The Stanley Cup Playoffs Are Far More Entertaining Than the NBA Playoffs

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It’s probably not a secret that I absolutely love the NBA.

I’ve always enjoyed the game of basketball, particularly at the professional level. From the skill needed to play the game to the individual players and coaches, I’ve always taken a liking to the sport. Even as it’s become increasingly obvious that the need for 28 NBA teams and seven months of basketball has gone by the wayside this year, it’s still been fun to watch the game, even if you know who’s going to win most of the time. But even I can admit something about the league in 2017, particularly compared to other sports:

The NBA Playoffs have been absolutely terrible.

Many fans and experts anticipated, even going all the way back to last July, that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors would meet in this year’s NBA Finals. The two teams had met in the Finals in both 2015 and 2016, with each side winning a championship. With superstar Kevin Durant joining Golden State, it became obvious that the two teams were on a collision course to meet in June once again, barring injuries or other unforeseen events. Even then, I still found the concept of a trilogy, or “three-match”, if you will, fascinating. The problem was not in the final matchup but rather in the lead-up to it.

For example, the first three rounds of the NBA Playoffs featured just two Game 7s. The first one, between the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, took place on April 30, with the winner (Utah) earning the right to be eliminated by the Warriors in the next round. The other Game 7, held on May 15 between the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, earned the Celtics a place in the Eastern Conference Finals where they would be promptly smashed by LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Even when a series was competitive and interesting, you knew what the ultimate outcome would be for the winner. This was never more evident than in the Warriors’ and Cavs’ collective rampage through their respective conferences; the two teams went a combined 24-1 before meeting in the Finals, and the one combined loss happened when Celtics guard Avery Bradley hit this incredibly glitchy buzzer-beater to defeat the Cavaliers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Presently, Golden State leads Cleveland two games to none in the NBA Finals and the series is quickly becoming a matter of when, not if, the Warriors are crowned champions; the Warriors’ average margin of victory in the first two games has been 20.5. The league put all its eggs in the three-match basket and may be getting what it deserves in a dud of a championship series. Part of that is because of Durant’s move to sign with the Warriors on a two-year deal last summer. His ability to do so is an outgrowth of the league’s bloated salary cap, one that ballooned from $70 million to over $94 million in the span of just one year. Because of that, the Warriors had the money to invest in Durant and the NBA had eleven months to kill before the Cavs-Warriors Finals matchup.

That thought leads us to the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been the polar opposite of the NBA’s; unpredictable, random, and, most of all, exciting. The Nashville Predators, the bottom seed in the Western Conference and, by points, the 16th and very last team in the playoffs, find themselves two wins away from a championship after tying the Stanley Cup Final at two last night in front of their raucous fans. Each conference’s top team was eliminated before the Conference Finals, and the Ottawa Senators, the 12th-best team in the Playoffs, reached the Conference Finals and took the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins to a double-overtime Game 7 that ended with a Chris Kunitz goal to send Pittsburgh to its second straight Stanley Cup Final.

Hockey’s playoffs have been completely different from the NBA’s; while they’ve had just three Game 7s, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have had 27 overtime games and five games that have gone to two overtimes before a game-winning, sudden death goal. In reality, it’s likely the NHL Playoffs have almost always been more interesting than the NBA Playoffs, but it took a confluence of events like this year’s for all of us to realize that.

Perhaps the most appropriate symbol of the sudden crossover between the two sports is NBA legend Charles Barkley. Barkley, a television analyst who’s unafraid to speak his mind, has taken frequent shots at the NBA Playoffs for their lack of intrigue. Last month, Barkley went so far as to casually admit that he was watching the NHL Playoffs while not fulfilling on-air duties for TNT, one of the broadcasters for the NBA Playoffs. Last night, Barkley appeared on NBC’s telecast of Game 4 of the Predators-Penguins series, praised the Stanley Cup Playoffs, criticized the NBA Playoffs, and announced that Gary Bettman had invited him to Nashville for Game 4 (which, if true, is brilliant public relations by the NHL).

While he didn’t exactly tow the company line, Barkley brought up a good point with his comments. The NBA Playoffs haven’t been exciting and the Stanley Cup Playoffs have. Why would you watch a television show if you know, to a certain extent, how the series is going to end? The Stanley Cup Playoffs, on the other hand, are completely unpredictable, and while the game may not always be played at the highest level, you legitimately don’t know who’s going to win on any particular night. It’s truly worth watching just about all of the time.

When the Celtics did defeat the Cavaliers, it was considered one of the most shocking upsets in the history of the NBA Playoffs. Keep this in mind: Boston only won one game! That one win was considered one of the most stunning results in recent memory, and it demonstrates just how much dominance the NBA’s top two teams hold over the rest of the field.

As crazy as it sounds, I don’t fault Kevin Durant for leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder and joining the Warriors last summer. His decision was enabled by the expanding salary cap and he made an individual sacrifice, of both spotlight and finances, to win. I can’t find fault with that, but I can find fault with a system that allowed the Warriors to have four All-Star caliber players on their roster, as well as four of the top 20 players in the game today.

It’s not the fault of Kevin Durant or LeBron James that the NBA Playoffs have been atrocious. Both men and their teams are simply trying to win a championship and the rest of the league has not been able to catch them. But, we can point out that the NBA Playoffs have lacked the excitement and mystery that most fans, including myself, want. The championship series was supposed to save the league’s sinking ship, but those prospects now look rather bleak.

That has led us to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a far more interesting and unpredictable affair that will end with either the Nashville Predators or Pittsburgh Penguins as champions. The fact that we still don’t know, even after Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, who will hoist the trophy speaks volumes to just how much we should appreciate hockey, especially during these times in sports.

Are the Warriors Too Good For the Cavaliers?

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After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the most talked about person surrounding the Warriors-Cavaliers showdown in Oakland wasn’t Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, or LeBron James.

It was Rihanna.

The fact that the Barbadian singer stole the headlines away from the game itself shows that the contest couldn’t have been all that competitive.

Sure enough, it wasn’t. The Warriors easily took care of the Cavaliers, 113-91, in a game that was never truly in doubt after halftime. Kevin Durant led the way for Golden State with 38 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists; even more impressively, Durant did all of this without committing a turnover, becoming the first player to have 30 points and five assists without a turnover in a Finals game since Michael Jordan accomplished that feat in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz. Steph Curry poured in another 28 points on 6-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc.

LeBron James paced the Cavaliers with 28 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists, and Kyrie Irving scored 24. As strange as this may sound, the individual performances of James and Irving were not nearly as good as their numbers would suggest, as the Cavaliers were -18 when both players were on the floor last night. The Cavaliers were thoroughly dismantled in the second half, and their defense had no answers for the Warriors’ multi-pronged attack, which was centered around Curry and Durant.

Cleveland’s performance in Game 1 begs an important question: is this version of the Warriors too good for these Cavaliers to beat in a seven-game series?

Let’s start by stating the obvious: the Cavaliers played far from their best game last night. The team combined to shoot just under 35% from the field (30 for 86) and made just 11 of 31 attempts from the three-point line. Cleveland’s turnover problem was exacerbated by the Warriors offense, which turned the ball over just four times in 48 minutes. The Warriors had a really, really good night and the Cavaliers…. well, let’s just say they didn’t. That being said, it is worth examining whether or not Cleveland’s struggles are an anomaly or a disturbing trend.

For example, the Cavs’ transition defense is something that can be fixed. Take this play from late in the first half last night. Watch as the seas part for Durant to finish the fast break with a thunderous slam (pun 100% intended):

If I’m Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, I would play that clip on loop for the next 48+ hours before Game 2. The Warriors finished Game 1 with 56 points in the paint and could’ve had closer to 70 had they not missed or, in the case of Zaza Pachulia, passed up on several open layups. The Cavalier defense was so concerned about the Warriors’ vast array of shooters (Curry, Klay Thompson, even Draymond Green) that they completely neglected to protect the rim. This strategy, one that basically rejects every fundamental tenet of basketball defense, turned Game 1 of the NBA Finals into Kevin Durant’s own personal dunk contest. That strategy can definitely be adjusted/fixed before Sunday night’s Game 2 rolls around.

But the Cavaliers must sort out other issues if they want to win their second championship in as many years.

Even though James and Irving are the undisputed leaders of the Cavs’ attack, the team simply needs contributions from other sources in order to be successful. For example, Kevin Love shot just four-of-thirteen from the field last night and had quite possibly the quietest 21-rebound performance in NBA history. J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, Cleveland’s other two starters, combined for just three points and one made field goal on seven attempts.

That’s not all, though, for the Cavaliers’ individual struggles. Deron Williams, who scored fourteen points in seventeen minutes in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, struggled to get anything going last night. Williams’ game was so truly awful that he amassed a whopping offensive rating of ten (offensive rating is a measure of how many points a player accounts for per 100 possessions while he is on the floor). In case you haven’t figured it out, ten points per 100 possessions isn’t that good. Similarly, sharpshooter Kyle Korver, acquired from the Hawks in a midseason trade to give the Cavs more of a perimeter presence off the bench, accrued an offensive rating of 21 in nineteen minutes; he didn’t score in the game.

The Cavaliers simply cannot survive the Warriors’ merciless onslaught without contributions from their secondary pieces. While Irving is one of the best point guards in the league and James is the best player on the planet, they cannot singlehandedly carry the Cavs to their second straight championship. Players like Williams, Love, Korver, Smith, and Thompson must stretch Golden State’s defense with their perimeter shooting if the Cavaliers want to take this series deep.

There’s also this to consider: the Warriors should have an off night offensively at some point in this series, as even an offense as talented as Golden State’s is prone to go cold from time to time. Last night, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green combined to shoot 6-for-28 from the field and score just fifteen points. However, both made an impact on the defensive end; Thompson performed the unenviable task of guarding Irving while Green held an 85 defensive rating in his 36 minutes of action (with the defensive rating statistic, a lower number equates to better performance). Near the end of last night’s game, FiveThirtyEight writer Chris Herring pointed out the difference in the teams’ supporting casts:

It’s true; while Thompson and Green struggled mightily on the offensive end, they still impacted the game with what they were able to do defensively. The Cavaliers’ other pieces have not been able to do that, and how did they impact Game 1 when their shots weren’t falling? Answer: they didn’t.

Granted, the Warriors played extremely well in Game 1. Their four turnovers tied for the fewest in NBA Finals history and conventional wisdom would think that the performance will be difficult to replicate. But consider this: for all of the praise Golden State’s offense is getting today (and deservedly so), they only shot 42.5% from the field last night. For as well as they performed on the game’s biggest stage, they had far from their most efficient game of the season. That’s part of why I picked them to win the series; even on a bad night, they can still destroy you offensively. And while last night wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a bad night, the numbers show that they can play even better than they are right now. That is a frightening and scary thought for Cleveland to wrestle with.

The Cavaliers have fixable, albeit major, problems to rectify before they hit the Oracle Arena floor for Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. They need their bench to produce and their shooters to start hitting from behind the three-point line. They also need to play better transition defense, and they can accomplish that by simply standing in front of the player with the basketball at that particular time.

And they need to quickly make these adjustments to save the NBA Finals from turning into Kevin Durant/Jeff Van Gundy vs. Rihanna.