obtaining relevancy.

6. Miami Heat 44-38

Even after a disastrous 11-30 first half of the season last year, head coach Erik Spoelstra was able to turn SG Dion Waiters into the go-to offensive threat en route to a .500 record. Add in PF Kelly Olynyk, and the Heat should find themselves back in the playoffs.

7. Charlotte Hornets 41-41

Yes, C Dwight Howard is not the player he once was, but he’s a big acquisition for a team that allowed 106 points per game last year. If he doesn’t get his act together, owner Michael Jordan may have to suit up for one practice to relive his glory days of punching teammates during scrimmages.

8. Detroit Pistons 40-42

While the Palace of Auburn hills is no longer the Piston’s home, new life will be breathed into this franchise with the opening of their new arena, Little Caesars Arena. Off season moves such as acquiring SG Avery Bradley adds toughness and grit to the team, something that’s been missing from Detroit to help them back into the playoffs.

9. Philadelphia 76ers 38-44

Yes, they have a lot of young talent in red shirted rookie PG Ben Simmons, rookie PG Markelle Fultz, and the recently turned 148 million dollar man C Joel Embiid. But it’s not yet the time for the “trust the process” montra to make its way into the playoffs.

10. Orlando Magic 36-46

If you really think about it, the Magic aren’t that much better than they were last season, particularly when you account for the fact their biggest signing of the summer was SF Jonathan Simmons. But since other teams have gone into full re-build mode, they’re able to ascend the ranks and avoid the dregs of the East.

11. Indiana Pacers 33-49

No Paul George spells rebuild for the Pacers. PF Myles Turner’s development will be key for the Pacers’ future success, but even former GM Larry Bird didn’t want to stick around to see just how boring a development that might be.

12. New York Knicks 30-52

The Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony eras (*or errors depending how you look at them*) mercilessly came to an end this off season. But removing 2 problems doesn’t mean you’ve found a solution. PF Kristaps Porzingis may be a unicorn and a superstar, but he can’t do everything all by himself.

13. Atlanta Hawks 25- 57

It’s puzzling as to why the Hawks have decided to tank. Sure, they weren’t ever true contenders, but this was a team only 3 years ago that won 60 games and was the number one seed in the East. PG Dennis Schroder is an exciting young player, but the Hawks went from mediocre to awful seemingly overnight.

14. Brooklyn Nets 22-60

Remember when Jay-Z owned the team all so that he could steal money from Brooklyn to build a new stadium for a team people in New Jersey didn’t even pay to see? Good times. Hopefully new PG D’Angelo Russell can finally live up to his potential after bombing with the Lakers, but he may be too busy breaking the bro-code filming his teammates.

15. Chicago Bulls 19-63

Bulls management fired coach Tom Thibodeau for being too difficult of a coach to deal with. Their current head coach, Fred Hoiberg, still finds it difficult to coach grown men after 2 years. Whoops.

Award Winners:

MVP: (*It’s actually LeBron James every year*) Kevin Durant, Warriors

Rookie of the Year: De’Aaron Fox, Kings

Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Timberwolves

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Sixth Man of the Year: Rudy Gay, Spurs

Most Improved Player of the Year: Myles Turner, Pacers

Playoff Predictions:

Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Spurs

Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Celtics

NBA Finals: Warriors over Cavaliers

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The Vindication of Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant made all the right moves.

Last Summer, F Kevin Durant shocked the world when he decided to abandon the Oklahoma City Thunder and singed with the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors were coming off a record setting 73 win regular season, but blew a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Many, including myself, called the move cowardly. A weak move that signified Kevin Durant didn’t have the killer instinct necessary to win an NBA championship. We saw him as a man who was only going to ride the coattails of a team that had just won 73 games and was one win away from back-to-back NBA titles. A team that, quite honestly, never needed him.

My how the times have changed over the last year.

After an injury plagued season that saw him miss 20 games, Kevin Durant justified his move to the Golden State. He delivered an NBA Finals performance of a lifetime and won his first NBA title and was named Finals MVP. In the Finals, Durant averaged 35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. He did so against a man who schooled him back in the 2012 NBA Finals, LeBron James.

Many will say this was an expected result. After all, the greatest team in NBA regular season history added one of if not the most prolific scorer in NBA history to their already stacked squad. A squad that featured the back-to-back MVP, Stephen Curry, and one of the best shooters in the game, Klay Thompson. But Durant gave the Warriors something many believed the Warriors already had a plethora of: more offensive firepower. He made a prolific offense even more unguardable, the extra boost the Warriors needed to avenge last year’s choke-job. Durant also proved himself a capable defender, as he bought into the Warriors championship mentality and finally turned himself into an all-around weapon.

Of course, one would be remiss if they did not mention his former Thunder teammate, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, who averaged a triple-double this season for the Thunder and is the likely MVP of the NBA, is hurt the most by Durant’s triumph. Durant traded a stubborn ball hog in Westbrook for a distributor in Stephen Curry, and put his stamp on Golden State’s title run. Westbrook, on the other hand, couldn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs. Westbrook may be supremely talented and a bona fide superstar, but Durant knew he couldn’t win a championship with him. All of those triple doubles make Westbrook look foolish now, as he will be seen as the force that drove Kevin Durant to Northern California when he could have adjusted his game to better compliment Durant.

No one knows whether or not this will be Durant’s only title. No one knows if this is the first of many to come for him. But let’s not speculate about the future too much now. Let us allow Kevin Durant to enjoy moment in the sun after enduring a season of scathing criticism. All of that criticism means nothing now, as this past NBA season should be titled as so: The Vindication of Kevin Durant.

Oh yeah, Kevin Durant also overcame this…

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NBA Finals Preview: Warriors Cavaliers III

The trilogy that will define an era concludes.

I predicted it long before I started writing this blog. I famously declared the NBA season over back in February during NBA All-Star Weekend. And now here we are, for the third straight season, the only two teams left standing in the NBA are the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Never before has the NBA seen the same two teams face each other in the NBA Finals three years in a row. The Celtics and Lakers didn’t do it in the 80s, the Bulls and the Jazz only saw each other two years in a row in ’97 and ’98, and the Heat and the Spurs went head to head twice in two years as well back in 2013 and 2014. This is a historic NBA Finals, and if you thought the stakes were as high as they could be last year with the greatest season in NBA history and an all-time greats’ legacy on the line, the stakes are arguably even higher this year.

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While most would believe there’s little pressure on Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James this year since he came back from a 3-1 series deficit last year, this series has the potential to have him leap-frog the ghost and G.O.A.T. in Chicago, Michael Jordan. Jordan may have faced four 62 or more win teams in the 90s, but most would agree the ’93 Suns with Charles Barkley, the ’96 Supersonics with Gary Payton, and the ’97 – ’98 Jazz with John Stockton and Karl Malone are nowhere near as talent nor as good as the Warriors’ teams that have won 67 or more games the last three seasons. Should LeBron beat this Warriors team with four all-stars, three hall-of fame caliber players and one borderline hall-of-fame caliber player, it would become increasingly difficult to deny him the mantel of the G.O.A.T. . Also, considering the fact that he’s averaging 32.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 7.0 APG during this playoff run, it’s hard to count out LeBron James. Throw in the fact that he still has one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the game in PG Kyrie Irving and a surging Kevin Love, who’s coming off an explosive Eastern Conference Finals in which he averaged 22.6 PPG, 12.4 RPG, and shot 53.5% from the 3-point line, and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers have more than enough to defeat the seemingly unstoppable Warriors.

However, the Warriors are out to avenge last years’ failure of adding a ring to their 73-9 regular season. To do so, they lured F Kevin Durant to Northern California, thus becoming the living embodiment of the phrase “If you can’t be ’em, join ’em.” While injuries and the Warrior’s success without him may have somewhat plagued his season, Kevin Durant has held up his end of the bargain, averaging 25.2 PPG in the playoffs and becoming a more active defensive player than we ever saw him be as a member of the Thunder. While Durant might be the best player on the team, make no mistake, this is still PG Stephen Curry’s team. Averaging 28.6 PPG and shooting 43.1% from the three-point line, Stephen Curry has arguably had just as magical of a playoff run as LeBron James. However, neither he nor SG Klay Thompson have lived up to their billing as “The Splash Bros.” in the last two NBA Finals. Curry failed to live up to his MVP standards, as he averaged 26 PPG and shoot only 35% from the three-point line in the 2015 Finals, averaged 22.6 PPG in the 2016 Finals, and Thompson averaged only 15.8 PPG and 19.6 PPG in the 2015 and 2016 Finals respectively.

Barring injuries, this is the no excuses NBA Finals. All of the teams are fully healthy. LeBron will have his other two counterparts unlike in 2015 and for some of 2016. Stephen Curry will have a leg to stand on after his knee left him somewhat ineffective in 2016. Kevin Durant won’t have to worry about PG Russell Westbrook hogging the ball like he did back when they were teammates on the Thunder. While memories of LeBron throttling Kevin Durant throughout his career aren’t forgotten, including in the 2012 NBA Finals, the Warriors have too much offensive fire-power for LeBron James to supplant MJ as the G.O.A.T. … for now.

Prediction: Warriors in 7.

NBA Playoffs: 1st Round Predictions

The first round of the NBA Playoffs is set. Who will win, and who will go home?

I famously declared the NBA season over by the All Star Break. Since then, however, the Golden State Warriors struggled against and then pummeled their competition after F Kevin Durant’s knee injury. At the same time, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers experienced a funk of their own, resulting in them falling to the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Will this be enough to derail the highly anticipated third NBA Finals match up between the Cavs and the Warriors? We’ll get to that soon enough, but for now, here are my predictions for the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs.

Western Conference:

1.Warriors V. 8. Blazers.

Result: Warriors in 5

The Blazers got off to a slow start for the second consecutive year but once again got hot in the second half of the season to squeak their way into the playoffs. The reward for Damien Lillard (27 PPG, 5.9 APG), CJ McCollum (23 PPG) and company? A first round exit against the title favorite Warriors.

2. Spurs V. 7. Grizzlies.

Result: Spurs in 5

Remember back in the 2011 playoffs when the eight-seeded Grizzlies shocked the world and took down the one-seeded Spurs in six games? That was the pinnacle of the Zach Randolph led rough and tough Grizzlies. Grizzlies fans will always have that memory to cling on to. The only memory they’ll have of this series is how quickly Spurs MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard (25.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG) and legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will mop up the floor with the Grizzlies’ jerseys.

3. Rockets V. 6.Thunder.

Result: Rockets in 7

The two leading players in the MVP race collide with Mr. Triple-Double Russell Westbrook (31.6 PPG, 10.4 APG, 10.7 RPG) representing the Thunder and James Harden (29.1 PPG, 11.2 APG, 8.1 RPG) representing the Rockets. It’s easily the most compelling series in the first round, and will decided who the real MVP of the NBA is once and for all. However, it will be Harden’s supporting cast, namely Sixth Man of the Year candidates SG Eric Gordon (16.2 PPG) and PG Lou Williams (17.5 PPG), who will help the Rockets eek out a trip to the western conference semi-finals.

4. Clippers V. 5. Jazz.

Result: Jazz in 7.

Most people can’t name a single starter from the Jazz. At the same time, we are perennially reminded of how desperate the Clippers are to be the kings of LA. Well Lob City will once again choke away a chance to advance in the playoffs, as Gordon Hayward (*there’s one starter, 21.9 PPG*), Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert (*hey, another one, 14 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 2.6 BLKPG*), and the rest of the up-start Utah Jazz will defeat the insufferable LA Clippers. Then we will once again hear from Clippers coach Doc Rivers how his team would’ve won the championship had they won in the first round, because the Clippers are that delusional.

Eastern Conference:

1.Celtics V. 8. Bulls

Result: Celtics in 6.

The Celtics are a surprise number one seed in the East. Led by PG/ little big man Isaiah Thomas (28.9 PPG, 5.9 APG), the Celtics are the overachievers of the NBA this year. But remember, this group of players representing the NBA’s historically marquee franchise have never won a playoff series together. While Thomas will be enough to get the C’s past an aging, dysfunctional Bulls team, Bulls SF Jimmy Butler (23.9 PPG, 5.5 APG, 6.2 RPG) is capable of making this a series, and old man SG Dwyane Wade (18.3 PPG) will want to give Chicago fans something to smile about before the Cubs win the World Series again this year.

2. Cavaliers V. 7. Pacers

Result: Cavs in 4.

Sure, the Cavs have experienced a funk the second half of this season. Yes, Pacers SF Paul George (23.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG) can turn up the heat come playoff time. But this series can be summed up like so: One team has LeBron James (26.4 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.6 RPG). The other does not.

3. Raptors V. 6. Bucks

Result: Raptors in 6.

The Raptors have one of the best backcourts in the NBA in SG DeMar DeRozen (27.3 PPG) and PG Kyle Lowery (22.4 PPG, 7 APG). Their decision to acquire PF Serge Ibaka (14.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.6 BLKPG) was the best decision made by an NBA GM all year. But when it comes to the playoffs, the Raptors seem to stumble in the spotlight. They’ll waver against Jason Kidd’s gritty Bucks team, led by the “Greek Freak” PF Giannis Antetokounmpo (22.9 PPG, 8.8 RPG), but their home-court advantage in the Air-Canada Centre will carry them into the eastern conference semifinals.

4.  Wizards V. 5. Hawks

Result: Wizards in 6.

Largely an afterthought for most of this season, the Atlanta Hawks closed their season by defeating the top two seeds in the eastern conference three times, beating the Celtics once and clowning the Cavs twice. They’re peaking at the right time. However, the playoff futility for the city of Atlanta will continue, as PG John Wall (23.1 PPG, 10.7 APG) and SG Bradley Beal (23.1 PPG) of the Wizards will be too much for the Hawks to handle. But look on the bright side Atlanta, at least the Hawks won’t blow a 28-3 lead like the Falcons did in Super Bowl LII.