NBA Conference Finals Preview

After one of the best second rounds in NBA playoff history, four teams remain standing. Let’s take a look at the conference finals matchups.

Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Out west, the Golden State Warriors will be making their fifth straight appearance in the conference finals. The last series, they showed why the heart of a champion should never be underestimated. Down their best player in Kevin Durant, the Warriors rose to the occasion and beat the Houston Rockets in Game 6 on the road. To start this series, they will still be without Durant. But one thing we know for sure is that they’re a live dog and shouldn’t be underestimated. Without the temptation of Durant’s dominant isolation style, the Warriors are forced to rely on movement, spacing, and help from role players. In some ways that makes them more dangerous, but also makes them more vulnerable. When shots are falling, the Warriors are still a tough team to beat. But when the Splash Brothers are cold, they are very beatable. This is when their opponents can strike and take the series.

On the other side, the Portland Trail Blazers have completely redeemed themselves after an embarrassing exit in the first round of last year’s playoffs. The backcourt of Dame Lillard and C.J. McCollum have been nothing short of stellar. And as an added bonus, they’ve received help from players like Rodney Hood, Seth Curry, Enes Kanter, and Zach Collins. In terms of depth, the Blazers have the advantage. In terms of offensive firepower, the Blazers can claim they’re fine as long as KD and DeMarcus Cousins are out of the lineup. And in clutch situations, few teams are better than the Blazers. Make no mistake about it, Portland is very capable of beating the Warriors in this series.

Keys for the Warriors: Golden State should look back at the closeout game of the Houston series and commit it to memory. The ball movement, player movement, help from the supporting cast, defense, and dominance by the Splash Brothers are what makes them great with their current lineup. They’ll need to execute at a high level and stay afloat long enough to get KD back in the court. When they play this style, it is highly important for them to limit foolish turnovers. Sometimes, it’s as if they get a little too high on their own supply and start throwing the ball away. As for individual players, it’s clear that the Splash Brothers have to win their matchups. Another player to watch will be Kevon Looney. He has been playing great for the Warriors lately and will need to bring that same energy into this series. Once KD is back in the floor, the Warriors would be wise to stick to their system and resist the temptation of letting KD carry them. While KD is capable of carrying them the distance, they’re unstoppable when they move the ball and everything is clicking. Think back to the 2017 playoffs run.

Keys for the Blazers: Portland must take a page out of the Cobra Kai handbook: strike first, strike hard, no mercy. The Warriors are wounded and about as vulnerable as they’re going to get. By the time KD returns to the lineup, the Blazers must make it a point to be up in the series. If he returns by Game four, the Blazers need to be up 2-1. If he returns one game later, the Blazers better be up 3-1. When the series tips off tonight, I expect to see a desperate and hungry Blazers team looking to put the Warriors away early. Lillard and McCollum need to win their matchups and force them to work for their shots on the other end. Enes Kanter needs to dominate them on the glass and control the interior. The reserves of the Blazers must make an impact every time they’re on the court. That doesn’t necessarily mean making a couple of shots. It means getting to the 50/50 balls and making the most of their minutes.

Prediction: Without Durant, I look at Golden State as slight favorites over the Blazers. So what happens during these first few games will likely decide the outcome. I believe this series will go seven games with the Warriors narrowly winning the series. I think KD eventually returns and makes just enough of an impact to put the defending champions over the top.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors

Milwaukee has lived up to the billing of being the top team in the NBA Playoffs. They’ve only lost one time so far in these playoffs, and Giannis Antetokounmpo has been pretty much unstoppable. When he gets a head of steam, it’s either resulting in a dunk or a pass out to a shooter. Defensively, the Bucks have also proven capable in that regard. What makes this team even more formidable is the depth of their bench. During the playoffs, Milwaukee’s bench has averaged 37.4 points per game. Some of that can be chalked up to garbage time stats, but there are more stats to consider. The Bucks are outscoring opens by 11.6 per 100 possessions during the playoffs when Giannis is on the bench. The Bucks have all the makings of a champion and the blueprint for sustainability in the Eastern Conference. This could very well just be the beginning of another long reign of terror out east. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, the Bucks have another test in front of them.

When the Toronto Raptors made the move to trade franchise guard DeMar DeRozan for a rental in Kawhi Leonard, this is what they had in mind. Leonard has given the Raptors the one thing they have lacked for years: a legitimate superstar. And with a legitimate superstar, the Raptors are now a legitimate contender instead of being a punching bag. Kawhi’s performance during these playoffs has served as a reminder to why he was considered the best two-way player in basketball. The man is even drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan (right or wrong). Toronto now has a shot to claim the east for the first time in franchise history. They’ve been knocking on the door for years and have gained a lot of playoff experience over the years. This could very well be their last shot at the Finals, and they’re desperate to make it happen. The Raptors boast an offense and defense rating that ranks in the top five. They have capable players throughout their roster to be sure. But the only question is which Raptors team will show up. Will it is this new team under the leadership of Kawhi, or will it be the same old Raptors disappointing everyone again.

Keys for the Bucks: Milwaukee’s success starts with playing great defense. For the entire season, the Bucks have ranked at the top of the league in defense. Against the Raptors, expect them to trap and double Kawhi in an effort to force someone else to make an impact. Down the stretch in Game 7, the Raptors often struggled to get a bucket. Putting pressure on a notoriously inconsistent supporting cast may yield big results. Secondly, the Bucks have to consistently make shots. This will force the Raptors defense to spread with their offense and leave lanes open for Giannis to do his thing. And finally, Giannis must play up to MVP standard and outplay Kawhi.

Keys for the Raptors: Everything starts with consistency for Toronto. Even with Kawhi, it seems like old habits die hard. Like always, the Raptors are good for at least one bad game, one average game, and one good game. It must be something in the mental makeup of this team. To win this series they to show some sort of consistency. Next, the Raptors bench needs to step up. Last season, their bench was fantastic, but that’s no longer the case. During the playoffs, their bench has only averaged 21.6 points per game. That’s going to have to change. Also, other starts like Pascal Siakam will be huge for the Raptors if they play well. And finally, Kawhi must outplay Giannis and slow him down with his defense. Easier said than done, but that’s what needs to happen if Toronto plans to win.

Prediction: My head is telling me Milwaukee will dominate this series, but my heart is telling me Toronto is destined to pull the upset. For this series, I’m going with my head and picking the Bucks in six games. Giannis has proven to be unstoppable, the Raptors are too inconsistent, and the Bucks have the better bench and supporting cast.