The two teams expected to reach the 2017 NBA Finals swept their respective first round series. Did either look impressive in doing so?
Each game of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 4-game series with the Indiana Pacers was a near nail-bitter. LeBron James and crew pulled each one out. It would be easy to say the defending champs look vulnerable, but a review of the other teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs puts off any nervous twitches.
The Boston Celtics — the 1 seed in the East — are embroiled in a 2-2 series tie with with the Chicago Bulls. Further, the top team seems to have no consistent scoring and its best offensive player, the allegedly 5-foot, 9-inch tall Isaiah Thomas Jr., is a defensive liability. That said, the Celts have dodged a bullet after losing the first two games of the series at home, because Rajon Rondo, the most enigmatic “star” player of all time, has been lost by the Bulls to an injury.
Rondo — the kid who grew up in Louisville before he hit the road to high school basketball power Oak Hill Academy — has often saved his best performances for the postseason. He was doing up the Celtics in the first two games. He posted 12 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists in Game 1 and followed that with 11 points, 14 assists, 9 rebounds and 5 steals in Game 2. (It’s easy to forget, because I did, that Rondo led the NBA in assists last season.)
Rajon has not played since, and is not expected to play in Game 5, which is Wednesday night. The Bulls’ offense has gone into stasis and the defense took a medical leave since Rondo left the lineup. The fact that he so disrupted Boston points out why I don’t think the Celtics will be the team to dethrone the Cavs. Chicago, meanwhile, if it manages to win the series, is not setting the world afire in anticipation.
Back to Cleveland where LeBron and crew beat the Paces by a combined 16 points over four games. The Pacers, a team comprised of say-anything Paul George and found-out-back-in-a-dumpster Lance Stephenson, had ample opportunities to phase the Cavs from title-repeat dreams. What Indiana exposed is that Cleveland’s defense is not playoff ready. That may not prevent reaching the Finals, but doesn’t bode well if Golden State there awaits. One thing the Warriors always can do is get buckets.
The Cavs’ next round opponent will be the winner of the Toronto Raptors versus Milwaukee Bucks series. (I am rooting for the Bucks, but I think the Raptors are finally coming around and will end this thing Thursday night. I really want to see Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo against James in the playoffs.) The Raptors have a couple of guys in Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowery who can really score. That’s a good asset against Cleveland, but they may not be able to defend. At least, that has been the issue in the past.
Cleveland should be able to grind its way through the East, but that does not guarantee a second bite of the championship apple.
The Warriors beat the Portland Trailblazers by 12, 29, 6 and 25 in the 4-game series. That’s pretty impressive, especially since Kevin Durant did not play in Games 2 or 3. Those other teams in the Western Conference should be afraid, very afraid. By extension, so should the Cavs be.
If there is a third consecutive Finals meeting of the Top 2 teams in the NBA, then it’s likely Golden State will capture the rubber matchup.
James Brown is Digital Director for Commonwealth Broadcasting. He spent 20 years covering sports in Kentucky and Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @JbrownESPNKY.