The NBA playoffs are down to four teams, with the Cleveland Cavaliers playing the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals (8:30 p.m. Wednesday, TNT) and the Golden State Warriors playing the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals (9 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN).
Five thoughts on what we’ve seen so far and might see going forward in this postseason:
Look at the MVP balloting
Russell Westbrook did great work keeping the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoff chase minus Kevin Durant. Anthony Davis displayed the all-around skill to be one of the NBA’s top big men for the next decade. But there were really only three players worthy of being named NBA Most Valuable Player and their teams are still alive.
Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Houston’s James Harden and Cleveland’s LeBron James became the NBA’s alpha males.
Harden has been terrific at a time when center Dwight Howard no longer looks like one of the NBA’s top players. Whether due to injury or 11 seasons of NBA mileage, Howard’s performances are uneven in a way you seldom saw when he played for the Orlando Magic.
James is playing without power forward Kevin Love (shoulder surgery), and point guard Kyrie Irving has multiple foot and leg injuries.
Curry’s Warriors look healthier than the Rockets or Cavaliers, but Golden State was certainly tested by the Memphis Grizzlies. It took a 62-foot buzzer-beating swish by Curry Friday night to start a run that closed out that series.
Can the ensemble approach work?
James’ magnificence tends to trivialize the fact that the superstar-less Atlanta Hawks hold home-court advantage in the East.
The Hawks are often compared to the San Antonio Spurs, and that’s no coincidence. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer was a longtime Spurs assistant before taking over the Hawks two seasons ago.
Like the Spurs, the Hawks emphasize great 3-point shooting (38 percent, second in the NBA). Even the centers make 3s, which opens the court for point guard Jeff Teague’s penetration.
But there’s no one great player to create a basket late in the shot clock. Teague and shooting guard Kyle Korver have to play better than they did against the Washington Wizards for Atlanta to have a chance in this round.
How rough will the referees allow it to get?
The playoffs are always more physical than the regular season and that’s resulted so far in Love needing season-ending shoulder surgery.
Back in the 1980s, the rule-of-thumb among players was “no layups in the playoffs” regardless of the consequences. Now the league is quick to call flagrant fouls and double-technicals and the access to video replay gives referees a second chance to make the tough calls.
Suspending Cleveland’s J.R. Smith for two playoff games sent a strong message that this stuff won’t be tolerated.
Four potentially key reserves
Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli – Starting center Andrew Bogut will need some Ezeli minutes and fouls, particularly if the Warriors try some Hack-a-Dwight strategy to send Howard to the foul line.
Houston Rockets guard Jason Terry – Terry and Josh Smith can take some scoring pressure off Harden. In particular, Terry can still initiate the fast break and get to the foul line.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova – An undrafted Australian who played at St. Mary’s, Dellavedova was strikingly good supporting an injured Irving against the Chicago Bulls.
Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder – The more Teague struggled, the more Schroder gained minutes and confidence going to the rim against the Wizards.
Who has the toughest job this round?
Easy choice. Hawks small forward DeMarre Carroll will have primary responsibility for guarding James. It’s no coincidence that teams James played on reached the last four NBA Finals.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell