NBA play-offs Western Conference preview: Spurs lack wherewithal to last long against Warriors, Trail Blazers bank on expert marksmen
The Warriors barely looked like world-beaters in the end-of-season stretch without Curry. But the reigning champions still feature three All Stars in Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson, and have been play-off-savvy.
Most NBA experts think that this season’s Western Conference is merely a two-horse race. The Houston Rockets, with a 65-17 record, were the best team in the regular season this year. The Golden State Warriors feature a gluttony of superstars and are still the most feared team in the league.
Beyond them, however, we are presented with more questions than answers. The teams ranked from number three to eight — Trail Blazers, Jazz, Thunder, Pelicans, Spurs, and Timberwolves — are separated by just two games. The ninth-place squad — Nuggets — only missed the play-offs on the last day of the season. A stroke of luck, here and there, has been the difference between home court advantage in the first round and missing the play-offs altogether.
But even the top two teams — Rockets and Warriors — can’t take their positions for granted. Houston are led by a trio of maligned play-off underachievers in coach Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and Chris Paul, who will have the pressure of turning regular season expectations into a deep post-season run. The Warriors have strangely underperformed this year and looked rudderless to close out their regular season. Their best player this year, Stephen Curry, is injured and sure to miss the first few weeks of the play-offs. Under these conditions, any of the lower seeds can dare to dream of an upset.
So here is an ‘upset watch’ for the Western Conference, an unscientific prediction of which lower-seeded squads are most likely to pull off an upset in their series. The following previews are given in ascending order, from the team least likely to cause an upset to the one most likely.
Rockets (1) vs Timberwolves (8): Sorry, did I imply that the Rockets could be shaky this off season? Definitely not in the first round. D’Antoni’s unstoppable offence has boosted Harden to a potential MVP award, Paul to ultra-efficiency, and a balanced, trigger-happy supporting cast to the league’s most dangerous scoring output.
While the Rockets play like the team of the future, the Timberwolves seem stuck in the past, featuring great individual players like Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins, but a slow and prodding offence, and — surprising for a Thibodeau squad — a shaky defence, too. This is Minnesota’s first play-off appearance in 14 years, and it will not last very long.
– Players to watch: James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela (Rockets); Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins (Timberwolves).
– Upset probability: 12 percent.
– My prediction: Rockets in 4.
Warriors (2) vs Spurs (7): Sure, the Warriors barely looked like world-beaters in the end-of-season stretch without Curry. But the reigning champions still feature three All Stars in Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson, and have been play-off-savvy after three straight finals trips and can flip the switch on both ends of the floor when required. San Antonio are extremely well-coached and always overachieve under Gregg Popovich. But they are missing their best player on both ends of the floor — Kawhi Leonard — without whom, they simply don’t have enough firepower to last too long in this series.
– Players to watch: Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson (Warriors); LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills, Danny Green (Spurs).
– Upset probability: 27 percent.
– My prediction: Warriors in 6.
Thunder (4) vs Jazz (5): This is likely to be the most entertaining series in the first round, presenting two teams similar in record, but contrasting in style and philosophy. Oklahoma City Thunder feature star power in Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, but lack offensive fluency or discipline in defence. The Jazz started this season without any stars, but feature an elite defender in Rudy Gobert, a talented rookie in Donovan Mitchell, and a deep, balanced squad of contributors. They will excel in defence but struggle to score. It will be a series that goes all the way, but I’m picking home-court advantage and Oklahoma City’s stars to carry the Thunder through to the next round.
– Players to watch: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony (Thunder); Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio (Jazz).
– Upset probability: 48 percent.
– My prediction: Thunder in 7.
Trail Blazers (3) vs Pelicans (6): Are you ready for offence? For the past few months (since DeMarcus Cousins got injured), the Pelicans have had the highest pace-rating in the league. Portland are much lower on the scale, but they feature several dead-eye shooters and will counter Pelicans' fast pace with their surprisingly good rating on defence all season. There will be a great showdown between two star players: Anthony Davis (guarded by Jusuf Nurkic) and Damian Lillard (facing Jrue Holiday). Portland will have home-court advantage and Lillard’s clutch heroics; but in Davis, New Orleans feature one of the most unstoppable players in the league. “The Brow’s” prowess could eventually be the difference.
– Players to watch: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic (Trail Blazers); Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo (Pelicans).
– Upset probability: 54 percent
– My prediction: Pelicans in 7.
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