And then, there were four.
After months of seeding and then weeks of playoffs, the NBA field has been whittled down to just four teams and really, there aren’t any surprises.
In the East, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have cruised their way back to the Conference Finals, playing the best basketball of their season on route to back-to-back sweeps against the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks. For the first time all year, LeBron and Company seem like genuine threats to win a title.
In order to do that though, they’ll have to sneak past the suddenly resurgent Toronto Raptors. After a tough seven game series against the Indiana Pacers that saw stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozen struggle mightily, Toronto once again had to fight through a seven game series, this time against the Miami Heat. While the basketball was far from pretty, the Raptors once again won a decisive game seven, this time with Lowry and DeRozan playing key roles. Cleveland may be the favorite in the series, but the Six will be well-represented and might be able to win some games.
In the West, meanwhile, things have also stuck to the script for the most part.
The heavy title favorites and defending champs Golden State Warrios won an NBA record 73-wins this season and have made it look easy in the playoffs thus far, beating both the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers in five game series despite losing Steph Curry to a sprained knee for a few games. Steph returned and has lit it up in his two games back, and the Warriors seem primed to get back to the Finals.
Standing in their way is the Oklahoma City Thunder. After facing questions all season about head coach Billy Donavon schemes and star Kevin Durant’s future with the team, the Thunder have done nothing but impress in these playoffs. They clearly outclassed the Dallas Mavericks in the first round before toppling the second-seeded Spurs in fairly dominant fashion in the Conference Semi-Finals. Now, Russell Westbrook and KD will get another chance at making it back to the Finals and perhaps another showdown with LeBron James.
With Game One of the Western Conference Finals in the books, the Cavs and Raptors will tip off later tonight in Cleveland and we at the Society will once again have you covered, breaking down the keys to success for both teams.
Three Keys for Cleveland
1- Don’t be Cleveland
Some cities just have bad luck.
Cleveland has bad luck on steroids.
This is a city that hasn’t won a major sports championship since 1964 despite having a team in the MLB, NFL, and NBA, as well as waltzing into drafting the greatest basketball player of his generation in LeBron James. It’s been a draught that is so prolific, ESPN even made a documentary about it. When you’re getting documentaries made about how much your city consistently loses, things have officially hit rock bottom.
Seeing as the Cavs are pretty major favorites to win this series and move onto their second consecutive NBA Finals appearance, the only thing seemingly holding them back is the basic fact that they’re from Cleveland. LeBron will step off a curb and snap an ankle, or Kevin Love will get hit by a taxi. It doesn’t matter what happens, but there’s an extremely high chance something bad happens to these guys.
After all, the cities name is Cleveland. CLEVELAND. Most cities at least have names that make some amount of sense. New York City was the new version of York and a city, Los Angeles is the city of angels, and San Francisco is named after “that dank ish”. So does that mean Cleveland is the land of the Cleve’s? C’mon the Land of the Cleve’s can’t win an NBA Championship.
2- Keep JR Lukewarm
JR Smith can easily win a series by himself, as well as lose one.
On a team built off of stars like LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, JR doesn’t have to do the first of those two options and certainly can’t be allowed to do the second. Finally, Smith has found the steadiness to his game that has alluded him throughout his 12 year career, first in Denver with the Nuggets and then with the Knicks.
It may be due to the guiding hand of LeBron James or due to the basic lack of nightlife in Cleveland, but JR has finally become a consistent scoring option for his team and the Cavs have taken advantage. This season, Smith mostly acted as a spot up shooter that could clear the paint for guys like James or Kyrie due to defenses being forced to keep him and his 40 percent shooting mark from behind the arc in check.
There’s really no need for Smith to take more than 15 shots in any game this series unless he really catches fire for a couple nights and even then, there has to be a limit. It’s great when JR can peak and drop 30 points, but the Cavs don’t have the backcourt depth to sit through a 1-for-10 shooting performance from the Tattoo’d Mamba.
Or they can give JR 20 shots a night and see what happens, either way the audience wins baby!
3- Don’t Let Kyle Lowry Completely Roast Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving’s defensive struggles are well documented. It’s just not something he does particularly well and it’s something he just doesn’t seem to care about much, leaving a massive gap in Cavs ability to defend talented point guards. Well, that gap will once again be tested with Kyle Lowry rolling into town.
Lowry’s struggles throughout these playoffs have become a massive talking point surrounding the Raptors, as he shot just 32 percent in the opening series against the Pacers and was only able to shoot 40 percent in the second round matchup with the Heat. Still though, the All-Star seems to be finding his stroke, leading the charge for Toronto in a magnificent 35 point Game Seven performance that pushed the Raptors to their first Eastern Conference Finals birth.
If Lowry can get back into a groove offensively, he could cause massive headaches for Cleveland. It might not be enough to drag the still-struggling Derozan and company into the Finals, but the thought of Lowry dropping 30 points a night with relative ease against Irving is enough to scare Tyronn Lue into making some adjustments against him.
The truly frightening thing is that the Villanova-product has already lit Irving and the Cavs up this season, shooting 66 percent in the Raptors’ three games against Cleveland this season, including a magnificent career-high 43 point performance on 15-for-20 shooting.
The most basic adjustment Lue can make seems to be by moving either JR Smith onto Lowry, or by switching defensive stopper Iman Shumpert into the starting lineup just to guard him. Assuming LeBron will be busy locking DeRozan up, the Raptors offense will be forced to run almost completely through Lowry, meaning that Cleveland’s entire defensive scheme will likely revolve around finding a way to at least contain him.
Three Keys for Toronto
1- Don’t Be the Raptors
If Cleveland is a city that never has good things happen to it, the Raptors are a team that never has good things happen to it.
After all, this is a franchise that had Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady on the same team and couldn’t find a way to win a playoff series until T-Mac had left and decrepit Charles Oakley, Dell Curry, and Mark Jackson took his place.
For the first time since that 2000-01 team though, the Raptors managed to win a playoff series, barely squeaking by the seven-seed Indiana Pacers in the first round. Then, they turned around and did it again, once again giving the entire city of Toronto a heart attack by going to a Game Seven against the Miami Heat and pulling out a win.
This might be a different Raptors team that doesn’t choke away the big moment, but it’s still a franchise with a lot of disappointment in it’s past. With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both struggling mightily throughout these playoffs, it’s a miracle the Raptors have gotten this far. Now with LeBron and the red hot Cavs on their horizon, the teams best shot at pulling off a major upset may be to change their name and city altogether.
2- Get DeMar DeRozan Going And Keep Him Going
Kyle Lowry will tell anyone who listens that the Raptors are DeMar DeRozan’s team. Throughout these playoffs, Derozan has failed to live up to that label.
In the Raptors opening series against the Pacers, DeRozan routinely was locked down by Paul George, shooting only 32 percent in the series, including 5-for-19, 5-for-18, and 4-for-15 performances. He never really found his shot in the Conference Sem-Finals either, shooting 39 percent.
Still, DeRozan is the guy here alongside Lowry and if the Raptors want to pull off a massive upset, they’ll need him to rediscover his shot. Dwayne Casey has routinely said that he’ll give his guys the chance to shoot out of their slumps, so the minutes and shots will be there for DeRozan, it’s just a matter of whether to not he can finally take advantage.
After a 28 point performance in Game Seven against the Heat, DeRozan might be figuring out his playoff struggles, but with LeBron James, JR Smith, or Iman Shumpert likely acting as his primary defender in the Conference Finals, things don’t seem to be lightening up. Everyone knows DeRozan has the talent and ability to figure it out and carry Toronto to a victory or two in this series, but shooting below 40 percent isn’t anywhere near where he’ll have to play in this series.
3- Win the Battle Down Low
The play of Bismack Biyombo became the story coming out of the Raptors series with the Miami Heat, as the former seventh overall pick seemed to play the best basketball of his five year career.
In the series, Biyombo became a force down low for Toronto, pushing around the Hassan Whiteside-less Heat on the way to averaging 8.4 RPG, shooting 65 percent, and totaling 10 blocks. He’ll have to put up similar, if not better, stats against the Cavs in order to sneak into the Finals.
Biyombo’s athleticism seems to give him a major advantage over Timofey Mozgov, meaning Tyronn Lue will likely be using a lot of Tristan Thompson on the Congo-native. Thompson is as solid a defender as anyone in the league, so it should be fun to see him take on the red-hot Biyombo.
Even more important than Bismarck’s offensive ability is his defensive play. Cleveland will try to penetrate off the perimeter, draw in a defender or two, then kick out to someone like JR Smith on the outside for a wide-open three. Biyombo will need to play excellently at the rim in order to give his perimeter defenders the confidence to stay outside and cut off any kick outs