NBA Finals opponents to be finalized via Memorial Day, Game 7

May 26, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) is defended by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) in the fourth quarter in game five of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors won 120-111. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
May 26, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) is defended by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) in the fourth quarter in game five of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors won 120-111. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s Memorial Day and with it comes the highly anticipated  Game 7 of the Western Conference Final to determine which 2 teams will play in the NBA finals. Will the Golden State Warriors  become just the tenth team to come back from  1-3 for a rematch of last years final? Or will the Oklahoma City Thunder rebound from the devastating Game 6 collapse for another shot at LeBron James who snatched their title hopes in OKC’s only finals appearance?

Eastern Conference Finals

Toronto Raptors:

With the Cleveland Cavaliers having finished off my home town Toronto Raptors to win the Eastern Conference Finals they’ll join the masses who gather to watch the pivotal Game 7 tonight. Continuing their good fortunes the Cavaliers have been resting since their Game 6 clinching win this past Friday.

In truth the only adversity the Cavaliers have faced this post season came at the hands of the Toronto Raptors who stole 2 games. The Raptors shone a light on the fact Cleveland can be rattled with aggressive defense and strong rim protection. Many expected LeBron and company to sweep the Raptors, especially after two convincing opening games. Pundits referred to Toronto as mannequins pummeling Kyle Lowry as having abandoned his team and said the Raptors had already checked out.

Having covered the Raptors all year I was not surprised to see the Co-Captains the wily bull dog Lowry and his All-Star counterpart DeMar DeRozan not only steal a game in front of their rabid home Air Canada Center crowd, but take both games 3 and 4. For a team who had never won 50 games in a season or a 7 game series the Raptors were the Cinderella team of the post season.

While Lowry and DeRozan packed up their lockers this weekend the loss to the Cavaliers was still too fresh for them to recognize their magical 2015-16 campaign. That said, Toronto was the only team under the cap ($71 million or 24th ranked) in the Final 4 and also enter the draft with the 9th and 27th picks.

Entering the off season Toronto have 2 key challenges in free agency:

  • Whether to offer DeMar DeRozan a max contract (or negotiate something reasonable and hope he agrees) and
  • Whether they can keep the true underdog performer of the post season Bismack Biyombo who has fans in Toronto and the NBA enraptured with his prowess on court and charm off it.

The Raptors end of season press conference offered substantial hints at both:

My mindset has always been Toronto, I was passionate about it when we were losing. You know when we were terrible, I said I was going to stick through this whole thing. You know I want to be that guy who brings the organization to where it is now. You know I definitely don’t want to switch up after we win” -DeRozan

I haven’t changed one bit, you know I took pride in putting that Raptors jersey on and when people said why Toronto?.. it made me want to prove them wrong.” – DeRozan

Teams like the Lakers who are hoping to lure DeRozan to L.A. will find DeRozan’s parting comments strongly signal his desire to return. Toronto can offer him 5 years at around $145M. The only question seems to be whether he’ll do something similar to Dwyane Wade and take a bit less to allow the Raptors to either use it on a free agent or in the negotiations of Biyombo.

For his part Biyombo also made it clear his desire is to return and that he believes the Raptors can make that happen.

One thing I believe is we have the right people in the office and I have the right people and Masai to handle that part, so I’m not too concerned. I’m sure they – – you know – – I think I heard Masai say they would do whatever it takes. And, I’m just thankful the organization gave me the opportunity to enjoy a different experience since I’ve been in the league” – Biyombo

Toronto and Ujiri no doubt want Biyombo back, but it can’t be for the reported $17M he could fetch. Especially considering that would have him earning more than the Raptors top overall performer Lowry who’ll earn just $12M next season. In fact offering Biyombo anything over $14.3M would make him the top or second highest paid player depending on what DeRozan does. It simply doesn’t make sense (as good as he is) for Biyombo to make more than Valanciunas, Lowry, Carroll, Patterson and Joseph.

Still, the relationship between Ujiri and Biyombo is strong, and the Republic of Congo native has made no bones about how grateful he is for fitting in and moreover flourishing on this team. Though I have no knowledge of the Raptors plans I suspect Ujiri will either try to get Biyombo to sign a 2 year deal with an opt out so he can offer more more next summer when there is more wiggle room, or I could see DeRozan accepting less to offer Biyombo more.

As for the draft that is full of power forwards I suspect the Raptors will earmark one of the many prospects to fill the one area in the roster which is in desperate need of an upgrade.

Cleveland Cavaliers:

The time off prior between Game 6 and the tip-off for the finals this Thursday, June 2 provides the Cavaliers with yet another lengthy recovery period (5 days) between rounds.

For the most part the Cavaliers are healthy though Kevin Love is nursing a wonky knee and minor shoulder irritation.

As for their opponent, tonight’s game 7 will nail that down for them. Sure, many are hoping for a repeat of last seasons finals with the Cavaliers healthy.  Likely included in that mix are LeBron James since he’d love nothing more than to exact his revenge on the 2-time MVP Stephen Curry and finally deliver the title he promised when he returned.

It’s also likely James and his team know the lanky and deep Thunder might actually present a much more difficult test for the loaded Cavaliers. Sure, Cleveland is loaded with depth but their front court could struggle to deal with the likes of several players who are either 7′ tall or close to it. Kevin Durant, Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter simply can’t be countered by the Cavaliers.

Looking at the $162M Cavaliers roster it’s clear they expected to be facing the Warriors and designed themselves with that goal in mind.

Western Conference Finals:

Oklahoma City Thunder versus Golden State Warriors:

As a Memorial Day treat, Game 7 tips off this evening at 9:00 PM EST. The winner will move on to play in the finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Certainly the Warriors have momentum on their side with Oracle backing them along their quest. That said, if any team or rather any player was likely to stop that from happening I’d put my money on Russell Westbrook.

His brilliant Game 6 was thwarted by the Warriors late come back and Klay Thompson literally going ballistic from beyond the perimeter. The Warriors can thank the zebras for their liberal whistle as each of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala were given latitude on calls while Andre Roberson was shown none. The latter resulted in Roberson having to sit and watch Klay Thompson who he’d pretty much held in check set a record for 3 point makes in a playoff game.

Game 7 is bound to be highlighted by the inability for the players to hear anything if Game 5 was an example of what to expect.

For the Thunder they’ll need a bounce back effort from Durant who seemed to be rushing his game and shots. They’ll also need the officials to not help Golden State just because they are at Oracle.

X-Factors could figure large with Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston and Iguodala expected to be the contributors for Golden State and Serge Ibaka, Adams, Kanter and  Dion Waiters factoring for Oklahoma City. Perhaps the true x-factor will lie in the whistle and whether Roberson can stay on the floor. If he can it bodes well for the Thunder as he’s been brilliant at his man on man coverage of Thompson. If not it could be the formula for a repeat of last season’s finals.

Still, if I had to pick one player in a Game 7 who’ll be the deciding factor, as much as Curry and Thompson are sharp shooters I’d still pick Westbrook as he’ll be the one playing every single possession like it’s the last one he’ll ever play.

Either way by game end we’ll know who the NBA finalists will be.

Here’s hoping it’s a great game with the best team advancing. Enjoy your Memorial Day.

In the coming weeks following the wrap up of the SCS Draft Prospect Series the next major series the writers will tackle is Free Agents.  Specifically the series will look at individuals and dive into which players make sense for the Houston Rockets to target, who might be a logical fit for a low end contract and which major free agents should receive the Rockets priority focus.

Make sure you check out the current Space City Scoop series including our year end player analysis, draft prospects worthy of Rockets picking or trading for, our best of reader/fan posts  and our end of season Rockets Round Table:

Next: Complete list of 2016 -2017 Free Agents

Next: Rockets Fans Speak - the Series

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