Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
None of the four Western Conference playoff matchups were decided until Wednesday night, the official end of the regular season. Every hour since has been a mad scramble for the coaching and video staffs involved—a frantic turn from focus on their own team to a specific opponent.
The playoffs yield the best basketball because of how tailored every challenge is to the team involved. Teams no longer run a base offense or defense, but one customized to their opponents limitations. It’s a deeply personal means of competition. If a player can’t shoot, the defense will refuse to guard them, broadcasting their disrespect to a national TV audience. If a player can’t guard, they’ll be picked on relentlessly until they’re removed from the game entirely.
What makes the Rockets and Warriors so frustrating is how few weaknesses they present—and how effectively they cover for them. The Timberwolves and Spurs, respectively, will have their work cut out for them. Yet in the middle matchups, we find two series ripe for tactical experimentation. The Blazers, Thunder, Jazz, and Pelicans all wear their limitations on their sleeve; each is so reliant on their top players as to be put at a precarious balance. The coming weeks will see all four pushed from every angle, testing their balance and their capacity to respond. And the lucky winners will have the privilege of enduring that same scrutiny once more—this time from the Rockets and Warriors themselves.
(1) ROCKETS VS. (8) TIMBERWOLVES
Minnesota’s reward for fighting tooth and nail to get into the playoffs is a dance with James Harden and the Rockets. I’m not sure Minnesota has the defensive chops to keep this series close. The Rockets swept the season series with Minny, and the Wolves had the second-worst defensive field-goal percentage in the league. Houston also has an extra motivation to keep this series short to give Luc Mbah a Moute a chance to heal from his dislocated shoulder. I would be surprised if Harden, Chris Paul and their gang of shooters don’t end this series quickly.
(2) WARRIORS VS. (7) SPURS
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Spurs are facing the Warriors for their second straight playoff series, and for the second time without the services of Kawhi Leonard. Golden State is not as magical offensively without Stephen Curry, but if the Dubs lock in defensively, this shouldn’t be much of a series. LaMarcus Aldridge has been great this year, but it’s hard to shake the memories of him struggling against the Warriors last postseason. Will Aldridge be enough in the face of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson? This series should reveal if the Warriors are capable of flipping the switch, because the Spurs will make them work. If Golden State is locked in, this series won’t last long. It comes down to if the first round will actually grab the Warriors’ attention.
(3) BLAZERS VS. (6) PELICANS
Anthony Davis is in the playoffs for only the second time in his career, while the Blazers are hoping to continue the success of a strong second half. These teams are pretty evenly matched, with both entering the last night of the season with 1.8 net ratings. The Pelicans have found life in a post-DeMarcus Cousins world by relentlessly feeding Davis and inexplicably letting Emeka Okafor anchor their defense to solid results. Nikola Mirotic has added a nice spacing punch in New Orleans, and lineups with Davis at center are thriving. Portland’s success is predicated on its defense, but I’m curious how it will hold up when the Pelicans spread the floor. The role players are going to be important here. If the Blazers’ wings hit their threes, they become nearly impossible to beat. Meanwhile, Dame and C.J. are liable to win a game themselves by going supernova from three. I’m excited for this series, and I’m really tempted to pick the Pelicans.
(4) THUNDER VS. (5) JAZZ
After Gordon Hayward left Utah and OKC added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, who would have guessed the Jazz and Thunder would meet in the first round of the playoffs? The Thunder won the season series 3–1, but the last time these teams played was in December, before the Jazz transformed into a defensive juggernaut. This is going to be a test for the Thunder. Their offense grows stagnant at times, and Rudy Gobert will loom large in the paint. OKC seemingly has the talent advantage. The Jazz have the No. 1 net rating in the NBA since the All-Star break. If the game slows down, as it often does this time of year, that would seemingly favor Utah’s grindy nature. Something to keep an eye on? The Thunder initially found success with Corey Brewer playing in place of Andre Roberson. The lineup of Russ, PG, Melo, Brewer and Steven Adams eventually finished the season with a net rating close to 0, though. The Jazz could very well pull this off.