Sam Smith's Conference Finals preview

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By Sam Smith | 5.19.2015 | 9:30 a.m.

Told ya, the regular season does matter.

So pay attention next time!

The NBA’s final four (small letters with no sappy song at the end) begins Tuesday with the Houston Rockets against the Golden State Warriors. The Eastern Conference final opens Wednesday in Atlanta with the Cleveland Cavaliers playing the Hawks.

That would be the No. 1 vs No. 2 regular season teams in each conference meeting one another for the right to play for the NBA title. Of course, looking at it another way, perhaps we didn’t have to spend that much time with the playoffs since the No. 1 and No. 2 teams are where they should be, playing an elimination for the Finals.

The first game Tuesday gets a warm up act with the NBA draft lottery to determine which of the teams not much trying to win ultimately succeeded. Though not by that much as there isn’t a LeBron-esque gotta-have-him No. 1 pick this year. There never really is anymore with the top players leaving college after a year, or basically after John Calipari shouts, “Next!”

There’s plenty of uncertainty about the top pick, supposedly either Kentucky’s Karl Towns or Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. Though there’s a sense that it’s maybe a little like 2005 when the big guys, Andrew Bogut and Marvin Williams, went 1-2, and then came the difference making guards, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. And it is a guard oriented NBA now as the conference finals suggest.

Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay who skipped college to play in China, and Duke’s Justise Winslow are supposed to be the next three and perhaps much more ready prospects than either of the top two.

It also so happens the Western Conference headliners are the Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the league’s Most Valuable Player, and Houston’s James Harden, the runner up, both the leading scorers on their teams and guards.

In the East, it’s LeBron James at basically every position, but sort of a hybrid power postup point guard since he runs the offense, bringing the ball up and also making plays for the shooters out of the post. Probably charting plays of the Western games on his day off. As the brilliant Mel Brooks prophesized, it is good to be the king. And then there’s the Hawks, or as they said in Atlanta, “Go figure.” That’s a 60-win team? Hey, the regular season said so. And the Bulls, Wizards, Raptors and the like aren’t laughing so hard now.

But let’s review first.

It’s been a heck of a playoffs, if surprisingly only in the lack of surprise that pretty much no one figured three of the four teams still playing would still be playing. LeBron, OK. You never have him out early. Of course, anytime he doesn’t win the title we can all say, “See, he’s no Jordan.” He is pretty tough, however, and has a good one going here. We thought it was amazing he got championship rings for Gary Payton, Antoine Walker and Rashard Lewis. But for J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov? Now, that would be something.

When the season began, sure LeBron was in that, “hey, maybe” category. But not Atlanta, Golden State and Houston. Of course, but who? That’s one reason they are there because no one could figure who should be there.

The Heat melted down once LeBron left, and though the San Antonio Spurs were everyone’s “uh oh, watch out,” they proved the conventional wisdom that there was no dominant team this season. And the way these things work if you have brackets and games then someone has to win and move on.

That 1 vs 2 thing was clear enough in the East as the Hawks and Cavs did pretty much look like the best even if the Hawks didn’t quite dominate.

Though the Rockets were technically No. 2, it wasn’t exactly with great vision since if the Spurs had won their last game of the season they would have been No. 2 with home court. Instead, they fell to No. 6 in the wild and wacky West. Still, the lesson about the regular season proved useful. By getting that Game 7 at home, the Rockets were able to defeat the Clippers. It matters. The Clippers won a home Game 7 to knock out the defending champion Spurs.

Yes, after the first round it meant a new champion.

So it made for one of the better playoffs in recent memory because there was real mystery. It became a heck of a lot of, “Why not us.”

There was loads of great stuff, as good as any being the back to back buzzer beater winners in the Bulls-Cavs series by Derrick Rose and LeBron James. Paul Pierce got one and called “Game,” and then came a fraction late to force a Game 7. Chris Paul had the Willis Reed award moment with his Game 7 pulled hamstring performance to knock out the Spurs and Curry had an amazing three to force overtime that preserved the Warriors first round sweep. Anthony Davis introduced himself again averaging more than 30 points and 10 rebounds in his first playoff experience.

The playoffs, of course, are about winners and losers, and pretty much everyone is a winner who gets to the conference finals. Maybe not LeBron, as he’s judged on Jordan and championships. But even the 67-win Warriors cannot be judged a loser after losing in the first round last year with basically the same team.

Plus, there is winning in losing even in the playoffs. It didn’t help Monty Williams, but it was a win for the Pelicans to get there, and especially the way they did with a win over the Spurs on the last day when the Spurs needed a win. It was a win for the Bucks playing the Bulls even until Game 6, which probably should have been a bigger tipoff about the Bulls. It was a win for the Wizards. Even though they went as far as they did last season, they were impressive even with John Wall out and pulled off maybe the biggest surprise the way they swept the Raptors. The Celtics also were winners competing as well as they did, though the Cavs still are mad for the Kevin Love injury that knocked him out of the playoffs—another big story—and provoking J.R. Smith, which isn’t that difficult.

Losers included the Raptors for even further minimizing the value of a division title, the Trailblazers for going out so quickly and perhaps provoking a bigger loss with the free agency of LaMarcus Aldridge, the Clippers blowing that 3-1 lead to a Rockets team that seemed ready to give up and Chris Paul being tattooed now with the second-round-and-done label. There was the Mavericks, who basically came apart with all their moves gone bad and basically cut Rajon Rondo during the playoffs. Make it just disappointing for the Spurs losing early as you can’t condemn them after consecutive Finals appearances and a tough seven-game series. They’ll never be losers. The Bulls, however, have to go onto that list with an opportunity squandered with Love out, Smith suspended and Rose back in All-Star form and still losing in six games. They’ll remember this one perhaps as much as the Clippers will regret their two weeks.

But that was then and this is now.

Eastern Conference: Cavs vs Hawks

How do you beat LeBron? Heck, the Hawks did it three of four times this season. Kyrie Irving is expected to play after some sort of aggravation in Game 6 against the Bulls. Not to say he was acting a bit, but he sure scored a lot of points with such a bad injury. He obviously was hurt in some regard, but it doesn’t seem serious.

Still, without Love this makes it a very competitive series. The Hawks have a bothersome lineup for the Cavs’ Mozgov and Tristan Thompson because of the way Al Horford and Paul Millsap shoot from outside. Neither of the Cavs’ bigs is very mobile moving outside. Horford probably is most responsible for winning the series with Washington. And the Cavs small lineup is too small with Smith, Iman Shumpert, Dellavedova and James Jones. Kendrick Perkins? The Hawks can pray he plays. The Hawks are a tough team to play the way they are all small ball, moving and passing and shooting threes. All the teams still playing were in the top five this season in made three pointers. Memo to Bulls: Shooting! But the Hawks’ shooters seem to have worn down some with the additional defensive pressure of the playoffs. They’ve got a shot at the Cavs, and DeMarre Carroll, much like Jimmy Butler, does a good job on LeBron, or as good as one can. The Hawks were one of the best teams this season pressuring James and Irving and basically challenging the other guys, frustrating LeBron some in a regular season Hawks win.

“I can't be worried about the Hawks right now. It's not like we're going to face them in the first round," James said then. "It was the first time they used that game plan on us (pressuring he and Irving). They kind of caught us by surprise. Down the road if we get to that point, we'll be all right."

Those other guys were better against the Bulls. Can they still be? The Bulls didn’t do a very good job of that. If the Hawks can they could pull the upset, at least as upsets go when you’ve won 60 games and have home court advantage.

Sam's Pick: Cavs in 6

Western Conference: Rockets vs Warriors

This is going to be one big time shoot ‘em up even if San Francisco has the strictest weapons bans. There even were some hard feelings—not the level of Warriors and Clippers—but Curry got into it with Trevor Ariza in the last regular season game as the Warriors won all four by double digits, a 15 per game winning margin. And that was when the Rockets had Patrick Beverley, their best perimeter defender, and Donatas Montiejunas, a reliable interior scorer.

Harden and Jason Terry guarding Curry and Klay Thompson? It’s getting tough to figure how the Rockets will win a game, let alone the series. The Warriors have been the healthiest team and have a tough defense. Draymond Green will ride Harden and Andrew Bogut will get in the way of Dwight Howard. Howard even taunted them the last time they met, saying the Hawks were better. “They’ve (Atlanta) got the best record, right. I thought they were the best team. They play well, they move the ball, the defense and offense has been great this year.”

The Warriors, if Howard hadn’t noticed, have excellent depth and will run in better defenders off the bench than the Rockets have anywhere on the team. Though reaching the conference finals was a huge win for the Rockets, who perennially have been a first round out team and had the most unlikely series win to get to the conference finals. It seemed fairly obvious all the Rockets players brought golf clubs to Game 5 and the Clippers refused to win. And nobody in the playoffs has been worse defensively. The Warriors averaged 115 against them this season and 129 the two games Howard played. If anyone has seen a Rockets players challenge a jump shot in these playoffs raise your hand. At least someone would. These Warriors will be so close now to the first Finals in 40 years there should be no holding them back.

Sam's Pick: Warriors in 4.