The first round is over, finally. The Conference semifinals can begin, although some have already begun. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks kick things off in the East, which means more LeBron James after a long rest. In the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder will try to brush off the embarrassment of their first loss, which means more Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant.
James and the Cavs didn’t cruise against the Detroit Pistons, despite the sweep. Size can give them problems, and the Pistons, especially in the first game, shot better than expected. But with James so far doing the right thing and accepting his current limitations (poor jump shooting), the Cavaliers are getting the most out of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, something they’ve struggled to do consistently during the regular season.
Irving is leading the team in scoring with 27.5 points per game while Love is third on the team with 18.8 a night. Both Love and Irving are doing something James has been bad at all year long: Making threes, having better Points Per Shot ratios than him. At some point we’re going to see James trying to take over games on his own but from what we saw last year in the conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks, this series might not call on him to do that.
Out West, there’s a bit more total star power on both sides, even if Leonard is the quietest superstar the NBA has seen in a long time. No celebrations that last longer than 0.4 seconds. The Spurs have always been about getting the job done and nothing more. Maybe crack some smiles on the bench while making fun of Manu Ginobili or something like that. But Leonard is even more serious than the “boring Spurs” perception. Which makes him so dangerous and annoying for opposing teams. He makes them miserable with his ability to do everything on both ends, and all that with a slightly sheepish looking expression on his face at all times.
Someone who is a bit more enthusiastic is Durant, when things go his way. Russell Westbrook might be the real lightning bolt on this team, but Durant is the special talent. Even without Leonard guarding him, the Spurs seem to have a way of making things uncomfortable for him. And this is where the critique of Durant often comes. He isn’t bad enough to shake this off. And now he’s pushed against the wall, like his entire team. Without him either taking his game to the level it was in two years ago, or the Thunder suddenly realizing how to play basketball in a way that involves more than Westbrook and Durant, this is going to be a short and painful series for them, with possibly disastrous consequences should it convince Durant it’s time to try and win championships somewhere else.