Three teams in the East that can keep Cavs out of NBA Finals
Three teams in the East that can keep Cavs out of NBA Finals
BOSTON – As the reigning NBA champion, the race towards an NBA title will begin with the Cleveland Cavaliers as the prohibitive front-runner despite the uber-talented roster of the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors are a no-brainer as far as who has the best shot at knocking LeBron James and the Cavs off the NBA mountaintop.
But that’s assuming Cleveland will return to the Finals which is expected, but definitely not a given.
There are too many x-factors that could come into play, like injuries, trades and the wildest wild card of them all … chemistry.
Just because the core group that won a title returns, doesn’t ensure things will click as they did the previous season. We saw that with the Golden State Warriors, winners of it all in 2015 only to come up short to the Cavs a year later in part because the chemistry just wasn’t as good as it was a year earlier.
So outside of Golden State, which teams in the East have the best shot at keeping the Cavs from getting back to the Finals?
3. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls seem an unlikely Goliath slayer in the East, I know. But if they get into the postseason which is far from a given, it will likely be as a seventh or eighth seed. That would mean there’s a chance that the James and the Cavs would face Dwyane Wade and the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
On paper, this should be a matchup that Cleveland gets past without any trouble. But Chicago has some intriguing pieces to work with that might cause the Cavs problems in the postseason.
First there’s Dwyane Wade, a player who won a pair of titles with James in Miami. Despite being 34 years old, Wade can still cause problems in the postseason with his ability to score in a multitude of ways along with being one of the league’s better perimeter defenders. Kyrie Irving might have a big series, but Wade will provide a much tougher matchup because of his defense, than what Irving saw last year in the playoffs with Stephen Curry trying to but failing miserably defending him.
Then there’s Jimmy Butler, one of the NBA’s best two-way players. He too could present matchup problems at both ends of the floor in a best-of-seven series.
And let’s not forget ex-Celtic Rajon Rondo, a four-time all-star who has often delivered his best performances in the playoffs.
But with any playoff series there’s always a wild card player who emerges with the potential to swing the series’ momentum towards the underdog. Chicago has a trio of players along those lines in Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott.
Gibson’s defense, energy and effort around the glass could be problematic for Kevin Love. And Mirotic’s long-range shooting as a stretch big may also be a factor. The same is true for McDermott who is one of the league’s better perimeter shooters.
Of course many things would have to go Chicago’s way in order for them to pull off what would be one of the biggest playoff upsets in recent memory. But they have multiple superstars, versatile players at both ends of the floor and players with big-game experience – the kind of ingredients you need to have if you’re going to cook up an upset.
2. Boston Celtics
Even though it was a couple years ago, the Celtics haven’t forgotten about how Cleveland swept them out of the first round of the playoffs in 2015, a series that became increasingly more physical towards the end.
A bone-jarring pick by ex-Celtic Kendrick Perkins sent Jae Crowder spilling to the floor. J.R. Smith would later connect on a shot to Crowder’s face that resulted in Smith being suspended and Crowder suffering a hyperextended knee injury.
Fast forward to this season, one in which the expectations for the Celtics are as high as they have been under Brad Stevens.
In addition to Isaiah Thomas, Boston now has Al Horford who will provide a much-needed presence both as a defender and another big who can stretch the floor or score around the rim.
Crowder has the potential to be a solid two-way player which Boston hopes can slow down LeBron James a little bit, while Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart deliver a strong 1-2 punch defensively against Kyrie Irving.
From there, the Celtics have a number of wild cards whose play could potentially position Boston for an upset. Rookie forward Jaylen Brown will be among those to see minutes this season at the wing position. His jumper remains questionable, but he has shown a knack for getting to the rim a lot. Terry Rozier has made tremendous strides from where he was a year ago, to now being someone Boston will likely turn to at times to play some point. Don’t sleep on Jonas Jerebko and ex-Celtic Gerald Green, either. Jerebko had limited minutes most of last season, but found himself in the starting lineup at the end of last season. And Green’s experience and athleticism make him a player who could also factor into a potential playoff upset for Boston.
1. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors suffered some offseason departures, but they return most of the core pieces from a team that’s still going to finish among the best in the East. All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry lead the charge for Toronto, but the key for them in any series against Cleveland is DeMarre Carroll.
Like every wing defender in the NBA, Carroll is not going to shut down LeBron James. But his length, instincts and ability to at times go at James offensively give him as good a shot as anyone at forcing James into an off night.
And remember, he spent most of last season out with an assortment of injuries and the Raptors still managed to finish just one game behind Cleveland for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Toronto’s success was in large part predicated on a strong core of perimeter players who collectively shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range which ranked fourth in the NBA.
They also did a great job of attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line where they finished third in the NBA with 26.7 free throw attempts per game.
In the playoffs, having multiple players with the ability to get to the free throw line is a huge plus.
For good measure, they added ex-Celtic Jared Sullinger to help bolster a front line which lost Bismack Biyombo to free agency this summer.
And there’s a good chance they haven’t fully flushed out losing in six games to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season, a series that ended with a lopsided 113-87 Cleveland win in Toronto.
Revenge can only take a team so far.
Against the Cavs, it won’t matter.
They are far and away the class of the Eastern Conference, but by no means are they unbeatable.
They know this.
So does the rest of the Eastern Conference.
But to knock them off in the playoffs will take the emergence of stars becoming studs, and good role players developing into great difference-makers.
There are a number of teams in the East who believe they are up to the challenge.
But only a select few have the talent, a roster and the much-needed experience to dethrone the champs.
As teams found out last season who went into the postseason with an upbeat and optimistic outlook towards knocking off Cleveland, beating the Cavs in the playoffs is a lot easier said than done.