As the NBA Playoffs kick off this afternoon with some Eastern Conference games, lets take a look ahead at some of the Western Conference matchups that are soon to follow.
Golden State Warriors v. Portland Trailblazers: Diving right into this Series, the Warriors are coming off of a great year and looking for a third straight trip to the Finals. The Blazers slipped a bit in ’16-’17, falling to the eighth seed in the West, but are still in the playoffs and in the hunt for some modest playoff success.
Looking at the Warriors, they are easily one of the best squads in the NBA with one of the most dangerous lineups in the Associations history. Curry is looking to improve on his legacy after a shaky playoff performance in 2015-’16, KD is looking to finally snag Championship success, Draymond Green is hyped up as always, and two-way guard Klay Thompson is ready to take over at any moment. According to many websites, GSW is a heavy favorite to win this Series, and when you look at their numbers, it is not hard to see why. The Warriors are the NBA’s best offensive squad, averaging 116 PPG on a league leading 30 assists per contest, while shooting 56.5% from the field as a team. And when it comes to defense, the Golden State Warriors are no slouches; the Warriors hold opponents to under 50% shooting from the field with an average opponent field goal percentage of 48.5%. The Dubs are also the number one team in the league when it comes to both stelas and assists per game at 9.6 and 6.8 respectively.
Despite all of this, do not expect the Blazers to go quietly. Many forget that these two teams met in last years playoffs, and the even more forget how close the Series was at times. And while the record may not display this, Portland may be a better team this year than they were last season. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can hang with the best of them when it comes to high-scoring battles, and Moe Harkless has had himself a great year and will be a crucial defender for Rip-City, but I believe the Blazers true key to any success will have to be the newly acquired center Jusuf Nurkic. Before Nurkic was traded at the Deadline, the Blazers were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. And although they are still not excellent, 21st in the league in defensive efficiency, Nurkic makes them vastly better as a rim protector and rebounder.
The Warriors also have a weak front-court, an aspect of the super-team Nurkic can expose if he is available for playoff action after being sidelined with a leg injury.
X-Factors in this Series: While a superstar, Kevin Durant is my X-Factor for the Warriors in this Series, as he is coming off of an injury and this Series will further show people how well the “Slim Reaper” has recovered. As for the Blazers, I think that depending on how well they play in game one, the decision on whether to play Nurkic or not will be made, something that will surely impact this Series. And if Nurkic does end up playing, he is Portland’s X-Factor as a guy who can give Rip-City a real chance to steal a game.
Prediction: The Warriors will win this Series in five games at the most, but it will be a closer Series than most make it out to be.
San Antonio Spurs v. Memphis Grizzlies: A rematch of last years opening round matchup between these two squads, but one that has potential to end much differently. In ’15-’16, the Spurs swept the injury-plagued Grizz in an uneventful four games, this will not be the case in ’16-’17. As per usual, the Spurs had a phenomenal season and made the playoffs after winning 61 games in a strong West. But as quiet as its kept, the Spurs have been struggling as of late, losing four of their last five. Not to mention the fact that the Spurs no longer have defensive guru, Tim Duncan on the team, something that could hurt them down the road.
The Grizzlies are on the other side of the spectrum as a team that had a solid year and ended with a mediocre record of 43-39, also losing four of their last five games. But this Grizzlies team is a bit different than the other Grit and Grind teams of past years, mainly because they have added consistent three-point shooting to their arsenal. Let’s take a deeper look at the Spurs.
The Spurs are still a top three team in the NBA; San Antonio is seventh in the NBA when it comes to offensive efficiency as well as assists per game, and they hold their opponents to 44% shooting from the field. Kawhi Leonard has had another MVP caliber season, LaMarcus Aldridge is still one of the NBA’s best post players, and Coach Popovich has once again found a way to motivate young guys and squeeze all that is left in his vets out. For these reasons, one can never truly count the Spurs out as they look to go deep in the post-season after early exits in the past few years.
Switching gears to the Grizz, I truly believe that if this team ever wants to truly make some noise, this is their time to do it. Though a team with some new pieces, including new head coach David Fizzdale, Memphis is still the gritty team they have always been. This fact is perfectly displayed in the numbers; the Grizzlies are a top ten team in the league when it comes to defensive rating as well as defensive rebounding percentage. Memphis is also the third best team in the NBA when it comes to opponent field-goal percentage (44.3%), and they have become a solid three-point shooting squad with a team percentage of 35.4% from deep. Mike Conley is in the prime of his career, Marc Gasol has expanded his game with the three point shot, Zach Randolph has been an excellent sixth-man, and the Grizzlies bench is healthy and plays consistent basketball. But will it be enough to push the Spurs?
X-Factor in this Series: The Grizzlies X-Factor is Zach Randolph, a player who has gone from Memphis’ starting five to their bench in one of the smoothest transitions in recent memory. If Randolph can come off of the Grizzlies bench and provide a healthy mix of scoring and rebounding, he will improve his teams chances of staving off another first round elimination. As for San Antonio, their X-Factor is going to be the Australian PG in Patty Mills. Mills has been in and out of the Spurs starting lineup this year with a regressing Tony Parker losing a step. If the Spurs want to put this Series away early, they will need to look at the younger Mills as an option when attacking Mike Conley on defense.
Prediction: Though this Grizzlies team is a good one, in its prime in my opinion, I am confident the Spurs will prevail in six games at the most.
Houston Rockets v. Oklahoma City Thunder: The most exciting first round matchup, in my opinion, with so many great storylines as well as thrilling matchups, this one should be fun. The Rockets came into the season as a team with low expectations after a poor showing in ’15-’16. In fact, many considered Houston to be a fringe playoff team at best. OKC came into the 2016-2017 season with a similar narrative; a team that lost two of its best players in Durant and Ibaka, a team led by the wild and turnover prone Westbrook, a team that would be lucky to be a top ten team in the West.
Well here we are, in April of 2017 and both of these teams not only made the post-season, but their leaders have had years that will forever be remembered in basketball history. On one side, James Harden has had a year that included 22 triple-doubles, leading the league in assists, and bringing 55 wins to Houston. On the other side, Russell Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for the year, led the league in scoring, and made an OKC team no one had faith in into a sixth seed in the West. Two possible MVP’s going head-to-head, two teams who made names for themselves, only one can rise victorious.
Looking at Houston, their offense is essentially comprised of James Harden pick-and-rolls, wing cuts to the basket, and three point shooters sprawled all over the court. The Rockets are the second best team in the league when it comes to offensive efficiency, shoot 35% from downtown as a team, and are the seventh best team when it comes to rebounding in the Association. These offensive advantages are only emphasized when your head coach is Mike D’Antoni, as the former coach of the year has made this Rockets team into a re-vamped version of his former Phoenix squad. The Rockets are also a top five team in the NBA when it comes to fast-break points per game, (16 a game), as they like to run and gun with surprising efficiency. I expect Harden to have a solid Series, being one of the best players in the NBA, but it is the bench of Houston that really has the opportunity to put this Series out of reach.
Countering this high-octane offense of Houston, we take a look at OKC who has become one of the best defensive squads in the league. OKC holds their opponents to 45% shooting from the field, lead the league in rebounds per game at 56, and are the eighth best team in the NBA in defensive efficiency. OKC is also the third best team in the league when it comes to scoring in transition, as they average 17 fast-break points per game. When looking at these numbers, it seems that this Series can be a meeting of an unstoppable force going up against an unmovable object. The clear advantage for Houston is their shooting core of Harden, Gordon, Anderson, Williams, and Beverly. Whereas the advantage for OKC lies in their brute physicality and force when it comes to players like Westbrook, Adams, Kanter, Roberson, and Taj Gibson. Oh yeah, I am confident this Series will be great.
X-Factors in this Series: The X-Factor for the Thunder will have to be the defensive specialist in Andre Roberson. Roberson will be matched up on Harden for most of this round, and if he can do a good job of making “The Beard” work for his looks, that will eventually pay dividends for OKC as the Houston star wears down. Ryan Anderson is the X-Factor for the Rockets in this Series, as a stretch four with a sweet stroke that will have Taj Gibson running around the three-point line trying to defend him. On a side note, the Rockets have a superior bench in comparison to OKC’s, a bench that will have to play like they are the better one if they don’t want this Series getting away from them.
Prediction: I am confident that the Rockets will win this matchup, but Westbrook will not let his Thunder squad bow out without a legitimate fight. I’m taking Houston in an exhilarating six games.
Los Angeles Clippers v. Utah Jazz: The four and five matchup in the West is a somewhat curious one. The upstart Jazz have finally made it to the playoffs after a five year drought, and are looking to make some sweet music. While the Clippers, who have made the post-season numerous times in the past few years, may have one final chance for some real success before changes set in.
A classic battle between old and new, this Series should be a good one. With the same record, both the Jazz and the Clips have had solid years in the West. The Clippers are riding a seven game win streak as they head into tonight’s matchup with the Jazz, while the Jazz won four of their last five as the season concluded.
Taking a deeper look at Los Angeles, they are an above average offensive squad, ranked fifth in the league in offensive efficiency. The Clippers are also one of the better passing teams in the post season, averaging 22.5 assists per game in comparison to the Jazz’s 20.1 dimes per contest. Where the Clippers really stand out when compared to the Jazz, is their fast-break scoring ability; the Clippers routinely average 14 points on the break, six more than what the Jazz are getting a game.
Shifting focus to Utah, the Jazz play their games at a slower, yet effective, pace. Second only to the Warriors in opponent field goal percentage, Utah is one of the better defensive squads in the NBA and when it comes to the Clippers beastly fast-break, the Jazz are the fifth best team in the Association when it comes to fast-break defense. If the Jazz can control the tempo and force LA into taking poor shots and going deep into their bench, they give themselves a real chance of beating this veteran Clippers team.
X-Factors in this Series: The X-Factor for Utah in this Series is going to be their much-improved center, Rudy Gobert. Gobert is a defensive big man adept at not only swatting shots and slamming dunks, but also at hitting the open man or cutting teammates. If Gobert can slow down the tempo on both sides of the ball with his quick footwork and surprising court vision, he can be a major asset for the Jazz moving forward. The Clippers X-Factor is going to be little-known defensive guru, Luc Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute is going to matched up on the Jazz’s best player in Gordon Hayward, and if he can force Hayward into bad shots and or get the Utah star into foul trouble, he is going to help the Clippers effort tremendously.
Prediction: Though it may not seem like it at first glance, these two teams are evenly matched and this Series will not be easy for either squad. With that being said, I expect the more experienced clips to take it in six games.
All Stats via ESPN.com/TeamRankings.com
All Images via Google