After all the missed free throws, late-game comebacks and Paul Pierce buzzer beaters, we are left with the top two seeds in each conference battling it out for a trip to the Finals. Each series presents a team versus stars dynamic, but while the communal Hawks are the underdogs against LeBron's Cavs, the loaded Warriors are huge favorites against the top-heavy Rockets.
Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller discuss in this week's Flanns & Zillz.
ZILLER: The conference finals features ... chalk. We have the top two seeds in each conference facing off, though the ways and forms in which they all arrived is pretty interesting. Every second-round series went at least six games. Every team left has been tested in odd ways. So let's talk about what happens next.
The Hawks beat the Wizards on two prayers, basically. Washington found ways to disrupt the famous Atlanta offense, and the Hawks' point guards were way overmatched by John Wall With A Broken Hand. That said, Cleveland's defense still leaves plenty to be desired and Kyrie Irving is quite injured. Does Atlanta have the advantage here?
FLANNERY: Seems like it was only yesterday when every favorite was down 2-1 and facing a must-win contest on the road. Ah well, the NBA always favors chalk and chalk it shall be. Which brings me to the Hawks.
Let's look at this sanely and objectively. The Hawks won 60 games. They took three out of four from Cleveland during the regular season. They have homecourt advantage. I won't say they're deeper, but they're definitely healthier. They should be the favorites here, but they're not. Is this all LeBron?
ZILLER: It's LeBron and all the weight the context of a superstar-driven league carries. It's LeBron and the belief that while the so-called Hawks Ballet can run up win streaks in the regular season, flow dies in the playoffs. It's LeBron's Finals streak and the Hawks' historical futility and how much we trust the past over the future.
But yeah, unless Kyrie gets some plasma spun into his knee and comes back looking right, the Hawks should be the favorite. The problem with the Hawks is the problem with the Rockets (who we'll get to soon): they are so different that they aren't inherently trustworthy. LeBron? We know what he's capable of this time of year. Not the case with Atlanta.
FLANNERY: They are completely untrustworthy, which is odd when you consider dudes like Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll are seen as uber-pros. I'm not putting all this on Jeff Teague (who is often the only one doing anything offensively in crunch time), but man the Hawks make you nervous closing out games. I don't know how the Cavaliers make it from opening tip to the 6-minute mark of the fourth quarter, but I'm really sure they know what they're doing at the end.
Still, I like these matchups for Atlanta. Teague is able to blow by Irving even when Kyrie is healthy. Korver won't have to chase Bradley Beal all over the place and LeBron is going to have to guard either Carroll or Millsap, which will at least make him work on the defensive end. Horford should, in theory, be able to use all his veteran wiles to his advantage against Tristan Thompson or the bigger, slower Timofey Mozgov.
I've been leaning toward taking the Hawks since last they finally put Washington away, but I don't want to pick against LeBron. That's what it comes down to here, and what this whole season has been about. I'm still on the fence.
Yet, I am completely unconflicted out West even though the Rockets have more superstar power.
Previews and Predictions
Hawks and Cavaliers fight for East crown
The two best teams in the East during the regular season will fight for the chance to represent their conference in the NBA finals.
Previews and Predictions
ZILLER: The West seems suspiciously easy to call, even after the last three games Houston's put together. Golden State has answered every question we've had, and the Warriors dominated the Rockets in the regular season. What's Houston's best shot?
FLANNERY: Make a ton of threes, have their superstars be two of the three best players in the series and get at least one out of body experience from each of their role players.
This might be Golden State's best matchup. They swept the Rockets this season and by a double-digit margin in each contest. The Dubs have bodies to throw at Dwight and multiple defenders to keep Harden honest. On the other side, there's no great option to guard Stephen Curry. If you put Trevor Ariza on Klay then that leaves Harden on Harrison Barnes, who is coming off a great series against Memphis. I like Terrence Jones quite a bit, but there's a huge gulf between him and guys like Anthony Davis and Zach Randolph.
All that said, I think we need to reassess some fundamental thoughts about the Rockets. Any team that comes back from 3-1 and a huge deficit on the road in a closeout game deserves immense respect and probably more than we've given them to date.
ZILLER: Absolutely. I think the biggest reconsideration is the State of Dwight. In the first two rounds he was as good as he's been since 2011. When he switched on to Blake Griffin, the Clips got totally flummoxed because Blake couldn't do anything to him. Howard showed repeatedly that he's a much, much better DeAndre Jordan. That's huge, obviously.
Klay has been as unimpressive as Barnes has been good. Houston has the wing defenders to limit both, and if Marreese Speights can't play, the only serious counter for Golden State is to use David Lee. Draymond Green is otherwise a huge concern for Houston. It feels like he can eat Josh alive at both ends.
If Houston's starters can keep it close, the Andre Iguodala-Corey Brewer and Shaun Livingston-Pablo Prigioni matchups loom large. Which ... man.
One clear thing is Golden State has to scheme defensively very differently than they did against Memphis. There might be a one-quarter or one-half adjustment period there.
FLANNERY: And the wind whispered ... FESTUS. At the risk of getting lost in the matchup weeds here, I think we're in agreement that this is the Warriors' series to lose. Despite our new found appreciation for Rocketball, I have Golden State winning in five games and I think they're due for some vintage Dubness after escaping the Memphis muck.
That brings me back to the East. I've been going back and forth on this all weekend. I really want to pick the Hawks but just can't commit. Help me make up my mind.
ZILLER: I also have the Warriors, though in six. The Rockets are good enough to win this series, but the Warriors are just better. Than everyone.
My brain says the Hawks can and will win because unless Irving recovers quick, Atlanta will have perhaps four of the five best players in the series. But my gut thinks LeBron can win a couple of these by sheer force of nature, my gut thinks there's gonna be at least one bizarro game in which the Cavs' eclectic supporting cast takes the day and one game in which Kyrie goes nuts.
FLANNERY: For as much fun as the Wizards were, and as much as I would have loved to have seen Paul Pierce take on LeBron one more time, I'm glad this is the conference finals matchup. It feels like the whole year has been gearing up for this series with all its little intricate subplots, and I'd be disappointed if we didn't get it. Oddly, my gut says Hawks and my brain says Cavs. In the end, I just can't get past the LeBron factor.
Cavs in 6 but I don't feel good about hopping off that Hawk bandwagon.
ZILLER: So we both picked the Cavs and Warriors. The Kevin Love Derby, minus the actual Kevin Love!
Mostly I'm just rooting for no blowouts and few free throws.
FLANNERY: Chalk picks for a chalk playoffs.
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