With the NBA season drawing to a close, the playoff picture has essentially been locked in. Barring a complete collapse in the final 8 games of the season, the path for the Golden State Warriors 4th title in 5 years and their first 3-peat would start against triple-double machine Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Western Conference is tighter than ever, as first through eighth place are separated by only 7.5 games. Even by the Warriors’ standards, a 50-win campaign has seemed like average output and has added uncertainty and excitement to the playoff race. Numerous altercations between perennial All-Stars Kevin Durant and Draymond Green about KD’s impending free-agency decision has seemingly opened the door for another team to swoop in and steal a title.
Adding to the concern for the Warriors is their current 12-11 and 5-5 records against the Western Conference playoff teams and the East’s top 5-seeds (Bucks, Raptors, 76ers, Pacers and Celtics) respectively. In years past, I would say the Warriors could muscle through any issues and coast through the playoffs until the Finals. However, putting Golden State’s regular season series against the Houston Rockets under a microscope reveals plenty more concern.
A startling 1-3 record against Houston could easily be brushed off when identifying DeMarcus Cousins, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant missed 2 (0-2), 1 (0-1) and 1 (1-0) games apiece respectively. No reason to panic, right? I’m not so sure. James Harden and Chris Paul also each missed a game during the 4-game tilt, both resulting in wins for the Rockets. It is troublesome to me that Golden State could not take advantage of a wounded Houston squad on two separate occasions. A similar issue resonating across all playoff teams is the biggest flag preventing the Warriors from hoisting another banner this year. Success this year is more dependent upon the internal chemistry of the team rather than outside challengers.
The playoff picture as it currently stands:
|Western Conference Matchups||Eastern Conference Matchups|
|8. Thunder @ 1. Warriors||8. Heat @ 1. Bucks|
|7. Spurs @ 2. Nuggets||7. Nets @ 2. Raptors|
|6. Clippers @ 3. Rockets||6. Pistons @ 3. Sixers|
|5. Jazz @ 4. Trailblazer||5. Celtics @ 4. Pacers|
|Magic(0.5)/Hornets(2) games back|
Western Analysis: With the above previously stated, it’s hard to imagine Golden State getting toppled before the Conference Finals. The Nuggets or Rockets would likely be the teams challenging for conference glory. Before Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic suffered a compound leg break last night, the Blazers may have had an outside shot at competing with the Warriors. The tandem of Kanter and Nurkic vaulted Portland up the conference rankings after the All-Star break. But yesterday’s injury all but dashes the hopes of the Blazers matching the Warriors at all spots on the floor. The Rockets have already shown what kind of trouble they can dish out to the defending champs, even at less than full strength. The 2-seed Nuggets play a solid defensive brand of basketball that can keep them in games against the Warriors, but the ideal matchup for the upset is with Houston. I’m going to side with the champs and take Golden State to outlast the Rockets. Golden State lost 2 of the 4 matchups to the Rockets this season by 6 points or less and is in solid position to catch fire.
Eastern Analysis: There is a tight race for the final 3 spots in the Eastern playoffs. Based on schedules for the remaining contenders, Detroit should hold down the 6th seed and Orlando/Charlotte should grab the final two spots. Brooklyn faces an Eastern conference playoff team in every remaining game this season and it’s unlikely they make enough of a run to keep the 7th or 8th spots. Regardless of the outcome of the final seeds, I don’t see any of those teams winning a 7-game series against the Bucks, Raptors or Sixers. The most excitement comes from a first-round slugfest between the Pacers and Celtics. Giving the C’s the edge, Boston and Philadelphia are likely too inconsistent to top Milwaukee or Toronto in the long run. Give me the Raptors in 7… and the Warriors get their 3-peat in 6 games.