Wow. Round one was great, but the conference semis may have been even better. Except for an Orlando team that had numerous sit-outs and a low total of games, it’s safe to say that every team rocked it last week and almost all of these matchups were pretty close. Let’s recap:
5 Washington def. 1 Orlando
As mentioned above, Orlando had an eight-game deficit to division rival Washington, and Martin and Monroe sat out more than the Magic would have liked. The Wizards had quite a nice week, don’t get me wrong, but the cards were so stacked against the Magic that it wasn’t even really a contest. Major disappointment from everyone except Pau for Orlando. It was another excellent week for John Wall, who posted 227 points. Kind of a shame to see such a great Orlando season end because of a bad schedule, but then again, I think the remaining teams are glad to see such a big threat eliminated. The Magic should contend again next year with its young core of Vucevic, Monroe and Oladipo, but how much can they rely on Gasol next season? Or anyone else, for that matter?
6 Atlanta def. 2 Cleveland
In a lot of ways, I felt this was going to be the biggest toss-up matchup in the whole round. Several lead changes in this one proved me right and certainly caused a lot of anxiety, but at the end of the day, it was the Hawks squad that ended up being a lot deeper than the Cavs’. Aside from LeBron, Burke, Zaza, Markieff and Green, Cleveland didn’t get much production from anyone, whereas the Hawks got at least a decent contribution from everyone (when they played, anyway). It was a strong showing for both teams, but Atlanta came out on top. Look for Cleveland to exact its revenge on the entire league next season – that core of players, plus a healthy Melo, is still scary. But the Cavs may have to turn to free agency in the summer to build up some depth if they want to get to the next level.
1 Houston def. 4 Oklahoma City
Wow, was I wrong about this one. Not only did the Rockets come out on top; they absolutely smoked OKC and every other team left standing. Led by ridiculous efforts from James Harden and Mo Williams (for real?), the Rockets coasted past the Thunder (who, to be fair, also had a very nice week). This Rockets team looks incredibly scary and, being the only team to come close to 1,000 points last week, has cemented themselves as the title favorites once again. It’s true what they say: if you come at the king, you best not miss. OKC has some thinking to do in the offseason: Will Duncan and Pierce even play next season? And can they achieve this high a level of success again without Whiteside? It’ll be difficult to afford him in bidding season for a team with a lot of money invested in other guys.
6 Golden State def. 2 Minnesota
There’s something about these 6 seeds that has them looking extremely dangerous, and now both of them are in the final four. Another stupendous week from Steph Curry, backed by nice outputs from Klay, KCP and Jae Crowder, of all people. The Wolves proved they were a deep squad, but they just didn’t get enough out of their top guys (ZBo, Love, Teague) to stay alive. As the Warriors plan their trip to the conference finals, Minny will begin plotting their revenge – and it looks like they’ll have all the tools to get back to where they ended up this season. But what will they have to change to get further?
CONFERENCE SEMIS MVP: James Harden. What a week it was for The Beard, who notched 253 points – the most by far of anyone in the playoffs this round. The regular season MVP flexes his muscles once again and remains the key element in Houston’s title run. All future opponents cower in fear.
Now let’s have a look at the next round of matchups: the Conference Finals.
5 Washington vs. 6 Atlanta
I bet not many people picked the Hawks and Wizards to represent the Eastern Conference, but here we are. Both teams have been very dangerous in these playoffs, and now the division rivals square off for a trip to the Finals. Wall, Wade and Beal have been the leading men for Washington, with Chandler and Green backing them up with solid contributions these first to weeks. But can the rest of the important role players – James Jones, OJ Mayo, Scola and Wes Johnson – be relied upon again? There are some questions for sure. Atlanta has leaned on Millsap and Horford all season, but now that they’re resting, things are different and other guys have stepped up. Big performances from Reggie Jackson and Nikola Mirotic (seriously, it was about time) have helped a lot, while others like Redick and Rondo are finally getting their acts together. It will be tough to counteract the loss of MKG, but will Dwight’s return be enough? It seems like the fate of both of these teams rests on his massive shoulders. This will be a close one.
THE PICK: Atlanta. You guys didn’t really expect me to bet against myself, right?
1 Houston vs. 6 Golden State
It was a lot of fun to watch the Warriors knock off all of those higher seeds, but I think the miracle run ends here. The real life Warriors have clinched the West’s top seed, which means Curry and Klay will be resting up a whole bunch. I can’t see KCP and Crowder carrying these Warriors all the way to the finals, and guys like Manu, Plumlee and Middleton have been a bit underwhelming lately. The Rockets, meanwhile, look pretty damn invincible and it all begins and ends with James Harden. A nice supporting cast of the surprisingly on-fire players of Williams, Diaw and Chalmers have helped a lot and I just can’t see them falling off quite yet. The one caveat here is Joakim Noah: if he returns to form, it should be smooth sailing for Houston. But if not, things could get interesting.
THE PICK: Houston.
That’s it for this week. Congrats to the four remaining teams, and good luck to everyone else as you begin planning for the summer offseason.