Step aside, sonny. It's time for the old guys to shine.
The youth of the NBA made sure did make some headlines early this postseason. Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Donovan Mitchell all had great moments this postseason and their futures are bright. But it's not a coincidence that of the four teams left in the playoffs, three of them (Golden State, Cleveland, and Houston) have the oldest rosters in the league.
Nearly all of the greatest players and teams in history had to experience growing pains. Michael Jordan didn't win his first title until his 8th year and spent years getting past the Bad Boy Pistons. Those Detroit teams had to get past Larry Bird and the Celtics. The Celtics had to beat Dr. J's Sixers and so on. And now, after so much focus on the young stars, the spotlight is on the established stars trying to cement their legacies.
Eastern Conference Finals
Cleveland Cavaliers (#4 seed, 50-32 regular season record) vs. Boston Celtics (#2 seed, 55-27 regular season record)
This season began with a blockbuster trade. Kyrie Irving went to Boston and Cleveland got Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and draft picks. In this Eastern Conference Finals rematch however, none of the players in that stunning deal will play a minute for either team.
After losing Irving and Gordon Hayward to season-ending injuries, most people (including myself) thought the undermanned Celtics would make a quick exit in the playoffs. Instead, the NBA's 5th youngest team have made a remarkable run behind rookie Jayson Tatum, 2nd year guard Jaylen Brown, and Irving's replacement Terry Rozier. He won't win the award, but Brad Stevens should be the Coach of the Year on the strength of his inbound plays against the 76ers alone.
LeBron James and rest of the Cavaliers are well rested after having broken the hearts of Toronto in a four game sweep. As unbelievable a player James has been, this might be the best basketball he's ever played. He's averaging 34.3 points a game, is shooting 55.3% from the field, and is responsible for 45.6% of the team's total assists. After some uncertainty, it looks like the rest of the Cavaliers have found their roles on offense.
The key for Boston is stopping LeBron. But how to do it is a question that teams in the East have failed to answer in the last seven years. Even as brilliant a tactician as Stevens is, this is a monumental undertaking. The Celtics will have to throw a variety of matchups at James. It could be defensive stalwart Marcus Morris, rookie Semi Ojeleye who guarded Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo very well, or it could be Al Horford who has been a steading force throughout the playoffs.
Cleveland will need the same kind of brilliance Kevin Love showed against the Raptors if they want make it to their 4th straight NBA Finals appearance. The Celtics will try to deny James at every turn. When the double team comes, Love, Kyle Korver, JR Smith, and George Hill will have to make their shots.
Boston has been brilliant in the playoffs and the experience they'll gain will benefit them for years to come. And while I know to never underestimate a Brad Stevens coached team, taking on LeBron James at his zenith will take a little more than what the Celtics have. I have nothing but admiration for what they've done and know that their best seasons are yet to come, but for now, I think Boston's remarkable run comes to an end here. Cavaliers over Celtics 4-2.
Western Conference Finals
Golden State Warriors (#2 seed, 58-24 regular season record) vs. Houston Rockets (#1 seed, 65-17 regular season record)
These two teams have been on a collision course toward one another all season long. They are the two highest scoring teams in the league. And while their offensive stats may look similar, the teams couldn't be anymore different.
Probable league MVP James Harden dominates the ball on offense. They play mainly isolation-ball. Harden either shoots a three, drives to the basket to get contact, or kicks it out to an open teammate standing in three-point land. If iHarden doesn’t have the ball, Chris Paul does and he does the exact same thing. As a result, the Rockets lead the league in isolations per game, made the most three-pointers, were 26th in assists, and set the least amount of screens.
The Warriors are the complete opposite. The ball never stops moving. The players are constantly moving to get themselves in better positions for a pass. Golden State led the league in assists and set the most screens. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson all averaged over 21 points per game. And while he won't garner any MVP votes, Draymond Green nearly averaged a triple-double this season with 13.1 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 9.0 assists per game. Golden State's infectious style makes every Warrior want to make the extra pass, chase down every loose ball, and sprint back on defense. They are experienced, have a deep roster, and are well coached.
Houston will need Harden and Paul to be dominant. But Harden has faded in the last three postseasons and has had trouble when Thompson guards him. This is the farthest Paul has ever reached in the playoffs and now he'll be matched up against a now healthy Curry. Can Trevor Ariza hold his own against Durant? And it remains to see if the Rockets role players can make their shots and if Clint Capela can be the defensive presence in the paint that they sorely need.
While these two have been the two best teams all season long, to me, it comes down to style of play. I will always lean toward a ball movement team and against a ground and pound isolation team. Ball movement means more players touch the ball each possession, more players get involved in the offense, and often as a result, more players are engaged on defense. The Rockets may have been waiting all year for this chance, but their flaws on offense play directly into Golden State's strengths. I'm picking the Warriors in six.