Playoffs Preview: Western Conference Round 1

Playoffs Preview: Western Conference Round 1

Golden State Warriors (1) vs Los Angeles Clippers (8)

The Los Angeles Clippers are one of the true fairytale stories of the NBA this season. Like Brooklyn and Orlando in the Eastern Conference, the so-called ‘other team’ from Los Angeles was not supposed to be here. Its  reward is a match-up with the defending NBA champions and whatever the result, the season will be considered a remarkable success considering the team’s roster features a line-up of odd talent, on short-term deals.

The Clippers will struggle to compete with the Warriors elite starting five, but this team hasn’t exactly bowed down to anyone this season. Most teams can’t really flick a switch in the playoffs, but the Warriors are an exception. A roster containing four/potentially five future Hall of Famers is never going to be easy to beat. They’re great offensively. They’re great defensively. There are very few, if any weaknesses here.

The Dubs also had their way with the Clippers during three-out-of-four games in the regular season, where they forced an average 18 turnovers per game. Kevin Durant also stuffed the stat sheet against the division rival, averaging 27 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2 blocks.

For the Clippers to truly stand a chance in this series, they must limit turnovers and come up with a way of forcing the ball out of Stephen Curry and Durant’s hands. During the regular season, we mostly saw the Clippers use Avery Bradley to stop Curry. Bradley, however, is no longer on this roster, which leaves Doc Rivers with some tough decisions to make. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems like the natural fit to guard against Curry but there is also the option of unleashing gritty guard Patrick Beverley. Neither played Curry much during the regular season, but both can be expected to be physical with him in this series when given the match-up.

Offensively, this season, the Clippers have not had a problem scoring the ball, so we expect them to compete on that end of the court. This is a well coached, smart basketball team who have made a habit out of getting the fundamentals correct. The Clippers also hosted the league’s second best clutch offense, scoring 116.5 points per 100 possessions when the score was within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.

The Clippers are a solid basketball team and we expect Montrezl Harrell to set the postseason stage alight, but the lack of superstar talent on their roster will cost them. Next year, things may be different.

The Quick Release:

  • Stephen Curry has had another incredible season, averaging 27.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game
  • The Warriors have won 32 of their last 39 playoff games, and look to keep the momentum from the end of the regular season going into this first round matchup
  • The Warriors this season were one of just two teams (Denver was the other) to hold the Clippers under a point per possession in multiple games this season
  • Harrell ranked second with 17 double-doubles off the bench and third with 363 total points scored as a roll man

Denver Nuggets (2) vs San Antonio Spurs (7)

The Denver Nuggets have been next level when playing in the Pepsi Center this season. The altitude combined with a young and talented roster has meant opposing teams often struggle to maintain the level of intensity and focused required to beat this Nuggets team on their own floor. Their outstanding season was supported by strong statistical performances, not just individually (Nikola Jokić ranked second with 12 triple-double, ninth in the league with 7.3 assists per game), but as a team. They were the only Western Conference team to rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. However, history is against them. In fact, they’ve only been out of the first round of the playoffs just once since 1994, but after a 54-win season, expectations are high.

Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are all younger than 24 years old and will be making their postseason debuts, which is a complete juxtaposition to the wealth of experience dotted across a Spurs roster anchored by LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, who have 116 games of postseason experience between them.

The Nuggets will open with two games at home, and it’s critical for the team to take pressure off itself by winning both. On paper, the Nuggets have more talent but they’re also considerably bigger than their opponents. Expect Jokić, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee to have a field day. Only Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl have a chance at stopping Denver’s talented frontcourt. The best tactic for the Spurs may be to create offensive mismatches and force the Nuggets to play small ball as much as possible. If that happens, expect DeRozan to go to work in the paint, an area where he has thrived against Denver already this season.

Ultimately, whatever the outcome of this series, the Nuggets long-term prospects remain incredibly high and right now they’re still playing with house money. We expect Gregg Popovich to make them sweat a little.

The Quick Release:

  • Denver was 34-7 at home this year. That’s the best home record in the league.
  • Denver’s performances as a whole have dropped off significantly since the All-Star break, thanks in large part offensive inconsistency, going 5-6 over their final 11 games
  • You know that really popular show called Game of Thrones? Well you know how unstoppable the White Walkers are? Well… that’s the San Antonio Spurs. Just when you think they’re done, when you think the NBA’s model franchise is about to suffer a bad season, they finish just two losses shy of yet another 50 win season and post the league’s seventh best offensive rating.
  • The Nuggets ranked third offensively (116.0) and fifth defensively (105.4) when playing at home, which gave them a a 10.6 net rating, the second-best in the league
  • Denver’s Mike Malone will make his postseason coaching debut against Gregg Popovich, who will be in the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive year, with a record of 167-110

Portland Trail Blazers (3) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (6)

The Portland Trail Blazers have not had it easy in the postseason in recent years. Constant matchups with the Warriors have dominated the narrative surrounding Terry Stotts’ team. This looked a winnable matchup in February, but two injuries changed everything. CJ McCollum has missed 10 of the final 12 games of the season with a popliteus strain. He has returned, but in those two games he didn’t look himself, shooting 2 of 12 from downtown. McCollum has said he is good to go in the series, but there is a legitimate concern that he might not look himself.

The biggest injury was the horrendous one that Jusuf Nurkić suffered against the Brooklyn Nets in late-March. He improved this year after being baptised in the playoffs by Anthony Davis, and had a legitimate top 20-player impact this year. The injury is devastating for a team that has a complex front-court rotation.

Enes Kanter will likely get the nod at center as he started every game after the injury to Nurkić. Kanter is known for his offensive prowess but he didn’t look to have a good fit with Damian Lillard despite what the box score stats show. He routinely mis-handled passes out of the Blazers well designed pick-and-roll game, and he failed to make plays that Nurkić made routinely. Defensively there is also a clear drop off, and it is hard to see Kanter hanging in the NBA Playoffs, which causes switches that even the likes of Joel Embiid struggle to handle.

The Thunder were once again unconvincing to the naked eye under Billy Donovan, but they got the best possible matchup in round one. Paul George was their best player throughout the season, and his matchup against Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless could be what swings the pendulum in this series. Last year, because the Pelicans slaughtered the Blazers in the pick-and-roll on both ends, things fell into the hands of Aminu and Harkless as spot-up shooters. The limitations of these two were exposed at a great level with Alvin Gentry’s aggressive PnR trap scheme, so Billy Donovan would be wise to try something similar. Whatever happens, this series should not be used as a referendum on Terry Stotts. The roster is already very one dimensional, and with injuries to key players his hands are even more tied than usual.

The Quick Release:

  • Despite the efficiency stats, the Thunder were a much better team with Russell Westbrook out there. They scored 113.8 points per 100 possessions, which dropped to 104.5 when he went to the bench.
  • Jerami Grant quietly had a great year for the Thunder, and he could be the difference maker for the Thunder. His three-point percentage jumped from 29 percent last year, to 39 percent this year. His ability to be the small-ball stretch four, but also to make very impressive weak-side defensive plays are pivotal to this team. He is what Patrick Patterson was meant to be.
  • The Blazers were fourth in offensive efficiency this year despite no real notable additions to the roster, this speaks volumes of Terry Stotts’ coaching.
  • Seth Curry had a phenomenal year off the bench, shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc. Portland may want to lean on three-guard lineups to fight the Thunder’s size and athleticism on the defensive end.

Houston Rockets (4) vs Utah Jazz (5)

In what is arguably the closest match-up across the board, the Houston Rockets meet with the Utah Jazz in a clash that will see two polar-opposite offensive philosophies meet.

The Jazz run a system based on the purest form of ball movement as they rank fifth in the NBA in passes per game. Every player in the Jazz line-up can pass, and the importance of bringing off-ball shooters such as Joe Ingles and Kyle Korver into the game through creative offensive sets is essential.

After a poor start to the season, the Houston Rockets ‘evolved’ their offense into a controversial and divisive one. The Rockets scheme uses ball screens in the first seven seconds of the clock to attempt to get James Harden a driving angle or a pull-up three opportunity. If those screens do not work, Houston reverts to a 1-5 isolation. They run 22 isolation possessions per game, which is more than double that of the second most isolation-heavy team.

The Jazz are an excellent defensive team, and fresh off some advice from Patrick Beverley, Jae Crowder will feel up to the challenge. A major talking point for this series is that the nature of the Houston Rockets offense could nullify the excellent Rudy Gobert. The ‘stifle tower’ is the most feared rim protector in the NBA since Dikembe Mutombo, but Houston are content to take high pull-up jump shots, especially when they get a switch. James Harden could no doubt expose Rudy Gobert in an unfair way this postseason, which will be a fascinating narrative to watch.

Chris Paul has a contract that will look terrible sooner rather than later, but he does still provide some value as the secondary playmaker when James Harden inevitably gets doubled teamed. On the other side of the ball, Houston’s defense did improve after a historically poor start, but they will be tested in every way possible by the Utah Jazz. The ball movement and wing screen usage will test the aging bodies of Chris Paul and Eric Gordon. This should be a high scoring series despite the defensive ratings.

The Quick Release:

  • James Harden averaged 16.4 isolation possessions per game this season, which was the most in the league. John Wall was second, with 5.6 per game.
  • This is a match-up of the two best defensive teams in the latter part of the season. The Jazz were first with a defensive rating of 104.1, but Houston wasn’t far off with a rating of 105.2.
  • The Jazz’s three ‘gravity’ players all ranked well as spot-up shooters in the regular season. Korver (91st percentile), Ingles (83rd percentile), Crowder (71st percentile). These three hitting shots in rhythm will be key for the Jazz to control the tempo of this series.
  • Donovan Mitchell has performed poorly against Houston, averaging just 19.1 points per game on shooting splits of 39 percent from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc.

Feature photo – Getty Images / NBAE / USAToday / Double Clutch illustration