12 matchups to watch in the NBA conference finals
After an unforgettable offseason and regular season, the highly anticipated NBA playoffs have lived up to expectations. Could this league get any hotter?
The Cavs looked like they were dead, then LeBron James shifted into god mode. Now their title hopes look as strong as they have all season. The injury-riddled Celtics have far surpassed expectations, defeating two teams that appeared to have more talent, including three of the league’s brightest young stars (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid).
In the West, meanwhile, the two best teams have cruised. We now get to see the matchup fans have anticipated all season: Warriors versus Rockets.
With the conference finals getting underway this weekend (Cavs-Celtics Sunday afternoon, Warriors-Rockets Monday night), here are 12 matchups that could very well dictate which teams end up as the final two standing.
Brad Stevens vs. LeBron James
You could argue Stevens and LeBron are the two brightest minds in the game; this series will position the best coach in the league against its best player. Stevens’ game plans and sets are renowned, as are LBJ’s ability to see the action before it happens and communicate with his teammates as a “coach on the court.” James sometimes even knows opponents’ plays better than they do. Which brilliant basketball mind will out-think the other? This chess match will be super fun to watch.
Draymond Green vs. Clint Capela
Entering this postseason, some murmured that Draymond’s future with Golden State could be on the line. That seems crazy considering Draymond is the engine that makes GSW run. He’ll have his hands full with Clint Capela, who has emerged as a force this season. Capela, 23, has been at his best in the playoffs, averaging 14.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game. Draymond will face tough decisions in the pick and roll: hedge on Houston’s gifted guards, or stick with Capela, who is an explosive rim-runner?
George Hill vs. Terry Rozier
Believe it or not, the Celtics are the most efficient three-point shooting team remaining in the playoffs. Boston hit 36 percent of its threes this year, good for No. 8 in the league. In the postseason, Terry Rozier has been the Celtics’ most consistent outside shooter; he is hitting nearly 40 percent of his attempts. The lanky, veteran Hill will likely be tasked with shutting down the suddenly explosive Rozier, who is averaging 18.2 points per game.
Steve Kerr vs. Mike D’Antoni
Steve Kerr has had tremendous success as both a player and coach in his postseason career. As a coach, he’s gone 55-17 and won two rings. D’Antoni, on the other hand, has never advanced to an NBA Finals. He is an even 40-40 in his playoff career. Fair or not, he has a reputation as a guy whose team chokes when the moment is biggest. We’ll see if he can shed that label with this series.
Celtics’ wings vs. Kyle Korver
Just as Hill will face a tall task in shutting down Rozier, the Celtics’ athletic wings face a big challenge: slowing down Korver, who is in vintage form. Korver was a killer against the Raptors, putting up performances of 19, 18, and 16 points. He’s hitting nearly three three-pointers per game this postseason. Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Semi Ojeleye will be among those who get a turn on Korver. That’s because Jaylen Brown will have his hands full…
LeBron James vs. Jaylen Brown
The Raptors had nobody but O.G. Anunoby who could reasonably guard LeBron, and the Celtics probably have nobody but Brown. They could — and will — attempt to work in the rookie Ojeleye, who is a physical specimen, but that matchup still seems unfairly weighted in Cleveland’s favor. Thus, it will likely fall on Brown, who has emerged as a promising offensive threat, to produce at the highest level on both ends. Can he conquer the biggest challenge in modern sports? He’s about the same height as LBJ (Brown is 6-foot-7, James 6-foot-8), but LeBron is significantly stronger (250 pounds to Brown’s 225). Look for LeBron to try to put the young guy in the mixer in the post.
Tristan Thompson vs. Al Horford
Big Al has been Old Reliable for Boston this playoffs, as you’d expect. Whatever play they’ve needed, he’s provided. Though Brown, Rozier, and Tatum have (deservedly) received the lion’s share of media attention, Horford remains Boston’s most important player. We all know which Al Horford will show up. But which Tristan Thompson will show up? Thompson was a non-factor in the first four games against Indiana, but he played a massive role in Cleveland’s Game 7 win against the Pacers and Game 1 win against the Raptors. Then he drifted into the background again. Cleveland will need the good version of Thompson to emerge.
Trevor Ariza vs. Kevin Durant
Nobody can stop Kevin Durant. The man is 7 feet tall, handles the rock like a guard, and is a dead-eye shooter. Few players in the league, however, would have a better shot at slowing him down than Ariza. The veteran, 6-foot-8 wing is one of the most versatile defenders in the league. Don’t be surprised if he shadows Durant, who’s averaging 28.0 points per game but is struggling from downtown (28 percent) this postseason, for the entire series.
Andre Iguodala/Klay Thompson vs. James Harden
GSW’s own version of Ariza is Andre Iguodala, who’s an equally adept wing defender. Harden finished as the runner-up to Curry in MVP voting in 2014-15 and the runner-up to his former teammate Russell Westbrook last season. This year, the Beard has gone to a new level, and he’s a shoe-in to finally claim an MVP. Iguodala and Thompson will be tasked with containing the most gifted isolation scorer in the league. Golden State may also look to Iguodala for timely outside shooting, as teams have consistently been leaving him wide open.
Marcus Morris vs. Kevin Love
Both players have been enigmas this year; some games they look amazing, others they fail to show up. Boston will need Morris to be especially good on the defensive end, where he’ll have to guard Cleveland’s second-leading scorer. Love finally rediscovered his stroke in the Toronto series, and you can bet he’ll have plenty of open looks with LeBron creating. Just how open will those looks be, though? That will depend on Morris’ effort closing out. Morris will also need to focus on boxing out Love, who averaged 1.7 offensive rebounds per game this season and frequently keeps possessions alive with tap-outs.
Houston’s outside shooters vs. GSW’s rotation
Houston’s offensive strategy is well understood: it lets its two best players create in the pick and roll with Capela, and positions three strong outside shooters around the perimeter. Golden State will have to pick its poison. Do you want Harden/Chris Paul creating off the dribble, or an open shot for Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Luc Mbah a Moute, or P.J. Tucker? The way Steve Kerr decides to play Houston’s shooters could dictate the series.
Chris Paul vs. Stephen Curry
Steph has been in MVP form, and he would likely be in contention for the award if he hadn’t missed significant time with knee and ankle injuries. The same could be said for Paul — he had a great season hampered by injuries. Both players have looked excellent and terrible in big playoff moments in the past. Which star will shine brighter? Each team will rely on its point guard to create offense, whether that’s on or off the ball, in key moments.
Cleveland @ Boston — Sunday, 3:30 p.m. EST (ABC)
Golden State @ Houston — Monday, 9 p.m. EST (TNT)