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NBA Playoffs: MVP, Biggest Disappointments & Surprises, & Conference Finals Predictions

Daniel Zimmermann’s:

Most Valuable Playoff Performer:

LeBron James

Photo via The Official Facebook Page Of The NBA
Photo via The Official Facebook Page Of The NBA

LeBron James has been his normal, ridiculous playoff self this postseason. In the conference semifinals, he averaged an insane 26.2 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 8.8 APG, 1.7 SPG, and 1.7 BPG.

He wrecked the Celtics in the opening playoff series and couldn’t be stopped in the semifinals, despite the efforts of the Bull’s talented defender, Jimmy Butler.

The Cavs have suffered some mighty adversity in the playoffs; losing Kevin Love for the entire postseason, dealing with nagging injuries to Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, and going two games without J.R. Smith due to a suspension all contributed to an even larger need for LeBron’s heroics.

He has for sure delivered, and he takes the crown throughout the playoffs this far as the MVP. That could easily change if the Hawks do what I think they will, though. Watch out LeBrony Bron.

Biggest Surprise: Houston Rockets completing the comeback

I will be honest, I didn’t see this coming. At all.

After LAC went up 2-1 on the Rockets, it looked unlikely. But when they went up 3-1, I was ready to mortgage my future in a bet that the Clips would win.

But nay, twas not meant to be. James Harden and his motley crew of inseason acquisitions, along with the help of D12 (No, not Eminem’s motley rap group) had something to say about the Clips’ chances at a title.

The ‘Kets joined a nice, slim grouping of (9) teams that have come back from being down 3-1 in playoff series, which included one of Michael Jordan’s squads and the 1995 title winning Houston Rockets. Their momentum is massive going into a series with the Warriors, who struggled in their series against Memphis.

The Rockets have as good a chance as any of the four teams remaining to go home with rings. I won’t bet against them again. Well, I will, but, still.

Biggest Disappointment: Chris Paul and Clips fail to reach Conference Finals, have a chance to gangfight the Warriors

There are two main reasons this is disappointing as hell.

1) Chris Paul is a likable guy. People like him. I like him. He is easy to cheer for, as he is dwarfed by so many of the other NBA players out there, yet he fights like a little bulldog and competes with all his heart.

So it truly is a tragedy when Paul, up three games to one in a very winnable series, and coming off a seven-game-defeat of the defending champions, suffers one of the worst comebacks of all time and sees his chance at a title stripped from his clasp.

2) The Warriors and Clippers hate each other.

The rivalry has been fuming since 2013, and it has only escalated since. The two matching up again in a high stakes series would have been good for everyone involved (except probably Matt Barnes. He probably would’ve been punched in the face.)

Seriously, the fans, the players, coaches, TV ratings, jersey sales, it all would have been wonderful to see these two teams clash on the biggest stage possible for them. Truly is a disappointment that these two won’t fight, I mean, play, against each other in the WCF.

Eastern Conference Finals Predictions: Hawks in Seven

May be an upset (but not really because Atlanta is the number one seed), but the Hawks are set to get to the finals for the first time since, well, ever, during their time in Atlanta. With the exception of a championship in 1958 when they played in St. Louis, the Hawks have never reached the conference finals.

That all changes now, as LeBron and company come to town for what is sure to be a back and forth matchup. I say the Hawks in seven because they are healthy, and they play such a brand of team basketball that if a star like Al Horford or Jeff Teague misses a game or two, it will have a much more subsidized effect than if Kyrie Irving can’t get back to good health.

The Hawks will simply outlast the shallow Cavs in a series that will see the home team win every single game. Luckily for Atlanta, their superb regular season has put them in a position of which that favors them.

Western Conference Finals Predictions: Warriors in Six

I said I would(n’t) bet against the Rockets, didn’t I?

The Warriors have their mind set on the Finals, and I don’t think even James Harden and company can get in the way of that.

Steph Curry showed a lot of heart pulling his Warriors out from a 2-1 deficit in their series with Memphis, and I can’t see him letting Pablo Prigioni bug him enough to not absolutely erupt this series.

Both teams are coming off of three wins straight. Even if the Rockets’ may have a little more momentum, the Warriors are likely to advance not only past the Rox, but also past the Hawks in the Finals.  As the great philosopher of our time, Drake, has said, “Steph Curry with the shot, BOI”.

Adam Leightman’s:

Most Valuable Playoff Performer: Dwight Howard

Everyone immediately jumps to Curry or LeBron for MVP of the playoffs thus far, but I am going to take a different approach.

The big man for the Rockets has been a force in both series and he deserves a lot of praise. He is averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds a game in the playoffs. He is also recording 2.5 blocks a game, which is not easy to come by when he was playing against DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, and Tyson Chandler.

If Dwight wasn’t blocking shots, he was at least disrupting the player he was guarding. Whether it was shutting down Jordan in the last 3 games of the series, or dominating the glass against the Mavs, Dwight has been the MVP so far in the playoffs.

Biggest Surprise: DeMarre Carroll

DeMarre Carroll has helped propel the Hawks into the Eastern Conference Finals. Carroll is averaging 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists per game this postseason. All of these numbers are above his regular season averages. Carroll has also played solid defense when the game has come down to the wire. Carroll has scored over 20 points in 7 of 12 postseason games. I expect him to continue his good play against the Cavs in the next round.

Biggest Disappointment: Toronto Raptors

Toronto looked poised to finally make some noise in the playoffs, after going 49-33 in the regular season and being two deep at every position. They were the 4 seed and had the benefit of their home court, but they could not take advantage. The Wizards went up North and stole game 1 in overtime, and the Raptors could not bounce back from the game. The Wizards took the next 3 games easily and swept the Raptors out of the playoffs. The team has a lot of talent, so it was a big disappointment that they did not even compete with the Wizards in the playoffs.

This squad may suffer one of Masaj Uriji’s blowups this summer.

Eastern Conference Finals Predictions: Hawks in Seven

The Hawks and Cavs both battled through tough series’ to get to the Eastern Conference Final. Both teams are playing solid basketball. Its worth noting that the Hawks took 3 of the 4 games from the Cavs during the regular season. The Cavs are without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving’s status is up in the air. The Hawks will win this series, but LeBron will push it 7 games.

Western Conference Finals Predictions: Rockets in Six

The Warriors have been the best team in basketball since Opening Day in October. They’ve dominated every team they’ve faced including the Rockets, taking the season series 4-0. However, they played all of the games before the end of January, and the Rockets have improved significantly since then. I know this is a big homer pick, but I truly believe the Rockets’ momentum will carry them through this series. The Rockets’ role players will step up and continue this magical run to the NBA Finals.

Brian Duricy’s:

Most Valuable Playoff Performer: LeBron James

This isn’t a bold pick, nor is it altogether surprising, but short of this award going to a player eliminated halfway through the postseason, Paul Pierce’s one foot in the nursing home heroics could only hobble him to the front of my list pre-Conference Finals. Now, players in their prime are seeking to add a Bumgarner-esque postseason to their Kershaw regular stints. Of the four teams remaining, three have already crowned a Finals MVP in the past, and Atlanta’s passable postseason efforts look quite unthreatening to this mark. So when it’s all said and done, a player from Cleveland, Houston, or Golden State will be bestowed the honor. Currently, the front-runner is award glutton LeBron James.

Kelly Olynyk deserves a special place for this iteration of the King’s coronation. After knocking Kevin Love out of the playoffs, LeBron pulled up his bootstraps (read: readjusted his headband), and began to muscle Cleveland through the Chicago Bulls. And the stats show. (All stats further courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.) LeBron’s taking the most postseason field goal attempts in his career, dwarfing his Miami championship year numbers by 2.5 and 5.5 FGA, respectively. Even the early years devoid of any help in Cleveland didn’t see LBJ shooting over 24 field goals per game, but the career-high stats don’t stop here. With the absence of Love, defensive aspects of the game have also improved, tying career-highs in steals per game (1.9) and posting a full block per game more than last season’s playoffs (1.6). He’s passing more to his fellow Cavs (7.9/game), and the extra attention paid to LeBron undoubtedly helped Delly’s breakout performance in the Chicago series. Such dominance is only slated to rise, as Fivethirtyeight showed that James possesses the highest leveraged points above replacement than any other player in Conference Finals history, 0.1 above a man named Michael Jordan, and then a full 199.6 more than third on the list, playoff legend Kobe Bryant. It’s not to say that Steph Curry isn’t having his own marvelous playoffs, but when LeBron’s assisting over a full pass more per game than the league’s top point guard, there’s no questioning his value to the team.

The playoffs are always an exciting time when only two teams remain. Though big names like LeBron James and Steph Curry make headlines as the best until the Finals, all it takes is one series for another Kawhi Leonard to walk away with that trophy. For what it’s worth, my bold prediction is that a hampered Harden highlights Howard’s leadership, and Dwight Howard steals the MVP away from LeBron.

Biggest Surprise: The Hawks

I have to admit when I was wrong, don’t I? Remember when I predicted that the Nets would get swept by Atlanta? Remember when that absolutely did not happen? This ties into our next question –

Biggest Disappointment: …The Hawks?

Even the one-seeds who have fallen in the first round of the playoffs don’t amount to what Atlanta’s performance has looked like to me. The decrepit Brooklyn and Washington teams seriously pushed the definitive number one team in the East (record-wise), reminding me of the Duke teams to fall early in the NCAA Tournament – really good regular-season basketball, but not equipped to handle the massively different game played in the spring.

Eastern Conference Finals Predictions: Cavs in Six

I can’t tear down Atlanta and then give them much of a shot one sentence later, can I? LeBron, as shown above, owns the Conference Finals, and an Atlanta team without a serious threat to the King will leave their fate up to the three-ball that hasn’t fallen well so far in the playoffs. We’ve got to give them credit for going 3-1 in the regular season for the Cavs, and without Love, missteps are sure to occur for LeBron and Kyrie. Cleveland in 6.

Western Conference Finals Predictions: Rockets in Seven

The MVP matchup of James Harden and Stephen Curry finally comes to light. After the MVP was announced, Harden responded with a tepid game for Houston and seriously jeopardized their playoff chances. The insane momentum the Rockets are riding into this series will likely offset the bacchanalian atmosphere of the Warriors’ home games. Golden State went 4-0 versus Houston in the regular season, but now it’s the big stage, and a Dwight Howard who needs to prove himself to the world paired up with a James Harden who wants to prove himself against Steph Curry may be the intangibles necessary to return Houston to NBA royalty. Houston in 7.

Korey Burdman’s:

Most Valuable Playoff Performer: LeBron James

This is so close between Stephen Curry and LeBron James for me. Curry’s Warriors and James’ Cavaliers both swept through the first round and won their second round series in six games, giving each of their teams an 8-2 record thus far.

Normally, I would give this award to Curry. He has clearly raised his game for the postseason; he is scoring at a higher clip than in the regular season, and his shooting is still incredible. However, in Games 2 and 3 against Memphis, he did not shoot well, and that seemed to have affected his whole game.

That’s not why I’m giving the honor to James. The Cavaliers have gone through so much already in the playoffs; Kevin Love is out for the season, Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert both sustained injuries against Chicago (Irving’s being far more serious, as he might not be available for Game 1 against Atlanta), and J.R. Smith was suspended for two games.

Despite all of that, James willed his team to victory against a tough Chicago team and played outstanding basketball throughout (sudden inability to shoot jump shots notwithstanding). He is nearly averaging a triple-double, with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists a game so far in these playoffs.

In as close a race as can be, I’m giving this to LeBron James. However, both he and Stephen Curry have been phenomenal and I fully expect that to continue throughout the rest of the playoffs.

Biggest Surprise: How Long The Clippers Lasted

The playoffs have been incredible, but there haven’t been many surprises. However, there has been one major surprise: the playoff life of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Clippers came into the playoffs as the three-seed in the West, but were given the matchup of death against the surging San Antonio Spurs. After getting blown out in Game 3 to fall behind 2-1, nobody gave the Clippers a chance to win the series. Then, after falling behind 3-2 on their home floor, nobody believed the Clippers would have a chance to win two in a row.

Sure enough, they did come back from both deficits to win the series and upset the defending champions (even though they were the three seed, the Spurs were favored to win the series).

The Clippers were rolling, and when they took a 3-1 series lead on the Rockets thanks to big performances from the likes of J.J. Redick and Austin Rivers, everyone thought the series was a done deal. However, they had a collapse of epic proportions, becoming just the ninth team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead to lose the series.

Don’t get me wrong, the Rockets played incredibly well over the last three games of the series, but the collapse falls squarely on the shoulders of the Clippers. They did not execute and frankly did not show the effort they had throughout the first round and a half of the playoffs. They went from first round underdogs to champion-beaters to choke artists in the span of a month, and all of this put together is the biggest surprise of the NBA playoffs thus far.

Biggest Disappointment: The Toronto Drakes

The biggest disappointment thus far was easily the play of the Toronto Raptors. Last year, they rose all the way to the third seed in the East, before losing to the Paul Pierce-led Nets in 7 games. This was understandable, as a young team lost a hard-fought series to a veteran team.

However, this year was supposed to be different. They were more experienced and just a better team. They had a matchup in the first round with the Wizards that they could have done well in. If they won that series, Atlanta, a team they played very well against this season, would have been waiting.

Instead, they did not show up at all. That same Paul Pierce and the Wizards dominated that series, sweeping the Raptors and embarrassing them throughout the series. I thought they had a legitimate shot to make the Eastern Conference Finals going into the playoffs; instead, they couldn’t even win one game.

Eastern Conference Finals Predictions: Cavs in Six

Before getting into my prediction, let me make one thing clear; the Atlanta Hawks will be a bigger test for the Cavaliers than the Chicago Bulls were. On the surface, the Bulls may be more talented, as they employ the likes of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, and Pau Gasol. However, the Hawks are a much better team than the Bulls. They share the ball as well as anyone in the league and play a brand of basketball that is very hard to defend.

With that said, the Cavaliers will also be the biggest test for the Hawks thus far, and they didn’t exactly pass their first two tests with flying colors. They needed six games to beat both the Nets and Wizards, who were without John Wall for half of the series.

The Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, are far superior to both the Nets and Wizards, even without Kevin Love and a hobbled Kyrie Irving. The Cavaliers role players all stepped up in big ways against the Bulls, particularly Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson.

Both the Hawks and Cavaliers have major mismatches that they can exploit on the other; the Hawks will be able to space the floor and draw Timofey Mozgov out of the paint more than he likes, while the Cavaliers will be able to pound the glass against the smaller Hawks.

Overall, I think the Cavaliers have the biggest advantage; when they go small with Irving/Shumpert/J.R. Smith/James/Thompson, the Hawks will have trouble guarding that lineup with their starting five. Paul Millsap would likely have to guard a wing (or watch from the bench), and neither is a good option for Atlanta. Expect heavy doses of small ball from the Cavaliers to counter Atlanta’s shooting from all five positions.

In the end, I believe the Cavaliers will win this series. The Hawks are a very talented team and they have had an incredible season thus far, but they just don’t have the ability to stack up with LeBron James in my opinion. It will be very hard for anyone to beat the King four times, and I just don’t think Atlanta has what it takes to get it done. Prediction: Cavaliers in 6

Western Conference Finals Predictions: Warriors in Seven

Nearly everyone outside Houston had this series penciled in as a Warriors-Clippers series when the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals. Alas, the Rockets came back to win and now have the right to take on the best team in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors.

Despite the narrative that the Warriors are unbeatable, that is simply not the case, as Memphis was able to prove by taking the Warriors to six games (they just didn’t have enough juice left after taking a 2-1 series lead and lost the last three games of the series).

If you think about it, Memphis and Houston are built kind of similarly, with one MAJOR exception: shooting. The Rockets have it everywhere, and the Grizzlies.. well… not really. The Rockets will space the floor at four positions, will attack the rim, and can defend pretty solidly as well. James Harden will have to play like an MVP in this series for Houston to have any chance, and I believe he will.

Unfortunately, the absence of Patrick Beverley hurts (even though there are rumblings he may return, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves). Jason Terry has been playing extremely well in Beverley’s absence, but Stephen Curry is a different animal, and he will struggle with him.

As a result, I think the Rockets will need to go big quite often, with James Harden at point guard, Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza, and Josh Smith on the wings, and Dwight Howard at center. That way, the Warriors will be forced to stick Curry on Harden or on a bigger player who can score down low on him. Neither option is great, but it’s far better than sitting Curry on the bench.

For Houston, their biggest problem will be defending Golden State’s versatility on offense. No healthy player for Houston can check Curry, and with the extra attention he will draw, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green should all be able to exploit mismatches that will likely present themselves.

Golden State already went through the ringer when they played Memphis for a series, and they will either come out stronger than ever or a bit beat up. My guess is that it will be a little bit of both. As a result, I believe this series will be far closer than many analysts are predicting as of now, but in the end, the more talented team in the Bay Area will win out. Prediction: Warriors in 7.

 

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