clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Five Questions Heading Into the Second Phase of the Conference Finals

Are Steph and CP3 OK? Is there anyone else on the Cavs bench with a pulse? These are the questions we’ll be pondering as we wait for the weekend.

LeBron James, Klay Thompson, and Chris Paul Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Which Klay Thompson Are We Getting for the Rest of the Series?

Add up all of the hackneyed symbolism of the Warriors’ individual stars and you get a Bodies exhibit: Steph Curry is the brain, Draymond Green is the heart, and Kevin Durant is the skeletal system that holds all of the vitals in place. Where exactly does that leave Klay? Is he the cardiovascular system? The peripheral nervous system? Or maybe he’s the internal temperature of 98.6 degrees, proof that everything is working exactly as it should.

Game 1 was the quintessential Thompson experience: He needed no more than two dribbles to set up his shots en route to 28 points on the night. (He dribbled the ball 45 times on 50 touches Monday; for reference, James Harden dribbled the ball 550 times on 73 touches.) Nearly all of those points were the result of a very common issue with the guy: It’s hard not to lose sight of him given the surrounding talent. He is in constant motion, and consistently the player who logs the most miles in any one game by the end of the night; he knows how to manipulate his defender for clean opportunities without the ball in his hands and is the ultimate litmus test for the versatility and awareness of an opposing defense.

But when the Warriors are out of sorts, their lack of rhythm can be seen in Thompson’s performance. The contested shots he was hitting in Game 1 suddenly weren’t falling. He was forced to put the ball on the floor more often Wednesday, dribbling more (47 dribbles!) than he did in Game 1 despite touching the ball 18 fewer times.

Over the past two seasons, the Warriors are 47-7 when Thompson scores 25 points or more; that 87 percent win percentage is only slightly worse than the Rockets’ in games in which Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela share the court (89.5). Houston’s three main guards (Harden, Paul, Eric Gordon) have all taken turns on Thompson, but none has the size or commitment to truly bother Klay in motion or on the catch. He is, in the context of Golden State’s offense, a second-tier citizen with all the attention Steph and KD demand, which is usually how he gets you. He kills you just as you’re falling asleep; he’s a stoner Freddy Krueger. But when Curry is off his axis and Durant is flying solo, Klay becomes a little bit easier to ignore.

Who Can LeBron Trust?

Short answer: himself.

Long answer: … no one? By the end of Game 2, it became abundantly clear that these Cavaliers are not built to create mismatches against these Celtics. The average age of Cleveland’s top six players in minutes played this postseason is 32. For Boston, it’s 24. The age disparity has cast a light on the future of the East: This series isn’t a one-on-one between father and son in the front yard, it’s more like a virulent teen crushing a nonagenarian at Fortnite.

The Cavs’ young deadline acquisitions have been all but exiled from the series, despite theoretically offering at least some semblance of the skills the Cavs would need to turn this series around. Jordan Clarkson’s court sense was confiscated in Toronto by border services; Larry Nance Jr.’s intangibles have been swallowed whole by a Celtics squad conditioned to hunt for Tommy points; Rodney Hood is a sad ghost. They’ve all played into LeBron’s confirmation biases: The King needs running mates who have been there before. But it’s created a conundrum for a team whose vets have all lost a step while under the cover of LeBron’s individual dominance. It’s a sobering reality that highlights just how much of an aberration James is.

The Cavs and LeBron aren’t themselves when their enthusiasm is drained. I have one humble suggestion:

RUN THIS BACK.

If James and Tyronn Lue can’t trust their pack of 25-year-olds, it’s hard to imagine them having a change of heart for a 23-year-old. But with so much on the line and so few answers in the status quo, it might be time to see what the Turk can do. The Celtics force you to match their multitude of high-energy 3-and-D swingmen. At 6-foot-8, Cedi Osman has ample size at the wing and can even moonlight as a 4 if the team is hoping to give small ball another look. I’ve long thought of Osman as a Turkish Corey Brewer; the Cavs might want to investigate whether Osman is similarly capable of spearheading miracles. It’s probably wishful thinking, but stranger things have happened under Lue’s watch. Trust Cedi.

Are Steph and CP3 OK?

Game 2 was a cause for concern for both the Warriors’ and Rockets’ point guards. Curry couldn’t buy a basket, hitting only 20 percent of his uncontested field goal attempts. The Rockets found energy all around the court, and once stand-still spot-up men became dynamic playmakers on the move. When the Rockets’ offensive attack comes from all angles of the court (instead of just the top of the arc), there is nowhere to hide Curry, who still seems a bit unsettled coming back from his MCL injury earlier this month.

Paul was seen limping and grabbing the back of his leg during the game Wednesday and wound up playing much fewer fourth-quarter minutes than the rest of the starters. There haven’t been any reports, nor was it mentioned in Game 2’s postgame press conference, but it might be worth monitoring for Game 3.

CP3’s margin for error is different from most players’ on the court, given his height, and any kind of hindrance on Paul’s end could be exploited by the Warriors in the upcoming game. Once you strip back the veneer of analytics-based futurism that Daryl Morey has cast upon the Rockets and the small ball that has seen mixed results thus far in the series, the team looks deceptively traditional. Its point guard is a strictly one-position player, and while Capela has done a fine job of defending in space, this leaves the Rockets bookended by exceptional talents who nonetheless aren’t quite as versatile as you’d hope. Paul found himself matched up against Thompson on defense in Game 1, and the Warriors could try to go back to exploiting the size differential there.

Perhaps all this worrying is premature, but it’s hard not to feel a little deja vu given the way small, nagging injuries have played a role in both Curry’s and Paul’s careers. Let’s hope the two days of rest they’re getting is enough.

Is Luc Mbah a Moute Healthy Enough to Have His P.J. Tucker Moment?

I can’t imagine the microtrauma of dislocating a shoulder on a dunk. I really can’t imagine how that trauma multiplies the second time around—on the same shoulder, in the same season. Mbah a Moute has played seven games in the playoffs after returning from his most recent shoulder injury, which occurred last month. His minutes have plummeted in the postseason, and his effectiveness as a small-ball big man in the Rockets system has varied. In Game 1 he blew several point-blank layups, contorting himself in unnecessary positions just to get the ball over the cylinder, but without the timing or fluidity required to finish.

“I can’t dunk it right now. I don’t trust [my shoulder] yet,” Mbah a Moute told ESPN after Game 1. “A lot of those plays, usually they are dunks, plays I had tonight. It was just like hesitating between dunking and trying to finish when guys are coming at you.”

Mbah a Moute is one of the biggest X factors in the series; Capela being able to survive on a switch and defend out on the perimeter was the chief concern heading into the Warriors matchup—and, impressively, he has been able to—but if coach Mike D’Antoni is to make any lineup adjustments moving forward, he’ll need his full array of options off the bench. Tucker had the game of his life Wednesday night, scoring 22 points on 88.9 percent shooting from the field (and 83.3 percent from 3). A lot of his damage was done as a playmaking small-ball 5, but a repeat of that performance is a near impossibility against this Warriors defense. The Rockets will need to switch up their attack. They need Luc.

Mbah a Moute was an eephus pitch of a small-ball 5 during the regular season, catching opponents off guard with his proficiency defending both the perimeter and the interior. It may not be much to go off of, but the Rockets allowed a meager 94.7 points per 100 possessions against the Warriors in the 20 regular-season minutes Mbah a Moute served as center, according to the possession numbers from nbawowy.com. At his best, Mbah a Moute can guard (or at least corral) all five positions and shoot the 3-pointer with just enough accuracy to stay relevant on the offensive end. While the Cameroonian is past his athletic prime, he is still more than most centers in the league can handle when cutting or slashing from the top of the arc; the Rockets, through their unconventionally modern offense, have turned Mbah a Moute into an unconventionally effective offensive player.

But this version of him—a player who can’t finish around the rim and is shooting 15.4 percent from 3—isn’t helpful. In fact, Mbah a Moute has the worst postseason net rating (minus-15.6) of any Rocket on the roster with at least 100 minutes logged. It’s a far cry from the 10.6 net rating he posted in the regular season. The Rockets may have assembled a team that made sense against the Warriors, but it might not make a difference if all the pieces can’t operate at the level they need to.

What the Hell Are These Celtics?

Al Horford, 31, has been Boston’s best player while running a daycare: Its second-best player is 21, and its third-best player is 20. Marcus Smart, 24, is having some monumentally bad shooting performances, but has never been more beloved by the fan base. Aron Baynes made four 3-pointers in his entire career prior to these playoffs and now he’s 10-for-20 in the past 14 games. Boston’s biggest challenge in the postseason thus far has been a Bucks team so poorly managed you could make an argument they didn’t deserve to make the playoffs. The Celtics have been growing exponentially before our eyes. I don’t know if we’ll be able to make sense of it all until the postseason is over.