Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport. The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative. As always, hopefully you will enjoy this. Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.
With only one game left in a fairly uneventful first round, it is time to turn our sights towards the conference semifinals. To date, all top seeds have advanced and only one series will go the distance (this afternoon’s Game 7 between the Clippers and the Jazz). Ideally, as the next round approaches and the wheat separates from the chaff, the series should get better, longer and unpredictable. That, or maybe we are just on a collision course for Warriors-Cavaliers Part III.
Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards
A list of things that make this series fun consists of the following: these teams don’t like each other, Isaiah Thomas is the feel good story of the playoffs, and both teams have electrifying scorers in Thomas and John Wall. Here are the things that are not fun about this series: these teams got pushed to six games by the least fun teams in the playoffs in the first round, watching the Wizards’ bench play basketball, and watching Marcus Smart try to shoot a basketball.
Boston managed to rebound from an 0-2 hole by taking four straight to close out Chicago in six. However, the Celtics did not inspire much confidence in the process. They may be the one seed, but at this point they still look like they may just be fodder for the Cavs (if they can even beat Washington). The Wizards have a different problem. Washington’s starting five is probably better than Boston’s and the Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt is healthy and dangerous, especially since it leaves Boston with nowhere to hide Thomas on defense. The issue is that Washington’s bench is abysmal and it showed in the first round. Multiple times in the first round Wall and company would race out to a sizable lead only to watch the bench give that real estate right back to the Hawks. That lack of depth will only become a more glaring weakness as the playoffs press on, and it will cost the Wizards an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics advance, but it takes them the full seven.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors
I’m not sure if it’s a testament to Playoff LeBron or an indictment on the rest of the Eastern Conference, but the Cavaliers are the only team in the East Semis that never looked remotely in danger of losing last round. Cleveland swept Indiana and other than having to mount a massive comeback to win Game 3, they never really looked in danger of losing a game let alone the series. Toronto, on the other hand, was down 2-1 to Milwaukee after a 104-77 beatdown in Game 3 and looked ready to hand in yet another disappointing playoff performance for the duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan. Give credit where credit is due though, because the Raptors made adjustments and managed to win three straight to close out the precocious Bucks. Unfortunately, the Raptors are going up against a LeBron on a mission and even with the additions of P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka it doesn’t look like they have the formula to take down the Cavs. Cleveland wins this one in five.
Golden State Warriors vs. Utah Jazz/Los Angeles Clippers
We won’t know until later today whether the Warriors will take on the Jazz or the Clippers in the second round. Does it really even matter? Without Blake Griffin, neither of these teams have the star power to keep up with the Death Star Warriors. I mean let’s not forget that they are light-years ahead of the rest of the league. In all honesty, I expect the Clippers to probably win today (even though I picked the Jazz to win the series at the beginning of the playoffs), but that can’t be what we deserve as fans. I’m in a listing mood today so here’s one more for you. This is the list of all the reasons why we need the Jazz to win Game 7 today: we’ve seen every possible iteration of Warriors-Clippers on national television in the regular season and they all end with the Warriors pounding the Clippers, we wouldn’t have to see Chris Paul act like this, we wouldn’t have to see Steve Ballmer do this, and most importantly this might would be the final nail in the coffin for this played-out version of the Clippers. Either way, Golden State sweeps the next series and enters the Western Conference Finals a cool 8-0 in the playoffs.
Houston Rockets vs. San Antonio Spurs
James Harden and the Rockets dispatched presumptive MVP Russell Westbrook and the Thunder (or is Russ just a solo act at this point?) in five games. The bad thing is that Houston looked much stronger in the first couple of games than they did in the last two games. Harden didn’t quite look right in Games 4 and 5, which has led to questions about his wrist and ankle. Hopefully he will be running at 100% when the series starts on Monday, because the Rockets have no chance without full-strength Harden. San Antonio also had their fair share of issues with the Grizzlies, who at this point are more of a physical challenge than they are a basketball one. It took the Spurs six though and Mike Conley exposed San Antonio’s point guards on defense. The Spurs still have Kawhi Leonard who is capable of dogging James Harden for 40 minutes on defense and dropping 30 on the offensive end, but he will need a little help in this series and there aren’t many places for Tony Parker or Patty Mills to hide on defense without giving up size, quickness or both. Grandmaster Popovich is working the chessboard and Kawhi is a legitimate two-way star, but Houston’s firepower will get them back to the Western Conference Finals for the second time in three years. Harden’s Rockets take the series in six.