We’ve (understandably) been focused on the Clippers’ second-round series against the Denver Nuggets, but now feels like a good time to take a step back, look around the league, and check in on our Rooting Interests as the second round is nearing conclusion in the Eastern Conference and past the halfway mark in the Western Conference.
Let’s dive in!
East 1. Milwaukee Bucks 1, 5. Miami Heat 4
Lucas’ Prediction: Heat in 7
Was my prediction right? No. But considering how many folks thought the Bucks would come out on top, I’m feeling pretty good about my belief in the Miami Heat in this match-up.
Now that the Heat have dethroned Giannis Antetokounmpo and the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, it’s time to flip perspective and, with the presumptive Eastern Conference Champions out of the playoffs, consider just how dangerous these Heat are. I think that the national narrative will largely write the Heat off in the Eastern Conference Finals, but I’m not sure how wise that is–I wouldn’t be shocked if they challenged or even beat either of their potential ECF opponents. And, with Miami now recovering from the second round and Toronto and Boston headed to a decisive game 7 after each playing four guys 50+ minutes in Wednesday’s double overtime game 6, it’s fair to wonder if they’ll be able to get the jump on a tired opponent in the next round.
The Heat have solidified a very strong identity as a gritty, defensive-oriented team led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Goran Dragic brings finesse on the offensive end, Jae Crowder is playing elite 3-and-D ball, Tyler Herro provides a boost of firepower, and Duncan Robinson makes everyone else’s life easier on the offensive end with his gravity. They’ll be put to the test against either Brad Stevens or Nick Nurse, two great coaches who will make adjustments to pick at the weaknesses they find in Miami’s armor, in the conference finals. If they survive, they will be a legitimate threat to whoever they face in the Finals. These Heat are 100% capable of winning the title this year.
East 2. Toronto Raptors 3, 3. Boston Celtics 3
Lucas’ prediction: Raptors in 6
The prediction died with Boston’s game 5 win, but the Raptors stayed alive–against all odds–with an OG Anunoby three with 0.5 seconds left in game 3 and a double OT win in game 6. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the Celtics have been the better team through six games of basketball, but the Raptors have been just good enough in the right moments to get to a coin-flip game 7.
Either team would be favored over the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but both would be unwise to overlook Miami. If the Heat can smother Giannis, there’s no reason to expect they can’t have success against Tatum or Siakam. The Raptors will struggle to score consistently against Miami, just as they are against Boston, but have the same kind of elite team defense and intangibles that the Heat pride themselves on.
Who will win this game 7? I have no clue. But I’ll be watching–6pm PT on Friday, after the Clippers and Nuggets play their game 5 at 3:30pm.
West 1. Los Angeles Lakers 2, 4. Houston Rockets 1
Lucas’ prediction: Lakers in 6
Obviously, I want the Rockets to win here–and through 3 games, they actually look like legitimate challengers. They won game 1 and have been close in the fourth quarter in both games 2 and 3 before ultimately falling apart, mostly because of Russell Westbrook’s struggles.
As vulnerable as the Lakers look, I just don’t trust the Rockets. They go cold at the wrong times, Harden can disappear late in games, and Westbrook is a constant liability to go through a 2-minute stretch where he throws the game. Danuel House, definitely one of Houston’s top 6 players, might not play again due to a disciplinary matter, which means more minutes and shots going to inconsistent backups like Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, and Jeff Green.
I do think that Houston is capable of beating the Lakers on a given night, since the Lakers just haven’t been able to score consistently because of their lack of perimeter shooting and the Rockets are capable of hitting such a high volume of threes that even a good defensive team like the Lakers can’t do much to stop them. Can Houston do it 3 of the next 4 games? Probably not. Does their competitiveness in games 2 and 3 indicate that they have a pretty good shot at winning either game 4 or 5? Probably.
It’s also worth tracking the Lakers’ lineups. In order to match up with the small Rockets, Frank Vogel has gone away from Dwight Howard and cut back on his usage of JaVale McGee as well. Anthony Davis is starting to play the lion’s share of minutes at center. Will that stick against a more traditionally-sized Clippers team, or will Vogel revert to a larger lineup?
West 2. LA Clippers 3, 3. Denver Nuggets 1
Lucas’ prediction: Clippers in 6
I am actually leaning towards Clippers in 5 now–I think they won game 3 despite being outplayed by Denver, and won game 4 despite not hitting shots. Now, I have a gut feeling that the three-point floodgates will open for LA in game 5 and help them put the Nuggets away.
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The Clippers’ top priority is winning one more game against the Nuggets and advancing. Inside the locker room, they can’t afford to look at what’s next. Sitting at home in Los Angeles, across the country from the NBA’s Orlando bubble, we have that luxury, and the sooner the Clippers close out Denver, the better they position themselves to get extra rest before future rounds.
Right now, the LAC-DEN series is a day ahead of the LAL-HOU series, meaning that if the Clippers and Lakers both win in 5, LAC would get 2 days of rest before game 1 of the Western Conference Finals while LAL would get just 1. If the Clippers close their series in game 5 on Friday and the Rockets take another game from the Lakers, the WCF would likely begin next Wednesday–meaning 4 days off for the Clippers and just 1 for the Lakers.
But both LA teams also have to look across the bracket and realize that one Eastern Conference finalist is already set and waiting for the other, which will be decided in Friday’s game 7 between Boston and Toronto. That series could start as soon as Sunday, though the league could give the winner of the Celtics and Raptors extra rest since the East is so far ahead of schedule.
Still, if either Western Conference second round series stretches to 6 or 7 games, the WCF will start well behind the ECF, which could leave the EC champ waiting around for their Finals opponent.
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