How Toronto Beat The Warriors To Win The NBA Finals

Game 4 was a reality check.

The Warriors were down 3-1 after that Friday night loss.  It didn’t feel like that was possible.  Sure, once it was announced that Kevin Durant was going to miss Game 4 and not play, the narrative for Toronto was that they couldn’t lose.  We had to prepare ourselves that the Warriors, whether it be in Game 5,6, or 7 were not going to win the series.  There was just no way they could survive four games without Durant.

Eventually, the Warriors lost.  They made it through 4.5 games without Durant, giving it their all in Game 5 after he went down with a devastating achilles injury that turned the series on its head.  And in Game 6, it was another devastating injury that helped Toronto survive, as Klay Thompson sustained a torn ACL after putting up 30 points in almost three quarters.

But injuries weren’t the only thing that won Toronto this series.  As I wrote in my preview, I was high on the Raptors practically all year.  I thought they could present some issues to Golden State.

Toronto went out and made smart trades, got their No. 1 guy and played an efficient, modern brand of basketball with its own tinge of old-school that made Golden State combust.  It worked.  Here’s a breakdown of why.

In a small-ball league, Toronto went and played big, and made it efficient

This would not have been a series for Jonas Valancuinas or Jakob Poeltl.

Despite what the Raptors did with their big men in this series, the two former Raptors would have never survived in this series.  Golden State would have destroyed Valancuinas and Poeltl in the pick-and-roll, or stretched them out to the perimeter defensively and made them unplayable that way.  Plus, neither of them do stuff like this.

Give me ALL of that.

This is where the Raptors got creative.  They had two dudes on the court at all times that Golden State could do nothing with.  Marc Gasol?  Who’s there to defend him posting up, or stopping this?

Notice how these Gasol are all quick and efficient.  If you’re going to play big guys, the production they give you has to be of this kind.

What about Pascal Siakam?  The dude had 32 points in Game 1 on 17 shots.  He made 14 of them.  He did it with plays like this.

But he also shot threes, posted up, and hung around the rim for put-backs.  His length and athleticism was too much for a Golden State team that was without KD (a perfect matchup) and had Kevon Looney (Someone who could at least minimize Siakam’s impact) battling through a painful injury.

And then put one of those two with Serge Ibaka, who turned into a shot-blocking machine in Game 5 and destroyed the Warriors on three straight possessions in Game 6 by simply hanging around the rim looking for second chance points and lobs?  Draymond Green couldn’t do it by himself on the defensive end.  The Warriors were just overmatched by the Raptors’ smarts and size.

Fred VanVleet did not miss

Though it felt like he shot 70%, Fred VanVleet shot 37.9% from three against the Warriors, and 44.9% from the field.

The reason it felt like 70% was because the shots mattered.  When Toronto needed a big shot, VanVleet was there.  The options were legitimately Kawhi Leonard and him.  That’s the level VanVleet ascended to this postseason.  It’s one of the most improbable hot streaks I can remember.  It’s a like a pitcher in baseball or a whole team in football.  They heat up and never cool down, and it leads to a championship most of the time.

That wasn’t the only way VanVleet made his impact known though.

Toronto beat up Stephen Curry when it mattered

Curry’s 49 point game in Game 3 was undeniably incredible.  With literally every solid offensive option out but him, and the defensive issues we examined above fully on display, Curry knew he had to take things into his own hands in the grandest way possible and he did.  It just wasn’t enough, and against this Toronto team, that was understandable.

And in other games, Toronto did just enough.  Curry wasn’t enough to make up for the loss for Durant and Thompson.  Despite putting up 30.5 points, six assists, 5.2 rebounds, the Raptors held Curry to 41.4% shooting and 34.3% shooting from three.  They did it by beating him up.  Whether it was VanVleet or Lowry smothering him at the top of the key, or fantastic rim protection, the Raptors kept the Warriors’ engine in check.

If there has been any defense against Curry the past five years, it’s been this kind.  Get physical and break him down.

The workload Curry had, in Game 3 and in Game 6, was just unbearable, and though Curry missed the shot at end of the game Thursday, it was justified.  It was one shot and had a 34.3% chance to go down.

Injuries

Injuries are commonly labeled as excuses for teams winning or losing the title.  But injuries play a key part in every series.  The Warriors know this; Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were both out for the 2015 NBA Finals, leaving LeBron James on an island by himself for six (!!!) games.  If Irving and Love play, that series goes at least seven, or the Cavaliers likely end up winning it in a more compact series.  But we don’t count that in the history books, or put an asterisk next to it.  The Warriors won the Finals that year.  That is what happened.  Yes, they had injury luck, but they won the Finals.

The Raptors won the Finals this year, and they got injury luck as well.  Had Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson been healthy, this is a Warriors in five or six series.  Had Durant alone been healthy the whole time, it’s probably the same.  If Durant comes back in Game 5 and doesn’t blow out his achilles, we’re probably playing Game 7 Sunday night.  The same goes for Klay Thompson last night; if his ACL isn’t torn coming down from that layup, and his shot-making continues, then we probably have a Game 7 Sunday night.  The Raptors caught a break in this series.  The Warriors did in 2015 as well.  What happens, happens.

There is a difference though with this loss for Golden State.  It’s not making an excuse, it’s more just a general observation about what these injuries mean.  In 2015, we had a pretty good idea of what the Cavaliers were going to be the next season.  This time around, that’s not the case at all.  It feels like the way this season ended for Golden State is a sign of things to come.  This same team absolutely won’t be back next season no matter who leaves in free agency or not; Klay Thompson won’t be ready till the playoffs, and Kevin Durant not until the 2020-2021 season.  He may be on a different team by then (Though I think the achilles tear makes him more likely to stay).  No matter what, this time around the injuries leave a greater impact than just a Finals loss.  It could be the end of one of the greatest runs in basketball history.  Even if the Warriors do get everyone from the past three years back for the 2020-21 season, it would create this funky, one year gap in the middle.  It’d almost feel like a lockout year or something.  It will be a strange feeling.  Then again, the only team close to putting up a run like this Golden State team has had double the amount of time in between.

How Toronto Wins (A Must Win) Game 3

One of the biggest keys in this series for Toronto was to get lucky.

That’s one the biggest keys for any team that faces Golden State in a series.

Toronto has gotten lucky.  Despite the series being tied 1-1, the Raptors haven’t had to deal with Kevin Durant (And won’t in Game 3), got Kevon Looney hurt enough to keep him out for the series, and banged up Klay Thompson and Andre Igoudala.

All of that is the case for Toronto in Game 3.  They can’t lose.

Here’s how they avoid a brutal loss.

Make the Warriors feel the loss of Looney

Here’s a list of healthy, good defensive players the Warriors have tonight:

  • Draymond Green
  • Jordan Bell (?)
  • Andrew Bogut(?)
  • Alfonzo McKinnie

Can Bell play in a big game like this?  Is Bogut playable at all?

That’s a lot of ground to cover for Draymond Green, who, despite turning back into the absolute monster we knew him to be, will be tasked with switching on and off Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam throughout Game 3.

DeMarcus Cousins and Green will have to replicate their defensive performance from the second half of Game 2 to keep the Raptors in check.  Cousins was all over the place at the rim Sunday; a stunning turn from his usual habits on that end of the floor.

The Raptors have to minimize Cousins’ defensive impact, overwhelm Green and make Thompson and Iguodala work.  Playing Gasol and Siakam at the same time could be effective (A two man combo I did not envision in this series); Toronto has had massive success rim-running bigs (Siakam in Game 1 and Ibaka in Game 2).  Plowing Gasol and spacing Siakam out wastes Green and forces Cousins to contest at the rim.  Looney’s switchable at both roles.  Now that presence is gone.

There’s another way the Raptors can exploit Cousins and make the Warriors miss Looeny, and that’s by…

Letting Kawhi cook in the isolation and pick and roll

Leonard had a quiet 34 points in Game 2.  His -14 and Toronto’s loss late told the story.  Leonard was good, but he was never great.  He never went to the level Toronto needed, the level we saw against Philadelphia and Milwaukee.  He never really took over.

And that’s okay.  It happens.  But Leonard is going to have to step up in Game 3.  The Raptors can’t lose this game, and they need their best player to win it for them.

With Igoudala, Thompson and Durant hurt, the Warriors best options for Leonard are out or limited.

This has all the makings of a big Leonard game, or a takeover late.

Toronto can get Thompson or Igoudala switched one-on-one with Leonard, a favorable matchup given Kawhi’s ability to breakdown defenders and athleticism to get by them.  They can also put Cousins in the pick and roll, and throw multiple guys at him to defend on the roll.  A Fred VanVleet-Leonard PNR makes Cousins unplayable, and forces a hard closeout from VanVleet’s defender (A hurt Thompson or a healthy Steph?  Favorable) as the shots have just kept going down for the Wichita State product.  Running Kawhi as the ball-handler and a body like Gasol, Ibaka or Siakam puts another big man in good position toward the rim, and once again exploits Cousins.

Kawhi is Toronto’s best player, and with the state of the Warriors, he’s also their most lethal weapon.  Him getting going and dominating should not be an issue.

2019 NBA Finals Preview

For four weeks this NBA season, I was wrong about Toronto.

That was the first two weeks before the season tipped off and the two weeks after it did.

Boston was my Finals pick out of the East.  It was completely defensible, even though it only took those first two weeks of the season to figure out that probably wasn’t going to happen.

Toronto was the next team in line, prior to the season and as soon as our realization about Boston came to fruition.  They had the talent.  They eventually had the look.  And they had what Milwaukee didn’t: Experience, and a player that mattered.  Like, really really mattered.

That player and that experience is going to matter in this series.  It may keep it a little closer than we think.

NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors vs. Toronto Raptors

Despite what we have seen from the Warriors in their five-and-a-half games without Kevin Durant, they are more likely to win their fourth title in four years and their third in a row if he is playing (Good players = better basketball teams?  Does that formula make sense?), but it’s not because of how he affects the Warriors on the offensive side of the court.

Simply, Durant is the Warriors best option to defend Kawhi Leonard, who is having an early-postseason Durant-like run right now.  Kawhi’s slow yet methodical and conducted offensive performances have torched teams.  How do you defend someone at that size, with that length, with that game?  You put Kevin Durant on him, who by the way was the biggest reason why Golden State beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the 2017 Finals due to his defensive performance on one of the two best players of all-time.  LeBron was still ridiculous that series, but Durant forced him a level below the standard we had held him to.  Durant made him less unstoppable.  Durant made him not the God-mode LeBron we saw in 2016.

That’s why the Warriors got Durant.  It’s also why the Raptors got Kawhi.  They’re both players who can be the guy on offense and shut the guy down on defense.

Which is why if KD misses a substantial amount of games, the Raptors could be in pretty good shape.

Klay Thompson is an excellent defender, but probably won’t have the answers for this Kawhi.  And when Golden State successfully blitzed and trapped Damian Lillard in the Western Conference Finals against Portland leaving CJ McCollum to takeover, he did exactly that.  Guarding Kawhi is a whole other beast than someone like McCollum.

Tasking old man Andre Iguodala with that assignment for the games KD is out for is plain mean, and Draymond Green, despite flipping the switch and playing like the best defensive player in the league lately, doesn’t have the speed to contest Kawhi drives.

Draymond and Kevon Looney, yes Kevon Looney, are the keys to Golden State defensively in this series.  How the Warriors match them up and switch them determines everything for the Raptors.  No one, even a lockdown defensive team like Toronto, can match the Warriors offense when its firing.  It’s not a defensive issue at all.  When the Warriors are at their peak, the best defense ever can’t do anything.  It’s that unstoppable.  You have to counter it with the same shot-making and have the numbers go in your favor (Which means that Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and even DeMarcus Cousins are all almost unplayable in this series.  Boogie getting torched and Ibaka+Gasol getting ran off the court are not things either team is going to get away with).  If the Warriors defend the Raptors by switching Looney and Draymond between Pascal Siakam and Kawhi, you can kiss a seven game series and/or a NBA Championship away for the Raptors.  Looney’s insane, mind-boggling athleticism and switchability defensively makes him an underrated candidate to guard Kawhi.  He has the foot speed and the size.  A Kawhi shake and bake or crossover may mean trouble, but having Draymond’s rim protection and blocking ability on Siakam, who’ll be floating around the rim for tip-ins and put-backs and spacing out for threes, is probably worth it.

Draymond on Kawhi in games that KD is out for is a risky bet for the Warriors.  Kawhi’s game this postseason has reached a level where at its peak it is totally unguardable.  Allowing that to occur in the first two games of the series, which Durant is almost certainly out for, could put Golden State shockingly down 2-0 if everything goes right.  The Raptors have home court, meaning that while Golden State probably won’t be intimidated by the atmosphere, it could give the Raptors a boost and sense of confidence.  That crowd has been a ruckus all postseason, and now their team is in the NBA Finals for the first time ever.  They certainly won’t be helping Golden State out.

But it seems incredibly unfeasible that the back-to-back champs would be down 2-0 in a Finals without LeBron James in it.  Their effort won’t fluctuate this time.  The Cavaliers were a team the Warriors had seen time and time again in big games and series.  They knew how far they could stretch their lack of effort.  But in a series against a new opponent in Toronto, and in a series without Kevin Durant, who is the difference-maker no matter how great they look and play without him, testing the effort waters is a dangerous proposition.  Toronto is really good; way better than any team Golden State has seen in the last two years.  And without Durant on the court in a Warriors uniform, Toronto is even scarier.

Still, there is no conceivable way for me to pick them.  Not even in seven.  The Warriors just have that extra gear offensively, and they can shift to it at any time.  You’re up five and then down 15.  It can happen that fast.  There is no stopping, countering, or picking against that.

Kawhi is going to have a game or two, and if the Raptors get lucky, maybe Durant is out three-to-four games.  Four makes things interesting for the Raptors; Toronto probably loses at least one game that KD is out for thanks to a cold shooting night or a hot Golden State shooting night.  But the general consensus on Durant is a two game absence currently.  If that’s the case, the Warriors will be fine.  Remember when Stephen Curry was a bad postseason player?  Me neither.

Prediction: Warriors in 6

Raptors-Bucks Preview

Due to some crazy seeding and hot streaks, we didn’t totally get the Conference Finals we expected in the West.  In the East though, we got exactly what we expected.

No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.1 Milwaukee Bucks 

Most teams in the league don’t have anybody to stop or even slightly contain Giannis Antetokounmpo.  That’s why he’s at the heart of one of the more contested and fantastic MVP debates in awhile.  He’s unstoppable.

But there’s a couple teams that do have options for him.  These options aren’t going to stop him, but they could him work a bit more.  These teams are Golden State, Philadelphia, and the Raptors.  That’s it.

But the difference with the Raptors is that there’s a case they have two guys: Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam.  Siakam has maybe the closest skill set to Giannis in the league, with insane length and athleticism that translates both ways incredibly effectively.  And Kawhi is the best perimeter defender of all-time, who went head-to-head with LeBron in a Finals and won at 21-years-old.

Toronto is the team most well built to make Giannis not matter as much in a series. If they plant Kawhi or Siakiam on him, that’s a pretty good bet from Toronto’s side. If they switch everything against him, that’s a good bet too.  Throwing mixed coverages and involving Danny Green makes Giannis have to work and defer even more.  The Raptors could also imitate what Boston did in Game 1 of the second round, and build a wall anchored by Kawhi or Siakam, with the other shadowing on the wing and Marc Gasol staying home yet coming up to the elbow, creating a brunt force Giannis would have to penetrate.

Milwaukee’s drive and kick offense is the counter to Giannis being off.  But Toronto’s length and recovering ability limit its effectiveness as well; the Raptors have been the third best defenders of the three this postseason (by opponent three point percentage) and were eighth in the league for the season overall (The Bucks finished 22nd).

So what if Giannis is contained?  Who’s the guy?  I would certainly hope it’s not “I’m gonna show you why I deserved that contract” Eric Bledsoe, who is going to dribble too much, jack threes and take bad mid-rangers, completely messing up Milwaukee’s offensive flow.  Is it Khris Middleton?  He’s coming off of an excellent series against Boston, but he kills them every time those two teams play.  Middleton’s an underrated No.1 offensive option; he’s got a better handle than people give him credit for and is good at creating his own shot.  But is he enough against Toronto, who plays a similar style of offense and has dudes who have been in big games before?

That’s another huge advantage to Toronto in this series.  If Milwaukee’s offense faces trouble, they don’t have anyone to really guide the ship on or off the court.  They don’t have experience.  Practically no one on that roster has been in big games before.  The Raptors have seven dudes who have been in big games, and I know that can be poked… Lowry’s sucked, everyone’s had their butts handed to them by LeBron, blah, blah.  But it’s probably better to have your butts kicked by the best player in the world than to not have any experience in big games at all.

All of this is not saying that Toronto is going to slaughter Milwaukee.  Giannis might be contained a bit but he will not be stopped.  There’s going to be two games in this series where he completely dominated not because Toronto is bad but because Giannis is that good.  Some nights you’re just not going to have a chance.   Plus, the Bucks were the best defensive team in the league all year.  If the Bucks can have Giannis force Kawhi into a Game 7 against Philly-like performance (Look, the shot was incredible, but that wasn’t exactly a showcase from Kawhi.  He never takes that many shots and isn’t that type of offensive player.  He knows that and knew it after the game too.  Most of the time a lot of those shots won’t go in), then they’re letting Kyle Lowry beat them.  I will let him shoot in big games all I can.

Siakam is the x-factor for Toronto offensively.  Giannis giving Kawhi a tough time forces Lowry to go into facilitator mode, and Siakam feeds off that.  Despite being able to put up 30, Siakam isn’t a volume scorer.  He hangs around the rim and gets put-backs.  He stands in the corner and shoots threes that are swung to him.  He’s the type of guy who, when you at the box score, you say, “Wait, Siakam has 30?!?”  It makes no sense at all how he gets there.

The Bucks don’t really have a guy for him.  Malcolm Brogdon will be back at full minutes at some point in this series, but he’s a little undersized to play under the rim where Toronto usually has him.  Siakam trying to drive is probably a better matchup for Brogdon; he can use his athleticism more that way and poke at the ball.

If Siakam can put up 20 a game in this series, that’s trouble for Milwaukee, who can’t have Siakam going off and Giannis doing the opposite in the same night.  That’s a loss for the Bucks immediately.

The other thing Milwaukee has going for them is their fight.  We’ve seen Toronto slack in way too many games, regular season or postseason.  If Milwaukee is up they won’t back down.  If they’re down they won’t quit.  Toronto is going to have to stay keyed in defensively, because even though Giannis won’t bring a rain of threes to the plate, he can run up the score just as quick as someone like Stephen Curry can.

As I said above, this is no way a Toronto slaughter.  Giannis is going to have his moments.  I just think Toronto can make him have less of those, and it will keep the Raptors around a little more than most anticipate.

Prediction: Raptors in 7

Trail Blazers-Warriors Preview

Picking against the Warriors is probably one of the four dumbest things I have done in my entire life.  It wasn’t like it was a non-obvious error either.  After watching Game 1, I immediately thought, “Wow, that was really stupid.”  The Warriors were awake in the middle of the night.  And they had all of their tools ready to go.

Golden State is now in a mode where it seems like they are unstoppable on all fronts.  Kevin Durant has torched everyone this playoffs, and did the same to Houston until suffering a calf injury (WHICH WAS DEFINITELY NOT AN ACHILLES INJURY, REGGIE MILLER) in Game 5.  With KD, the Warriors are probably unbeatable.  Without KD, they might be the same.  The Splash Brothers put on a classic display in Game 6, despite Stephen Curry’s zero point first half.  Klay Thompson held down the fort until Curry found himself, and he did in the most outrageous, most Steph way ever.  Thanks to another James Harden collapse/no-show, Golden State got out of the series in six, and shut everyone, including myself, up for a decently long time.

Does all of this praise lead to an overcorrection in my prediction against Portland?  Possibly.  But the Trail Blazers have their own sense of dominance in their favor right now as well.  Despite letting Denver take them to seven games, the Trail Blazers are riding CJ McCollum, and yes Damian Lillard as well (Despite a brutal series against the Nuggets… more on that later), high right now.  Those two, along with Enes Kanter doing stuff have Portland in the West Finals.  Yeah, they’re actually out of the second round.  And they’re really scary.

No.3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No.1 Golden State Warriors 

Kevin Durant’s injury is the biggest headline heading into this series and it absolutely should be.  His loss affects Golden State and Portland equally.  For Golden State, his loss doesn’t guarantee a win.  For Portland, his absence makes winning possible.

The dilemma for Portland in this series is what to do with KD when he’s on the court.  Their biggest issue over the years has been getting offense out of their wings, not defense.  Al-Faruoq Aminu and Mo Harkless have been horrendous offensively in the playoffs, shooting poorly from three and from the field in general (We saw that continued Sunday).  The two have been better defensively than offensively this postseason, but were both cooked relentlessly against Denver, sinking some of their defensive stats to a non-impressive level.  That wasn’t very surprising though; we knew Portland was going to have troubles guarding Denver because, well, everybody does, and we knew that Denver wasn’t going to guard Portland effectively either.  That series was going to be offense vs. offense and Denver got a lot more of it than I thought they would.

Golden State plays differently, and more importantly has a much different type of player than anyone on Denver in KD.  A player like Durant is someone that we would assume Aminu and Harkless would be more fit to guard; a lengthy, athletic wing who can shoot and score rather than smaller guards running all over the place.  But this is Kevin Durant, who not only is named Kevin Durant probably deserves an inappropriate word as his middle name after the postseason he’s put on.  The Clippers never really had a chance at guarding him, so they’re a wash, but Houston’s Lebron/best player stopper in PJ Tucker didn’t have a chance either.  If Tucker got cooked, Aminu and Harkless are in for a long series.  Thankfully, there’s a good chance they’ll only have to deal with KD for 2-3 games, because even when he’s out, this is a tough matchup for Portland.

Shutting down the rest of Golden State down requires similar personnel and strategy as helping contain Durant does as well.  The Denver series gave us a first hand look at what happens when you have to make the Trail Blazers work on defense.  And Game 6 against Houston gave us a first hand look at what happens when KD isn’t on the court for Golden State.  The doors can open for Curry, and Klay can turn into a super-sized version of what he already is.  The ball moves.  Guys move (ALL.  THE.  TIME.).  They play fast.  And it’s impossible to guard.  It looks like what we watched in 2014-2015.  It’s completely new and unstoppable.  It’s what won the Warriors their first title.

It’s not going to be defense that Portland needs to be in games.  It’s going to be offense.  They’ve made that trade-off work all playoffs.

Golden State can’t play Portland’s guards the way Denver did.  They don’t have the personnel, or really the skill.

The Nuggets usually had Gary Harris on CJ McCollum and blitzed and trapped Dame with whoever they had.

Notice how Mason Plumlee leaves Zach Collins, a decent stretch big, wide open and follows Gary Harris for the double team on Lillard?  Denver did this all series with their variety of defenders, and it pestered Dame into bad and missed shots.

The Warriors are similar to the Nuggets, though they lack the depth.  Their backcourt is one lockdown defender (Klay Thompson as Harris) and a not-so-lockdown defender (Stephen Curry as Murray).  Golden State doesn’t have another real defensive guard to help possibly blitz Lillard with (Curry?), since Andre Iguodula is going to be tasked with stopping CJ.

The Warriors could just switch everything and take their chances with that; those odds are in their favor, especially with KD in the lineup.  But if Dame returns to the form we saw in the first round and McCollum keeps this tear up, there may be no real effective option.  Offense will be the defense.

That’s the case for both teams in this series.  Both defenses could be legitimately screwed.  For the first two games of the series, the ones in which Golden State will be without KD, Portland has to get Dame and CJ loose, because the Splash Brothers are going to be firing.  CJ has shown that his own one-man show can be enough, and if the Warriors exhibit a lower effort performance, that’s probably a Portland W.  What’s guaranteed after that?  Maybe the Blazers shoot well when Golden State doesn’t?

When Portland won Sunday, I thought this could go seven games.  Since then, it’s slowly trickled down to fewer and fewer games.  Six feels right.  It’s possible the Blazers get lucky and Golden State doesn’t try in a game in which KD plays in.  Or maybe this crazy Enes Kanter run single-handily kills Golden State in a game.  If KD is only out for two games, seven means doubting KD.  I am not about to that to him or this Warriors team again.

Prediction: Golden State in 6

Trail Blazers-Nuggets Preview

I really couldn’t have been more wrong about both teams in the first round.

For the second year in a row, the Trail Blazers burned me.  They absolutely burned me.  The year I was all in on them, they let me down (Last season against New Orleans).  The year where I told myself to caution that hope and not make the same mistakes, they corrected what went wrong the year before.  And they did it in the most cold-blooded, dominating fashion ever.

It was so cold-blooded that Oklahoma City somewhat proved me right and still lost. It wasn’t that Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder were that bad defensively, it was that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were that good offensively.  It is a new age, but still, guarding someone from 30 feet out is not an alignment that is necessary 100 percent of the time.  In this series, against Dame and CJ, it was.  It was necessary 100 percent of the time.  OKC never adjusted to that.  How is that an adjustment you consistently make?

Denver let me down like Portland did last year, despite still winning the series.  It’s kind of tough to consider it a win though; letting this Spurs team take you to seven games and letting them lose the series not based on anything you did right is pretty embarrassing.  It didn’t seem like they wanted to win the series.  It felt like no one wanted to win that series.

Doubting Portland at this point is terrifying.  Lillard is in the middle of a nuclear-volcano hot streak right now.  He can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league, and that’s even with the way Kevin Durant is playing.  That’s how hot he is.

Denver has nothing to contain the duo of Dame and CJ.  I mean, the Nuggets guards allowed Derrick White to score 36 points in a playoff game.  This is a Derrick White, who, while yes has been fantastic for the Spurs this year, is a defensive-minded player whose offensive ceiling should be a backup facilitator.

Gary Harris was fantastic defensively against the Spurs, but he and Will Barton, who was unplayable because of his offense rather than his defense (-10.2 net rating in this series.  Yikes!), were the only two Denver guards that made the defense better when they were on the court, per NBA.com.  That essentially leaves Harris as the Lillard stopper.  But then you still have McCollum to deal with.

With the way those two are playing right now, either could kill you.  CJ could easily have the type of game Dame did in Game 6 against OKC.  They’re interchangeable with their production.

The Nuggets are going to need a massive offensive output to have a chance in this series, and there’s a case that they could get it.

Again, doubting Portland is terrifying.  But that wasn’t exactly a lockdown series from the Blazers on the defensive side of the ball either.  While Al-Faruoq Aminu was good, Paul George heated up when needed.  Problem was, Steven Adams couldn’t take advantage of an easy mismatch against Enes Kanter (Was he hurt?), and Russell Westbrook did the classic Russell Westbrook thing of saying “I got this” too many times, shooting OKC out of games while Portland poured it on.

The same reasons I picked OKC over Portland can be applied here.  If you torture Dame and CJ on the defensive end, you have a chance.  Russ and Schroder didn’t do that, and games where Paul George’s injury showed featured the bad Russ and Schroder performance rather than the good one.

The Nuggets have two ways to expose Dame and CJ.  1) Run everything through Jokic by making him throw crafty passes to cutters and slashers heading to the rim (San Antonio had no answers for the Malik Beasley cut-around Jokic toward the basket play) and 2) Jamal Murray, who may or may not decide to show up when you need him.

At least one of these options can be consistent.  Just like Steven Adams should have been, Jokic and everything he brings can be unstoppable against Portland.  When Denver fed him at the top of the post and gave him a couple power dribbles to gain position, the Spurs had no chance.  Running him down the lane and giving him an entry pass?  Also no chance.  The underrated rim-running part of his game can dominate teams with unathletic rim protectors or no rim protectors (Like Portland).

Or, Denver can make Portland have to work defensively, and put Dame and CJ in DHO-like motions, forcing them to collide into the refrigerator that is Jokic which gives Denver an easy layup or a kick-out for an open three, depending on where a wing like Aminu’s help is on the inside.

Murray is hit-or-miss.  If he’s having a good night or has a Game 2-like performance where he bails them out despite having a bad night, then it’s a huge added boost for Denver.  A good Jokic and Murray game gets them a win.

For Denver to win this series, they need that every night and some luck, which would come in the form of McCollum and Lillard both having games where the shooting percentage’s regression hits them like a brick.  With the guards playing the way they are though, there’s no way that happens.  This feels too special to just fall apart.  Portland has more firepower, and more importantly, they have more of it every night.

Prediction: Trail Blazers in 5

Rockets-Warriors Preview

No.4 Houston Rockets vs. No.1 Golden State Warriors 

For a series that is between two titans and two teams that are both so good and could both easily win the series, the key to it all is quite simple.

If the Warriors try, it shouldn’t go more than six games.

If they don’t try, anything is possible.

In years past, the Warriors malaise through the first two rounds of the playoffs didn’t matter.  We never batted an eye.  That’s because there was no one who ever presented a serious challenge.  There was no one who we ever thought would actually beat them.

This year, there’s two and maybe three teams where that’s the case.  And this year, the Warriors got the number one threat early.

That could be a good thing.  It makes the rest of the path to a three-peat easier.

But it could also be a bad thing.  The Warriors right now are like when someone wakes you up abruptly at an ungodly hour in the morning and tells you that you have calculus homework to do (Could that have been me last weekend?  Maybe…).  Instead of actually focusing on the task you have to do, you spend time thinking about why you have to be doing that task right now.  You’re complaining, tired and not ready to do the task in the moment.

That’s the Warriors right now.  They’re asleep.  They didn’t care about the Clippers series.  And now they have to face a calc exam when they’re not ready (Is that me this upcoming week?  Maybe…).

A calc exam is a pretty good comparison for the Rockets, not only because are they an extremely difficult opponent, but because this whole thing really does come down to math.

When the Warriors are trying and shooting well, Houston is the only team in the NBA who stands a chance.  They have the system and the shooters to keep up.  And they have one of the two most unstoppable forces in the league, no matter who is guarding him.

Given the series we just witnessed, and our test analogy, the number of games this Warriors team shouldn’t try in is two.  They’re slow, sleepy and not warmed up yet.  Their brains aren’t ready for it yet.  Just one screw up is impossible to ask of.

So that’s two games for Houston without them really doing anything positive.  Houston could shoot horrifically and still win thanks to a James Harden bailout performance.

And then there is two games where Houston will actually beat Golden State, beat them because Houston is a really, really freaking good team.  Not because they got lucky.

Those two games are these: The James Harden, “It doesn’t matter if Klay Thompson can do some things to make me work, you’re not stopping me tonight” game and the game where Golden State does try but Houston hits that many more threes, because they’re the Rockets and they’re capable of that.  That’s the Harden hits nine, Eric Gordon hits eight, Austin Rivers hits four and Daniel House Jr. hits three game.

And just like that, we’re at four Houston Rockets wins.

Doesn’t feel right, but makes logical sense.

So yeah, this series does come down to the Warriors trying or not.  It’s really that simple.  Can the brains go into overdrive and power through when they aren’t ready?

I’ve had Golden State and Toronto in the Finals all season.  Nothing had changed all season.  Nothing had changed when the playoffs started.

It’s time for that to change (I really can’t believe this is happening).  I don’t trust the Warriors to give the effort they have to.  The malaise this year and especially lately has been different.  Couple that with Klay Thompson’s impending status in Game 1, which would be an incredible detriment to the Warriors defensive ploy, and Houston should win this series.  If Klay is out today, the Rockets should easily win.  That’s five Houston wins based on the formula we used above.  You need four to win a series.

Prediction: Houston in 7