#8 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #1 Golden State Warriors – As I mentioned in a previous article, “Previewing the NBA Playoffs – Golden State’s Title to Lose?,” I expect the Warriors to handle their business and reach the Finals again this year. A tougher path lies ahead for their next title, due to chemistry issues, but this first round matchup against the Clippers should not present as tough of a challenge as it would’ve been facing Oklahoma City. Los Angeles has had a nice season since the trade deadline, tallying 17 wins in 25 games, but their talent is insufficient to keep up in this series. Steph Curry has proven numerous times that even pesky defensive talent, like Patrick Beverly, cannot contain the sharpshooter for long and younger players will tire chasing him around to have significant impact on the offensive end of the floor. The Clippers will face similar issues at each position on the floor trying to contain Klay, KD, Draymond and Boogie. There is valid sweep potential here.
Prediction: An early rest for the champs, Warriors in 4.
#7 San Antonio Spurs vs. #2 Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets were one of the more improved and impressive teams in the Western Conference this season. A stellar defense carried them to their first playoff appearance and best season in 6 years, while adding their first division title in 10 years. Mike Malone has done a great job of mixing an experienced frontcourt, while developing the young backcourt to be consistent nightly threats. The road to the finish line has not been easy though. A 15-10 mark after the trade deadline, and a 5-6 record to close the season, Denver suddenly has question marks regarding consistency. That’s where the problems start for the young playoff team, as a matchup with the Spurs and coaching legend Gregg Popovich awaits. San Antonio has performed quite well after the All-Star break as well, 15-8, including a 9-game win streak largely against playoff teams. One of the most efficient offenses in the NBA, the Spurs are top two in total FG%, 3-pt %, FT% and 2-pointers attempted/made. The Nuggets and Spurs split the season series at 2 games apiece and will likely go the distance to decide a winner. Denver was able to blow out the Spurs only once in their 4 meetings and San Antonio was 3 points away from taking a concerning 3-1 advantage. This is a very vulnerable spot for Denver.
Prediction: Spurs and Popovich figure out a struggling Nuggets squad in 7 games.
#6 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Portland Trailblazers – The Blazers are among the hottest teams in the league, 33-11 since December 30th. The acquisition of Enes Kanter was a large reason why Portland began to surge up the standings in the second half of the season. Paired with Jusuf Nurkic, the duo significantly boosted the team’s ability to put teams away on both ends of the floor. Rebounding was a critical area of improvement, but will be mightily tested in this series against OKC. After Nurkic’s season-ending injury, there are concerns of frontcourt depth. The Thunder swept the season series against the Blazers, even with Nurkic being healthy for all 4 meetings, and are a premier rebounding team. This series is going to be entertaining, but will likely result in a similar fashion as the regular season. Some teams just have another’s number.
Prediction: Thunder upset the Blazers in 6
#5 Utah Jazz vs. #4 Houston Rockets – James Harden and Co. really meshed after the All-Star break, rattling off a 20-5 record to finish the season. Despite dropping down to the 4th seed, the Rockets were an impressive 8-3 against playoff teams down that stretch. At the trade deadline Houston managed to upgrade their roster defensively with the additions of Iman Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, while adding guard depth in Trevon Duval. Splitting the season series with the Utah Jazz, Houston will look to have more efficiency against one of the top defensive teams. The Jazz have played well since the mid-season break, but have not really faced the toughest competition. 8 games of the final 25 were against playoff teams and Utah faired 5-3 in them. The Jazz enter the series pretty banged up and rested a majority of their players during the last game to heal before the playoffs. Houston has improved their perimeter defense this year and that has hurt the Jazz in their matchups this season. Utah shoots the 3-ball fairly well, BUT just didn’t do so against the Rockets. The tipping point in this series falls on the Rockets ability to control the boards versus the Jazz ability to get to the free throw line and hit outside shots. Something I don’t think will happen enough.
Prediction: Houston stifle Utah in 6
#4 Houston Rockets vs #1 Golden State Warriors – The matchup EVERYONE wants to see in the Western Conference should happen, but a lot sooner than most would have expected. Winner of this series will likely have a bit of respite before playing in the NBA Finals. As I outlined in the above referenced article, Houston is the greatest challenger to topple the Warriors this season. Golden State has far more chinks in their armor this season than in previous years, but I still think they have the firepower to advance.
Prediction: Golden State gets over the Rockets in 7 for the second straight year
#7 San Antonio Spurs vs. #6 Oklahoma City Thunder – In mild upsets (the whole of the Western Conference is separated by a mere 9 games), we get a matchup of lower seeds. The Spurs won the season series 2-1 and the pair produced one of the most exciting games of the year: a 154-147 double-OT victory for San Antonio. The key factor in this series will be the battle on the boards. OKC is a top-level rebounding team at both ends of the floor and helps to negate some of their shooting inefficiencies. The opportunity for second and third-chance possessions will be paramount to the Thunder’s success, compared to the Spurs ability to stay in games on limited attempts. Home court was vital to the results in the regular season series, but I feel more comfortable with the Spurs stealing a game on the road than I am with Billy Donovan out-coaching Pop for 7 games.
Prediction: Spurs make a quiet return to the WCF in 6 games
#7 San Antonio Spurs vs. #1 Golden State Warriors – Unfortunately for viewer’s sake, the best matchup in the conference will have occurred in the second round. The Spurs held a 2-1 season record against the defending champs, including a 6-pt win in the only meeting featuring the stars from both rosters. However, this is the playoffs and Golden State is at full strength. San Antonio may benefit from a tired Warriors team, coming off of the Houston series, but it’s inevitable the talent of Golden State will emerge victorious.
Prediction: Warriors reach the NBA Finals in 5