Welcome fans to our NBA Playoff Preview for the Western Conference. It has been quite the season out West. We are going to go in-depth on the first round match-ups. We will have continued coverage throughout the playoffs with in-depth analysis of games, players, coaches, etc.. Here are our NBA Playoff Predictions for the first round in the Western Conference.
#1 Golden State vs. #8 Portland
In any other season, fans of the NBA would be buzzing about a team that’s coming off a 67-win season. But, when that same team happens to have won a record 73 games just one season before, only to lose in the subsequent NBA Finals, that’s perhaps why it feels like said 67-win season may have been one of the most unheralded achievements in recent memory.
After all, with the acquisition of forward Kevin Durant, adding him to a team that just won the most games in a one-year span in the history of the NBA, the Golden State Warriors were basically supposed to win a ridiculous number of games.
And, as scary as it might seem, even with less wins in the regular season, all the metrics point to this year’s Warriors team living up to the preseason hype. Last year, the Warriors averaged 114.9 points per game, with a net scoring rating of +10.8 points per game. This past season, the Warriors had a net rating of plus-12.1, which is a measure of the difference between their offensive points per 100 possessions against their defensive points per 100 possessions. That is easily the best in the league, with the Spurs at No. 2 (plus-8.0). Not only that, but the Warriors outscored their opponents by an average of 11.6 points per game this year.
But, again, the regular season means nothing to this team. It’s all about getting back to the NBA Finals, and finishing the unfinished business they left with Cleveland. After all, that’s why Durant came to the Bay area, right? It was to give himself the best chance to win an NBA title. After missing much of the second half of the season due to a knee injury, it will be fascinating to see how he looks in the postseason, and how he re-incorporates himself into the Warriors offense, which played brilliantly with him through the second half of March and early April.
In particular, Durant has had a good deal of success against the Portland Trailblazers — the Warriors opponent in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs — this season, and in his last three games against the Blazers, he’s averaged 32.3 points. In general, including last year’s playoffs, the Warriors have beaten Portland in 10 of their last 11 games. Last season, Golden State eliminated Portland in five games in the second round.
For as good as Damian Lillard has been both this year and in years past, it’s hard to really give any credence to his quote that the Blazers can beat the Warriors in six games. The Warriors offense just appears to be too much for Portland to handle. Lillard and CJ McCollum are one of the most exciting back-courts in the NBA, but they’re going against Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who might be the best back-court in the NBA overall.
It’s possible that Portland steals one game from Golden State in this series, but it’s hard to see them doing any more than that.
#2 San Antonio vs. #7 Memphis
For the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies, it’s like déjà vu all over again. The two teams are facing each other for the fifth time overall in the NBA playoffs, having squared off against each other four times in the past seven seasons. The Spurs have won three times via a series sweep, but the Grizzlies also pulled off the shocking upset as the #8 seed defeating the #1 seed in 2011.
Could history repeat itself?
The numbers make such an idea hard to justify. The Spurs’ defensive rating this year was 100.9, the best in the league. Memphis’ offense? It was 18th in the NBA in efficiency, and limped to the finish averaging 97.3 points.
Point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol were once again brilliant this past season, but the quality of talent on the Grizzlies sharply declines from there. Zach Randolph is still a fine player, but with 15 seasons on his NBA odometer, he’s nowhere near the same dominant low-post presence that he used to be. After those three guys, Memphis doesn’t have a single player on the roster who averages double-digit scoring per game.
And then, there’s the fact that San Antonio has Kawhi Leonard, who has not only transcended into one of the top five-to-seven players in the NBA, but a very legitimate MVP candidate. Leonard was the best player on a 60-win team, a highly efficient player on offense, and one of the most devastating one-on-one defenders the NBA has seen in years. He has one of the highest win share percentages in the NBA; the Spurs offensive efficiency is 9.3 points per 100 possessions better with Leonard on-court. He has the most blocks, most steals, and fewest turnovers per 100 possessions of the major candidates. He also has the second-highest PER of the major candidates (27.7) with the second-lowest usage.
The Grizzlies bread and butter? Protecting the paint. The Grizzlies allowed just 37.8 points in the paint per game (defensively), ranking first in the NBA. Luckily for the Spurs, the majority of their points don’t come in the paint anyway, ranking 28th in points in the paint per game (offensively). The Spurs get a large majority of their points off ball movement, ranking seventh in the NBA in assists per game at 23.8. The Grizzlies rank 21st at 21.3 assists per game. Both teams play incredible half-court defense. Both teams are disciplined defensively, and force the other team to either take a bad shot, or commit a turnover.
The Spurs are entering this series on a much stronger footing, bringing a healthy, deep and well-rested roster up against a Grizzlies team that has stumbled to the finish line, losing 13 of 20 games late in the year. The season-ending injury to Chandler Parsons, who played only 34 games this year, put a pretty hard ceiling on the Grizzlies’ prospects, and simply earning a postseason spot at all is an accomplishment. Memphis might have split the regular-season series against San Antonio, but we know how Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich treats the regular season versus the postseason. Do you really want to go against him come the latter?
#3 Houston vs. #6 Oklahoma City
This isn’t your ordinary #3-seed versus #6-seed match-up in the NBA Finals. This is one of the most anticipated clashes of individual NBA titans we will have witnessed in quite some time.
When we go back and view the 2016-2017 season through the lenses of history, the first thing that will likely come to mind, in terms of the key story-lines of the year, will be the play of Russell Westbrook. By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard that Westbrook became the first player since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double over the course of the season. Westbrook finished the year scoring 31.6 points per game (which also happened to lead the league), 10.7 rebounds per game (the highest total among all guards), and 10.4 assists per game (third in the NBA). His record-breaking usage rate is interestingly juxtaposed with the fact that he finished 20th in the NBA in minutes per game, playing less, on average, than guys like Harrison Barnes and Trevor Ariza.
And then, there’s James Harden of the Houston Rockets. The NBA MVP award is supposed to go to the player who is the most valuable to his team. Of course, a player represents even greater value to his team, if that team happens to be winning. So, let’s put aside the fact that Harden averaged 29.1 points per game (second in the NBA), 11.2 assists per game (tops in the NBA), and 8.1 rebounds per game, giving him an overall stat line that’s very, very close to Westbrook’s. In the end, it comes down to this: Harden took a bunch of player who were rag-tag castoffs from their previous teams, and transform them into a collective unit that finished with the third most wins in the NBA this past season, scoring the second most points per game (only 0.6 points less per game than the Golden State Warriors, no less).
Westbrook has had some epic performances against the Rockets, averaging 36.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists, but Houston has won three of the four games. The Rockets and Harden have more depth and talent on hand, with ace 3-point shooters like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Patrick Beverley capable of spreading the floor. Oklahoma City has gotten a good season out of new guy Victor Oladipo, and the two-headed combo of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter still looms, but the Thunder have precious little else.
One key factor to consider in all of this: While Houston easily gives up the most points per game of any team in the playoffs, they still have the third highest average margin of victory per game in the NBA (+5.8 points). Oklahoma City gives up 105.8 points per game (fifth worst among the 16 playoff teams), and doesn’t even score a full point more than that per game.
With Westbrook on the court, Oklahoma City always has a chance to trade punches with Houston’s high-powered, Harden-led attack. But the question is: will Westbrook do enough to make his team better, the way that Harden has done for Houston this season?
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