Which Eastern Conference Teams Can Stop LeBron James?
Before the 2017 NBA Playoffs began, the media asked LeBron James to strategize about the then-looming showdown against the Boston Celtics. An incredulous King James shot back that he had made six straight trips to NBA Finals. He balked at the idea of laying everything on the line for a trifling regular-season game. Shortly after, James and the Cavs sent a message; they blew the doors off the Celtics in Boston, 114-91.
Like clockwork, Cleveland made relatively quick work out of Paul George and the Indiana Pacers through a four-game sweep. Meanwhile, the Celtics somehow clawed their way back into their first-round series versus the Chicago Bulls, after getting outplayed by Chi-Town’s ornery bunch in TD Garden.
Still, it is playoff time, and the running narrative will change from game-to-game. After a brief respite, expect the “What’s wrong with James?” headlines to quickly resurface after the Cavaliers take their first home playoff loss. The remaining Eastern Conference teams will see to it that the 2017 NBA Playoffs are far more than a cakewalk and Finals coronation party for King James.
5. Chicago Bulls
Chicago Bulls fans must quickly come to terms with the idea that the fate of this season rests upon the health of mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo. The 31-year-old ripped his teammates and coaches, and then sat the bench prior to the All-Star break. But he clearly turned a corner down the backstretch of the regular season. For the year, Rondo averaged eight points, seven assists, and five rebounds through 69 games of regular-season action.
In 2017 NBA Playoffs, he turned back the clock at his old stomping grounds in Boston. Rondo was the difference-maker early on, controlling the basketball, pushing the pace, and hitting open teammates. For his part, Rondo put up 11.5 points, 10 assists, 8.5 rebounds, and 3.5 steals per game through two decisive road wins to open up this first-round series.
Then, Rondo fractured his thumb toward the end of Game 2; he was out through Game 5. Without Rondo, Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams were thrown into the fire, and the Bulls offense ground to a halt. The two backups combine for a mere five assists through two ugly home losses. Now, the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls find themselves locked into a 3-2 match against the Boston Celtics.
From here, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler must play nearly flawless basketball before this Bulls club can even think of getting a crack at James. In Wade and Butler, Da Bulls can throw out two seasoned wings capable of making The King work at both ends of the floor. For added measure, Rondo could re-enter the lineup for this potential Eastern Conference Finals tilt.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
These 2017 Milwaukee Bucks look and feel eerily similar to the 2007 Golden State Warriors. 10 years ago, Don Nelson ushered the NBA into the small-ball era when he rolled out numerous interchangeable parts of raw athletes.
In the playoffs, Nellie Ball called for wild-card Stephen Jackson to front opposing big men with weak side help. After wreaking havoc in the passing lanes on defense, Baron Davis controlled the basketball and finished at the rim with a tomahawk jam, or he hit wings Jason Richardson, Monta Ellis, and Matt Barnes running the floor for easy buckets. As an eighth seed, the 2007 Warriors shocked the world, owned Dirk Nowitzki, and threw the entire Dallas Maverick franchise into a soul-searching, existential crisis.
Now, the Milwaukee Bucks can roll out Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 6-foot-11 kid with point guard skills. The Greek Freak is all but impossible to stop on the open floor, with teammates Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and Greg Monroe flowing to their spots in transition. Like madman Nelson before him, coach Jason Kidd isn’t shy about experimenting with wacky lineups that force the opposition to adjust.
For the 2017 NBA Playoffs, the Young Bucks must grow up quickly against a battle-tested Toronto club in the first round. The Bucks are now down three games to two, with the series swinging back to Milwaukee. A little Home Cookin’ may be just what this team needs to even up the score.
From there, Game 7 in Toronto could swing either way. A Milwaukee win would set up an intriguing matchup against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Kidd would then play with house money, while throwing out multiple looks against King James. Stranger things have happened.
3. Boston Celtics
The 2017 Boston Celtics are arguably the most ignored, disrespected No. 1 seed in the history of modern, playoff basketball. Remember: These Celtics went 53-29 and took the Eastern Conference regular-season crown over the Cleveland Cavaliers by two games. Still, for many, it’s a foregone conclusion that the Cavs will meet the Warriors again this year in the Finals to close out what would then be an ongoing trilogy.
Last offseason, the Celtics signed Al Horford to a maximum, four-year, $113 million deal, apparently sending a message that this team was committed to win now. As a Celtic, Horford put up a solid 14 points and five assists per game through the regular season, while suddenly emerging as a legitimate threat behind the arc. As a skilled big man, Horford is at his best working out of the high post in Brad Stevens’ system, where he can take his man off the dribble, hit the open cutter, or simply step back and drain a mid-range jump shot.
Isaiah Thomas, of course, is the heart and soul of this Boston Celtics club. In 2011, the Sacramento Kings took Thomas out of Washington, as the last pick in the draft. Next, Thomas battled for playing time behind the likes of Tyreke Evans and Goran Dragic in Sacramento and Phoenix, before finally finding a home in Boston. At 5-foot-91, Thomas is a scrapper who poured in 29 points per game through the regular season.
Right before the 2017 NBA Playoffs, his sister died in a tragic accident back home in Tacoma, Washington. Thomas suited up the very next day and dropped 33 on the Chicago Bulls. This series is now 3-2 in the Celtics’ favor, with one game left in Boston. As the one-seed, the Celtics own the all-important home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Home court, of course, can make all of the difference in a tight, seven-game series.
In 2010, the Celtics ran a shell-shocked LeBron off the Boston Garden floor and out of the Conference Semifinals, right before James took his game to South Beach. Fittingly, the King may find himself back in this House of Horrors for a brutal Game 7 in the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals.
2. Washington Wizards
Early on, John Wall transformed these playoffs into his very own showcase. Through two home wins, he torched the Atlanta Hawks for 32 points, 12 assists, and five rebounds per game. Back then, the chatter revolved around whether or not Wall was the best pure point guard in the NBA, let alone the Eastern Conference. As a raw athlete, Wall has long been hailed as the fastest man in the NBA.
After coming up with a timely steal, Wall will effortlessly outrace the opposition to the other end and throw down a tomahawk jam. With age, he’s added multiple dimensions to his game. He can shift gears on the fly and thread the needle to teammates rolling right to the front of the rim. As the total package, Wall is all but unstoppable when he starts to knock down shots from the outside. So far, he’s hitting on 58% of his three-point shot attempts through the 2017 NBA Playoffs.
Still, the Washington Wizards find themselves in a tight, 3-2 series after Atlanta overwhelmed them with a balanced attack. For Game 4, seven Hawks scored in double figures, with utility man Paul Millsap dropping in a 19-point, nine-rebound, seven-assist stat line. This series now shifts to a format where it’s highly unlikely that Atlanta role players can step up and contribute through another hostile road game in Washington. From here, the Wizards may see the Cavaliers in the Conference Finals — if both teams manage to survive the playoff grind.
Last March, Washington went on the road to Cleveland, and blew the doors off the Cavs. In that game, Wall and Bradley Beal combined for 64 points, 17 assists, and eight rebounds. Wall and Beal, when clicking on all cylinders, will give the likes of J.R. Smith, Deron Williams, and Kyle Korver fits.
1. Toronto Raptors
Certainly, the Toronto Raptors and all of Canada are chomping at the bit for a chance at payback against James. Last year, the Raptors lost out in six rugged games to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Certainly, Washington, Chicago, Indiana, Boston, and Atlanta fans are well aware that championship windows can be slammed shut very quickly. If Toronto can’t get it done now against The King, the team will be the next franchise to get blown up.
The Raptors kept its core group together last offseason, and the organization went all hands on deck to beat James. For added depth, the front office signed rim protector Serge Ibaka — who is suddenly a 40% three-point shooter — and also junkyard dog P.J. Tucker, who will mix things up in the middle, while serving up another six hard fouls to throw at LeBron. At the same time, a healthy Jonas Valanciunas will remain at the ready to anchor the low block.
For now, the Raptors are up 3-2 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. Expect this veteran Toronto group to take care of business at home and close out this series in seven games. Next, a well-rested James and his Cleveland Cavaliers will be waiting in the wings in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
DeMar DeRozan is now ready for primetime. DeRozan, who grew up in Compton, has had Kobe on speed dial since high school. This year, he upped his scoring average to 27 points per game, while adding a deadly turnaround jump shot to his offensive repertoire. DeRozan is fully capable of exposing the Cavs at two-guard, while Kyle Lowry bullies his way into the paint. If Toronto can get anything out of its supporting cast through a tight series, “The North” may very well put an end to King James’ reign over the East. Jurassic Park will be ready to rock.