The NBA Playoffs first round is over. The Western Conference is heating up. Here are our Western Conference NBA Playoffs Semi-Finals Preview.
#2 SAN ANTONIO VS # 3 HOUSTON
For any NBA fans who felt like that the battle between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder ended too soon, and they got shortchanged in enjoying the battle between James Harden and Russell Westbrook, they need not worry. Even though the much-hyped battle of the two MVP candidates ended rather in an abrupt (and anticlimactic) five games, the next series — pitting Harden and the Rockets against Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs — should prove just as thrilling, if not more competitive over a prolonged period of time.
The Spurs defeat of the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs, despite taking a bit longer than originally thought (the series went six games), seemed to be such a foregone conclusion to basketball fans, that we perhaps, once again, overlooked just how brilliant Leonard played through series. For the series, Leonard averaged 31.2 points per game, two steals per game and logged 37.7 minutes per game of exhausting double-duty. That would wear out some players, yet Leonard was the most energetic and freshest player on the floor in fourth quarters. In the deciding sixth game, Leonard had 29 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals, all while giving his opponents the usual fits from his stifling defense, and better enabling his teammates around him.
It’s in large part because of Leonard that the Spurs finished the season allowing opponents the second-fewest points per game in the NBA (98.1). The interest part of that will be how the Spurs defensive pressure matches up against the high octane offense of Harden and the Rockets. Houston finished the season scoring 115.3 points per game, giving them the second most prolific offense in the league, while scoring less than one point per game, on average, less than the Golden State Warriors.
What Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni did with Harden, unleashing him as a point guard/”combo guard” hybrid that’s the centerpiece of an offense that’s rains down points from everywhere, is beyond commendable. Harden shed off the stink of his wholly uninspired 2015-2016 season and transformed the Rockets into not only the league’s second-best offense, but one of the 10 highest rated offenses in NBA history.
Everyone knew that he was a magnificent scorer, with the ability to drain shots from anywhere on the floor, drive to the basket and easily finish, or relentlessly draw his defenders into fouls (and sinking his free throws). But few people could have foreseen the way he made a mostly rag-tag group of role players perform so much higher than their expected output. Or, more specifically, nobody thought he could pass the ball around with incredible accuracy and foresight, in a way that we haven’t seen since D’Antoni allowed Steve Nash to do back in Phoenix.
The beauty of the Harden vs. Leonard match up is that we’ll truly get to see who is more valuable to their team. The Rockets might have one of the league’s most uninspiring supporting casts, with guys like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and the recently-acquired Lou Williams proving to be Harden’s most capable sidekicks. Meanwhile, the idea that Leonard is playing on such a talented team is simply not true. Lamarcus Aldridge hasn’t been nearly the same player in San Antonio as he was in Portland, and has largely been a no-show in this year’s playoffs. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, and Paul Gasol are at least 35 years or older (Ginobli is 39). Who else on the Spurs are opponents supposed to be afraid of?
For all the hype — and the subsequent fizzle — for the Harden vs. Westbrook matchup, the Harden vs. Leonard battle should be even better.
#1 GOLDEN STATE VS #5 UTAH
The series may have lasted seven games, but the Utah Jazz defeated the Los Angeles Clippers — a team that had made it out of the first round in three of their last five playoff appearances — for their first postseason series win since 2010. After finishing the regular season with an NBA-best 96.8 points per game allowed to opponents, Utah held Los Angeles to less than 100 points in six of the seven games they squared off against each other. Utah’s defense is anchored by center Rudy Gobert, one of the top contenders for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, finishing the year with the third-ranked defensive rating and third-ranked Defensive Box Plus-Minus among all NBA players.
But with all of that being said: do the Utah Jazz really have any chance of defeating the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals?
After Damian Lillard, the star point guard of the Portland Trailblazers, publicly stated that his team could beat the Warriors in the opening round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs in six or seven games, not only did the Warriors end up sweeping the Trailblazers, but they did so in ruthless fashion; three of the four games were totally lopsided victories by Golden State.
Golden State’s average margin of victory in each game was 18 points. They averaged 119.5 points scored per game during the series. In Game 4, which turned out to be the last game of the series, the Warriors scored 45 points in the first quarter. That was the most points ever scored in a first quarter of a playoff game in NBA history. Stephen Curry, who very quietly turned into an MVP candidate over the second half of the season, averaged 29.8 points (shooting over 42% from three-point range), 6.5 assists, and 5.3 rebounds per game during the series.
And the Warriors managed to pull off those numbers without the services of superstar forward Kevin Durant (still recovering from his knee injury) and head coach Steve Kerr (suffering from complications from his off-season back surgeries) for much of the series.
For now, Golden State assistant coach Mike Brown is leading the way with an experienced coaching staff and a veteran team that’s no stranger to deep postseason runs. But Durant continues to look more and more like himself, and the Warriors hope to have the services of injured reserves Shaun Livingston and Matt Barnes back from injuries for the second round of the playoffs, after having more than a week off since defeating Portland.
The Warriors and Jazz played each other three times this past season. While Golden State won two of the three games, losing their most recent match-up on April 10th by a 105-99 score, the Warriors have outscored the Jazz by more than 10 points per game in their three meetings. Utah did win three road games in their opening-round win over Los Angeles, and still sport one of the loudest and most boisterous home stadiums in the Vivint Smart Home Arena. But winning games at the Staples Center doesn’t even approach the difficulty of winning games at the Oracle Arena, where Golden State had an NBA-best 36-5 record this year.
It would be a stunning upset if Golden State did not advance to the Western Conference Finals. The question doesn’t seem to be whether or not Golden State will the series, but rather: how many games will it take for Golden State to finish off Utah’s postseason run?