NBA Playoffs preview: Eastern vs. Western Conference finals

By Noah Phillips

james-harden-stephen-curry

Over the past few days, the Western Conference finals have received much more media attention compared to the Eastern Conference finals. This is partially due to the fact that both teams in the Western Conference just won competitive series, with sweet shooting symbolizing the Golden State Warrior’s win and the Houston Rockets’ win accentuated by a dominant 40-15 run driving a comeback win on the road. The Warriors and Rockets also both play up-and-down, fast-paced, ‘exciting’ basketball, with the leaders of their high-octane offenses – Golden State’s led by Stephen Curry (MVP) and Houston’s led by James Harden (2nd in MVP voting) –rivaling the star power of the Cleveland Cavalier’s LeBron James. The series between the two clear-cut MVP candidates makes for a very interesting narrative, even more so when you throw in both team’s superb supporting casts. However, my prediction of what team will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, and explanations of their polarizing offensive styles will shed some light on the underrated appeal of the Hawks vs. Cavaliers.

The Eastern Conference finals features the two competing concepts of offensive basketball: one that glorifies the individual and the other emphasizing the team. Cleveland ran the highest percentage of isolation plays this year – roughly 11% of their possessions ended with isolation situations, and that number has increased in the playoffs (understandably so, since Kevin Love is out for the remainder of the playoffs). LeBron James in particular has had a massive number of isolation possessions. According to Synergy Sports, James has had 102 isolation possessions in the playoffs, which is 16 more than the next-highest player (James Harden) and 58 more than the next highest player (Jamal Crawford). Keep in mind that Harden has even played two more games than James and Crawford has played four more (although he does come off the bench). On one hand, Cleveland is posting a playoff-best 108.2 points per 100 possessions, James is averaging 26.5 ppg (fourth-best in the playoffs), and the Cavaliers are 8-2 so far this postseason. However, Cleveland’s isolation offense could be advantageous for the Hawks. So far in the playoffs, LeBron is averaging .73 points-per-possession, which is 29 out of 37 players who have had more than 10 isolation possessions.[1] LeBron so far has played against the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls, the second and ninth-best teams this year in terms of defensive efficiency. The Hawks ranked sixth on that list during the regular season, have also played two of the three most efficient isolation players earlier in the playoffs (in terms of points-per-possession) – Jarrett Jack and Brook Lopez – both of whom play for the Brooklyn Nets.[2] Given this, LeBron should face stringent defense and the efficiency of his offensive game may hinge on the energy that he has to expend on defense.

(Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer)
(Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer)

Atlanta’s offense is predicated around constant ball and player movement. During the regular season, the Hawks did not have a single player average over 17 points-per-game, but had six average at least 10 points. In addition, the Hawks did not have anyone play more than 33 minutes-per-game during the regular season, and, other than Kyle Korver, do not have any players playing more than 36 minutes-per-game in the playoffs. This team depth ensures that their constant player and ball movement is always crisp and fresh. When the team’s offense is run by five players who all have energy, unlike on isolation plays, it forces all players on the other team to focus on defense. This might present a big problem for the Cavs. Both Kyrie Irving and LeBron James averaged more than 36 minutes-per-game during the regular season, and in the postseason, Irving is averaging 37 minutes-per-game while James is averaging nearly 42. Those minutes have no doubt taken their toll, but they will be even more significant if both James and Irving are forced to play tough defense (instead of ‘taking a break’). To do this, the Hawks will have to start putting the ball in the basket. Three of Atlanta’s starters, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and Kyle Korver (widely-regarded as the league’s best shooter) are in major shooting slumps so far this postseason. Compared to their regular season stats, Teague’s shooting has decreased 6.1% (46.0 to 39.9), Millsap’s has decreased 5.4% (47.6 to 42.2), and Korver’s has decreased by an astounding 10.2% (48.7 to 38.5). Interestingly enough, the same problem of effort on defense affecting one’s offense might be responsible for the Hawks’ poor shooting in the last round. The Wizards feature arguable the most-athletic backcourt in the league (John Wall and Bradley Beal), a veteran elite-scorer (Paul Pierce), a great hustle-player (Otto Porter Jr.), and two skilled and physical big men (Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario). Unfortunately for the Hawks, the Cavs also feature three elite athletes (Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, and LeBron James) and two skilled and physical big men (Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov).

Both team’s offensive styles present clear advantages and disadvantages, all of which have been exposed so far this postseason. This matchup certainly does not lack headlines. Can LeBron bring Cleveland one-step closer to its first championship? Can a team with no true superstars actually make it to the Finals? In the end, it might come down to which team hits the bigger shots, or which team is the healthiest (if this is the case, the Hawks certainly have the early advantage as long as DeMarre Carroll can make a speedy recovery). I predict each team steals one game on the road, with the Cavs winning the series in seven and advancing to the NBA finals.

[1] http://stats.nba.com/playtype/#!/isolation/?dir=1&sort=Percentile

[2] https://www.teamrankings.com/nba/stat/defensive-efficiency

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