Heading into ever important Game 6s, both Cleveland and Golden State are down three-games-to-two, with their backs against the wall in must-win showdowns this weekend. Just like we all predicted, right?
I wrote about Golden State a few days ago and pointed out the fact that while they’re the most talented team in the league, and should win the title, they’re also extremely sloppy, don’t bring their best effort every night, and lack a killer instinct. I think that was proven out last night with how poor they were in the 4th quarter AGAIN. Somehow, finesse Mike D’Antoni’s team has been the more physical, tougher squad almost the entire series. Despite the fact that probable MVP James Harden has gagged horribly in this series, and become this generation’s Karl Malone, Houston has been able to slow the pace, muck up the game, and slow down the fast-paced, free-wheeling Warriors by turning the series into one straight out of the late ‘90s, when the league became a wrestling match, with every key possession being decided by each team’s best player going one-on-five.
Sure, Golden State losing Andre Iguodala, their best perimeter defender, has hampered them the last two games. That became pretty obvious last night, when with less than a minute to go, Quinn Cook was left wide open from three point range and was forced to fire up one of their biggest shots of the season, which he of course bricked. Iguodala’s absence doesn’t explain why Kevin Durant has disappeared quicker than the Invisible Man in Games 4 and 5, though. Houston doesn’t really have a guy that can slow him down, and they even had 6 foot tall Chris Paul switched on him during a few key possessions. Durant should be putting his head down and getting to the rim every single time, particularly against Paul, but instead, he’s screwing around, forcing up contested fadeaways from various distances and missing all of them. He’s the best and most talented player in the series; he should be enforcing his will right now. But again, no one on Golden State has any nasty, or wants to hurt the opposition’s feelings, except for Draymond Green, who has virtually vanished on the offensive end.
The same goes for Steph Curry, who apparently can’t be effective in a playoff series when the games get physical. Curry is phenomenal when he’s not getting pushed around and can get off three pointers, but when a defender is allowed to get up in his jersey and be rough with him, he suddenly turns into 50% of the player. Assuming the Warriors are able to win this series, it won’t get any easier for him in the Finals if the Celtics advance out of the East. Both Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are physical defenders who don’t care to get their hands dirty, and if he were to get switched onto one of their wings, like Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, or Jaylen Brown, good luck there as well.
Golden State’s best hope to win this series is the fact that Chris Paul’s hamstring is acting up again (he missed 20 games this season because of it), apparently enough so that he’s now going to have to miss Game 6. Paul has been the best Rocket the last two games; some of the shots he was throwing in last night were other-worldly, particularly his double-clutch three over David West. I can’t imagine he’d miss a potential Game 7, but if he can’t go, it’s obviously an enormous blow for Houston, and despite how poor Golden State has looked, they should assuredly win the series if that happens. But if Paul plays in Game 7, and gives the Rockets a similar performance to what he did in Games 4 and 5, then I think they'll win the series.
Cleveland has different problems, one being that they get nothing out of their role players away from home. I suspect the Cavs will win tonight because Boston isn’t the same team away from home either, but good luck going back to the TD Garden for a Game 7 with that roster. Plus, LeBron, for the first time all season, looks tired. Why? Because he has actually has to play defense in this series. I know no one is supposed to criticize LeBron, and instead just scream about how he doesn’t have enough help, but his laziness on that end really hurt them in Games 1 and 2 of this series, when he repeatedly got beat back door for layups, or got caught ball-watching and lost his man. We’ve all heard about how LeBron saves himself on defense so he can contribute his full effort on the offensive end, but isn’t it pretty obvious too that the man is a bit stat-obsessed, and sags off his man so he can be closer to the basket to collect rebounds? After all, this is the same guy who made an Instagram post to congratulate himself for scoring 30,000 points. Plus, he knows he’ll get praise in the media from blowhards and sycophants (I’m looking directly at you Nick Wright) if he pads his stats.
Sure, they wouldn’t be in this series at all if it weren’t for LeBron, but doesn’t he have to take responsibility for how this roster has turned out? After all, Cleveland did trade Kyrie Irving because he and LeBron couldn’t get along. And let’s all not pretend like the Cavs didn’t sell their soul to LeBron when he came back, giving him control of basically everything. Why else do you think Tristan Thompson got $82 MILLION? It couldn’t have been because he and LeBron share an agent. No way….
I suspect both Cleveland and Golden State will force Game 7s, though I do think the Cavs are more vulnerable in their Game 6. We’ve all seen LeBron quit on teams when things start going poorly and he knows he’s out of there at the end of the season (the 2010 Celtics series? Game 5 of the 2014 Finals?). If Boston comes out hot to start the game, and LeBron finds himself facing an early deficit, I feel like it’s extremely likely he just packs it in, stops shooting, and begins mentally planning how he’s going to move all of his stuff across the country to Los Angeles.