Who will emerge from the NBA’s final four? Get ready for an epic pair of conference finals with everything you need to know for Rockets-Warriors and Celtics-Cavaliers.
The West’s two heavyweights didn’t have much trouble en route to their much-anticipated matchup in the conference finals.
The Rockets and Warriors each advanced with a pair of gentleman’s sweeps, needing just five games in each series to dismiss their foes during the first two rounds.
With three other All-Stars, the Warriors had the luxury of being patient with Stephen Curry‘s recovery from a knee injury, sitting him out the entire first round against the San Antonio Spurs and the opener against the New Orleans Pelicans.
• What you need to know for conference finals
• ESPN Forecast: Who will make the Finals?
• Lowe: Everything that will decide the West
• How can the Rockets dethrone the champs?
• Answering the big questions in Celtics-Cavs
• The scariest three minutes in the NBA
• Celtics have a special brand of toughness
• Is LeBron catching Jordan for GOAT status?
• Playoff MVPs: Who’s the best of the best
• NBA offseason guides for eliminated teams
• Tickets on Vivid Seats
Kevin Durant (28.4 points per game) and Klay Thompson (21.0 points per game) proved more than capable of carrying the scoring load, and Draymond Green (12.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.2 blocks per game) has been a stat-sheet-stuffing, trash-talking beast. Curry, who swished a 3-pointer just 11 seconds into his first appearance this postseason, appears to be close to 100 percent.
The Rockets used the first round against the Minnesota Timberwolves as a tuneup after clinching the top seed with a couple of weeks remaining in the regular season, then easily dismissed the Utah Jazz after a Game 2 wake-up call. Young center Clint Capela has clearly emerged as a legitimate third star for the Rockets, having outplayed counterparts Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert while serving as a perfect complement for the superstar playmaking duo of James Harden and Chris Paul.
Matchup to watch: Green vs. Capela
It will be interesting to see whether Warriors coach Steve Kerr starts a traditional center or goes with the “Hamptons 5” out of the gate, playing Green at center. If Golden State goes small, Capela will have to guard a playmaker, making it difficult for him to protect the rim.
Capela struggled defensively against the Warriors this season, as the Rockets allowed Golden State to score 127.7 points per 100 possessions with Capela on the court. However, Capela has improved significantly as a perimeter defender, excelling when he switched onto guards throughout the first two rounds.
The risk of playing small for the Warriors is Capela dominating on the offensive end as a finisher and rebounder. Green, a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, plays much bigger than his listed 6-foot-7, but Capela’s length, athleticism and relentless energy present quite a challenge.
What the stats say:
Going by efficiency, this is the best offensive matchup in modern NBA history. Since team turnovers became official in 1973-74, there has never been a playoff series between squads that both averaged at least 112 points per 100 possessions.
Just how close were these offenses in the regular season? The Warriors edged out the Rockets just barely for No. 1 in efficiency leaguewide. If the Rockets had made just one of the 3,732 shots they missed, they would have finished ahead of Golden State.
What the regular season means:
The Rockets certainly hope it’s relevant, having won both head-to-head games in which Harden played, beating the Warriors in Oakland and Houston. For all the star power on the two teams, a couple of relatively low-profile Rockets role players could hold the key to the series.
General manager Daryl Morey had the Warriors in mind when he signed PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute over the summer, giving the Rockets a couple of smart, versatile defenders to put on Golden State’s scorers and allowing Houston to play a switch-everything scheme.
Mbah a Moute, who missed Houston’s loss to Golden State this season, was particularly effective defensively against the Warriors (97.2 defensive rating in 56 minutes). Mbah a Moute (14 points per game, 10-of-15 shooting, 4-of-7 on 3s) and Tucker (16 points per game, 11-of-20 shooting, 5-of-9 on 3s) also had big games offensively in the two victories over the Warriors — a huge bonus.
— Tim MacMahon
The Celtics and Cavaliers are unrecognizable from when these two teams met in the East finals last year. Heck, they look a lot different than they did when they last met in the regular season in February. Still, both teams managed to find their way back to the conference finals.
Looking nothing like the susceptible Cavs of the regular season (and maybe even parts of Round 1 versus the Indiana Pacers), LeBron James & Co. ripped the hearts out of the Toronto Raptors with a ruthless second-round sweep.
The injury-ravaged Celtics, coming off a seven-game grind against the Milwaukee Bucks, jumped the previously unstoppable Philadelphia 76ers and won a battle of Progress vs. Process, with Boston’s youngest stars rising to the occasion (including rookie Jayson Tatum, whom the Sixers passed on after trading for Boston’s No. 1 pick last summer).
LeBron James has beaten Boston in four of six playoff series, with some memorable moments along the way.
Matchup to watch: Every Celtics wing vs. James
Go ahead, call me Captain Obvious, but does anything else really matter here? Sure, the Celtics were content to let Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philly’s Joel Embiid score their points and hope the supporting casts couldn’t win games, but James can take over a series unlike anyone else (just ask the 2012 Celtics).
During the regular season, the Celtics leaned most heavily on Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris while defending James. Maybe we’ll see them dust off rookie Semi Ojeleye, who was tasked with slowing the Greek Freak in Round 1 but had a limited role against the Sixers. Boston coach Brad Stevens is likely to throw a rotating cast of bodies at James with hopes that the Cavs are eventually forced to lean on the inconsistent supporting cast.
What the stats say:
Al Horford at times took Embiid to school in the previous round. Now, he’ll hope to avoid once again being taken to school by James. Horford is 1-15 all time in playoff games against James. By the end of this series, there is a chance James could have more playoff wins over Horford than he does against any other player.
While Horford might have reason to be scared of James, “Scary Terry” Rozier might put some fear into Cleveland this series. Rozier has been incredible starting for Kyrie Irving, and he actually was better against Cleveland than Irving was in the regular season.
What the regular season means:
What did the regular season tell us? Absolutely nothing. The Celtics don’t have injured Irving and Gordon Hayward as they did on opening night (well, at least for five minutes, before Hayward went down). Tatum, Brown and Rozier have shown steady growth and have particularly elevated their play on the postseason stage.
The Cavaliers gave Boston a glimpse of their overhauled roster right after the trade deadline, but there might have been a bit of a honeymoon phase happening in February, when the Cavs put seven players in double figures during a national-TV win over the Celtics.
— Chris Forsberg