If the regular season didn’t already prove that only three teams have a legitimate chance of winning the NBA Championship, then maybe the first round of the playoffs can really hammer that notion home. On the bright side, the non-Golden State/Cleveland/San Antonio series will at least provide us with some competitive basketball. (Alright, maybe Memphis can push the Spurs a little.)
The Western Conference does provide a couple very intriguing matchups, namely the Thunder taking on the Rockets. Should you roll with the better team, or bet on Russ in an upset? I’ve got the answers for you here. And don’t worry, if you want to read about how bad Golden State is going to beat on Portland, you can find that here, as well.
Western Conference Playoffs
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Golden State Warriors
When the Denver Nuggets traded Jusuf Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers, they effectively traded their playoff spot to them, as well. The big-man suffered some growing pains with his new team, but after a handful of games, found his groove in Portland.
The 22-year-old has averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, providing Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum with the post-presence they desperately needed. The trio have turned a 24-35 team into one of the hottest in the league.
The Warriors actually faced a little bit of adversity this season, losing five of seven when Kevin Durant went down to an injury. But it forced Steph Curry and co. to learn how to play without their leading-scorer, as they won 13 straight without KD. But Golden State does have both MVPs in the lineup now, and look poised to avenge their 2016 NBA Finals collapse.
These two teams met four times this season, with Golden State winning all four. However, Nurkic was not a member of the Blazers for any of those games. Portland needs to hope the Bosnian is fully-recovered from his leg injury before the playoffs start.
If healthy, Nurkic’s skill-set in the low-post could give the Warriors a bit of trouble. And by a bit of trouble, I mean push this series to five or six games.
Pick: Golden State Warriors (5 Games)
Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs
If you like fast-paced, high-scoring affairs, then overt your attention anywhere but here. Both of these teams love to grind out every possession, using up much of the shot clock, and both play gritty defense.
The Grizzlies have not been playing their best basketball as of late. Once holding the five-seed in the West, Memphis used a 6-9 month of March to start their steady decline down the standings. April hasn’t been any kinder to them, as they have lost five of six to close out the regular season.
Since March 1st, Memphis has recorded the fourth-worst field goal-percentage in the league (44.0-percent), while scoring the second-fewest points per game (98.3). Offense isn’t their only issue, though, as they rank 20th in defensive rating (108.8), and are getting run up and down the court, allowing 15.9 fast-break points per game (26th). Their perimeter defense has also fallen apart, allowing opponents to shoot 38.1-percent from behind the arc in that time (26th).
Meanwhile, the Spurs remain their consistent-selves. Not much ever changes from the team-friendly, fundamentally-sound basketball Gregg Popovich’s squad plays. But for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, San Antonio will head into the playoffs without Tim Duncan. (He missed the playoffs with an injury.)
The duo of Kawhi Leonard (25.5 PPG) and LaMarcus Aldridge (17.3 PPG) inspires a lot of confidence, though. Both are potent offensive players, with the ability to score from so many places on the floor, and are also known for their efforts on the defensive end. It doesn’t seem to matter who Pops puts on the floor with them, they just play good basketball.
The Spurs beat the Grizzlies in two of their three matchups this season, with the most recent coming on April 4th, when San Antonio outlasted Memphis in overtime, 95-89. Memphis has been unravelling over the last six weeks, and the Spurs are simply too deep. Though I expect Memphis to steal a game or two at home, San Antonio will pull the final thread on the Grizzlies season.
Pick: San Antonio Spurs (5 Games)
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets
Remember when I told you points-lovers to overt your attention elsewhere? Focus it right here. The Houston Rockets score the second-most points per game in the league (115.3), but allow the fifth-most (109.6 PPG), as well. Throw in this year’s scoring champion, Russell Westbrook, and we’re in for a whole lot of points.
There isn’t a player in the league who has done more for their team than Westbrook. The electric guard led his team in scoring, assists, rebounds, and steals. And oh right, he broke multiple records en route to becoming the second player to ever average a triple-double over the course of the season. Not to mention, he helped OKC win 47 games just a season after fans had to watch Kevin Durant go title chasing.
There’s just one problem for the Thunder: Westbrook’s supporting cast isn’t very good. Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams serve valuable roles on the team, while Enes Kanter has been great off the bench. But there is no longer a second star to take some heat off Westbrook. The Thunder shoot a woeful 32.7-percent from behind the arc (league-worst), while getting a lot of open looks, and are a very average 45.2-percent from the field (17th). Sure, Westbrook’s contributes to that number, but he wouldn’t have to put up so many bad shots if he had another legitimate scoring threat.
Secondary scoring threats are not something the Rockets lack. After James Harden (29.1 PPG), Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, Trevor Ariza, and even now Troy Williams all average double figures per night. Gordon, Anderson, and Williams are three players who have proven they can get hot from downtown on any given night. But it all starts with Harden, who also leads his team in scoring, assists, and rebounds.
Harden has thrived in his first season under head coach Mike D’Antoni. After spending a season as an assistant in Philadelphia, D’Antoni was given the chance to bring his up-tempo offense that made an MVP out of Steve Nash to Houston. After a 55-27 record, the offense may do the same for Harden.
Don’t let all the points Houston allows fool you, though. They aren’t horrible defensively, possessing a 106.4 defensive rating (18th), they just aren’t good. The one area that could cause issues is their knack for giving up second-chance points (26th). Oklahoma City is strong on the glass, pulling down more offensive rebounds than any other team in the league (12.2 per game).
The Rockets have won three of four meetings with the Thunder this season, but only one game was decided by more than three points. In what many will view as Harden vs. Westbrook, look for Harden’s supporting cast to shine the brightest.
Pick: Houston Rockets (6 Games)
Utah Jazz vs. Los Angeles Clippers
As the seeds would suggest, this should be the most interesting series. Not just because it’s the four/five matchup, but because these two teams play very different styles. The Jazz win games with their defense, while the Clippers want to outscore opponents.
Quin Snyder’s Utah Jazz aim to beat you to a pulp with their hard-nosed defense. With the mighty Rudy Gobert protecting the tin for them, the Jazz allow the fewest points per game in the league (96.8). Stopping the stats there wouldn’t be doing this team justice, though, so buckle in. Utah only allows 10.7 second-chance points per game (second-fewest), 10.5 fast-break points (second-fewest), and 41.0 points in the paint (eighth-fewest). They also pull down 78.9-percent of defensive rebounds (fourth), and average 5.0 blocks per game (ninth). If there’s one place this team is mediocre on the defensive end, it’s defending the perimeter; opponents shoot 35.8-percent from behind the arc (17th).
Though Utah only averages 100.7 PPG (28th), they are actually quite efficient on that end, as well. Led by Gordon Hayward, the Jazz shoot 46.6-percent from the field (ninth), and 37.2-percent from three-point range (ninth). George Hill may not attract many headlines, but he has played within himself and served as a nice Robin to Utah’s Batman.
The Clippers enter the playoffs having won seven straight. But most importantly, they have both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the lineup. Without Paul in the lineup, L.A. is just 8-13; without Griffin, they are 11-10. When having to play without both this season, the Clippers are just 3-7.
Los Angeles’ time with their version of the big-three has largely been summed up by underachievement. Dating back to the 2011-12 season, when they acquired Paul, the Clippers have won 65.7-percent of their regular season contests. However, in those five postseasons they have never made it beyond the second round of the playoffs, and have fallen twice in the first round.
In order to avoid another early exit, L.A. will have to be extremely efficient offensively. Utah is not going to give them much, so they’ll have to continue shooting near 47.5-percent from the field. The Jazz are a team that makes very few mistakes, and does not beat themselves. The Clippers will be forced to take it from them, which doesn’t incite a ton of confidence in me.
The Clippers won three of four against the Jazz this season, but I like the defense to prevail in this one.
Pick: Utah Jazz (7 Games)
(Photo Credit: Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/])