Alright we finally made it! Playoff NBA basketball is here, you know, the time of year where players actually try for a FULL 48 minutes, there’s no back to backs, and if the last few years are any indication, history is on the horizon.
There’s a strong chance that a majority of people did not pay much attention to the 2016-17 season, and are checking in now that the games matter. You didn’t want to watch Pelicans/Nets in mid January? That’s OK, it does take a certain level of sickness to be interested in that. As a result, I’m going to give you everything you need to know about the first round matchups for each conference so you can be all caught up by tipoff on Saturday. We’ll start today with the Western Conference, as this is without a doubt the deeper conference with more interesting matchups, and we’ll follow up with the East in the next day or so. Here we go
(1) Golden State Warriors (67-15) vs (8) Portland Trail Blazers (41-41)
Head-to-head record: GS won 4-0
Starting Units: GS – Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia (lol) POR – Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Noah Vonleh, Jusuf Nurkic
On the surface, this should be a quick 4-0 sweep for the best team in the NBA. Here is the margin of victory in each of GS’s four wins: 17, 45, 28, 2. Something tells me that close game was more a freak occurrence than reason for all the brand new Warriors fans to feel a little nervous. While the Warriors have personal experience in extremely lopsided 1 vs 8 upsets, but there’s a reason the Warriors have a 71.9% chance to win the title and Portland is less than 0.1%. There’s no denying that POR has the talent at the guard positions to hand with GS, the problem really is everything else. Lillard and McCollum can keep up the pace offensively with any other guard pairing in the league, at the end of the day though they don’t have nearly enough help.
The case for POR: Since March 2nd, POR actually has been playing some pretty solid basketball. They are 17-6 over that span, and that includes a one point loss in OT to WSH. The encouraging part of that run is they held their opponent to under 100 points 7 times, including 3 of the last 4, so you could make the argument that they are heading into the playoffs playing their best basketball of the season. A lot of that has to do with the addition of Nurkic, who has absolutely flourished in POR. The Blazers were 24-33 at the trade deadline, and currently sit at 41-41.
If POR is going to have ANY shot to even win a game or two, they are going to have to adjust how they play to some degree. For example, their 53% assist rate is going to have to be much higher. They finished the year 24th in assists. You can’t beat GS playing primarily iso ball. They also need to bank of the fact that they will continue to be the best pick and roll offense in the NBA. POR averaged 0.95 points per possession out of the P&R which led the league, but they ran it just 20.3% of their possessions, which is good for 7th. Among Western Conference teams that made the playoffs, only the LAC have a higher scoring frequency out of the P&R than POR. If it were me, I would run 100000 of these a game with Lillard/Nurkic and have McCollum in the corner (where he shoots over 41%) so GS can’t cheat. Like this in a way
The key will be finding a way to run this set away from Draymond Green who is a nightmare in P&R coverage.
The case for GS: Over that same time period since March 2nd, the Warriors are 17-5. That might sound similar to what POR has done, only they’ve won 15 of their last 16 so not really. And that was primarily without Durant. What’s the case for GS? They simply need to wake up and roll out of bed if we’re being honest.
Greenie Pick: GS in 5
(2) San Antonio Spurs (61-21) vs (7) Memphis Grizzlies (43-39)
Head-to-head record: Split 2-2
Starting Units: SAS – Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dewayne Dedmon MEM – Mike Conley, Tony Allen (might not play), Vince Carter, JaMychal Green, Marc Gasol
Now we’re cooking! I’m not saying it will happen, but if you’re looking at a potential WC series that could be an “upset” I’m leaning towards this matchup. The Spurs/Grizzlies have serious playoff history. There was the Spurs first round sweep last year, the Spurs sweep in the Conference Finals in 2013, and the Grizzlies first round win in 2011 just to name a few. By looking at just records, SA should walk through this without any trouble as they are 14-4 all time against MEM in the postseason. But the deeper you look, it may not be that easy.
The case for MEM: As I mentioned they split the season series against the Spurs, and in all honesty had every opportunity to win it and here’s why. This version of MEM plays this version of SA very well. After blowing out the Spurs in their first meeting, every game that followed was decided by 8 points of less, and included an OT win by SA in the finale. This wasn’t a case of these games being spread out over the course of the year so perhaps one team was still finding its footing. All of these games came after Feb 6th. Did you know MEM holds SA to its lowest scoring averaging among any WC team (93.0ppg). They have just 42/34% splits against the MEM defense, which means this series is going to be a true defensive battle. Almost the exact opposite of the GS/POR series.
For MEM to have success in this series, they are going to have to a couple things on the offensive end. For example, factoring in how lethal SA is on the defensive end, it would be advantageous for MEM to run their offense fairly quickly, and take shots as early as possible into the shot clock. This is somewhat of a change from their slow pace, but it might be beneficial. When they shoot between 22-18 seconds, their FG% is 50.5%. When they shoot between 18-15 seconds, it’s still a respectable 46%. The problem is the longer they hold onto the ball, the worse it gets. Not a great sign when you shoot 42% on 7-4 seconds and 35% on 4-0 seconds.
It also should be noted that this starting five has a +15.7 Net rating. They have a really solid offensive rating (118.3) and pair it with a more than solid defensive rating (102.6) so the Spurs are without a doubt getting the best version of these Grizzlies.
*If Tony Allen legit misses this series, forget everything I just said.
The case for SA: Well for one, they have Pop and an MVP candidate, so you can never count the Spurs out. Nobody knows how they are able to be this good for this long, we just accept it. You don’t win 61 games by accident. You know how I threw those defensive stats out there for MEM? Well SA is even better, holding MEM to just 90ppg with 40/32% splits. The Spurs want to slow you down which is evident by their 96.5 pace (27th in NBA), and when they do that, they usually crush your soul. I’d say it works in their favor that MEM plays at a SLOWER pace of 94.8 (28th in NBA). Much like every year the Spurs are relatively average offensively, but are so successful because they know how to move the ball. If they can maintain their 60% assist rate, and continue to be one of the best teams in the league in catch and shoot scenarios, when you add in their defense and the ridiculousness that is Kawhi, SA should advance.
Greenie Pick: Spurs in 6
(3) Houston Rockets (55-27) vs (6) Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35)
Head-to-head record: HOU won 3-1
Starting Units: HOU – James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela OKC – Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Domantas Sabonis, Steven Adams
Another must see series. At the time of writing this we have no idea who the MVP will be (in fact we won’t know until June 26th), but how could you not love a matchup between the two MVP favorites? The story of these two teams has been pretty consistent throughout the year. Westbrook and Harden go crazy, but OKC simply can’t beat them. Could that change?
The case for HOU: Look you don’t wind up with the third best record in the NBA by accident. The way Harden & Co has embraced Mike D’Antoni’s system is truly one of the big stories of the season. The offensive explosion that comes with this style of play is to be expected, but that’s not the reason HOU has a strong chance to get out of the first round. The reason you can make a case for HOU in this series is because they essentially force OKC to play small, something that is not their strength. While Sabonis is somewhat of a stretch four, he certainly isn’t good at defending the perimeter, where Ryan Anderson has about five houses. The biggest factor between these two teams will be the second unit. Every time they’ve played, that’s usually the difference. The Thunder bench simply can’t defend well enough to slow down the Rockets reserves.
But let’s not sugarcoat it, if HOU is going to win this series it’s going to because Harden continues to dominate people in the P&R. Every team runs a high P&R, but few do it with the amount of weapons HOU has. You can’t cheat off Harden because he can pull up in your face, you can’t sag and try and clog the lane against Harden because he’ll find one of the billion three point shooters. Just look at this offense
Good luck stopping that with a defense that on average gives up 105.8 points per game.
The case for OKC: It is very possible that Westbrook goes absolutely bonkers and single handedly wins this series for OKC. His 27.3/10/9.5 averages against the Rockets certainly make that not the most wild statement of all time, but really he’s the ultimate wild card. Clearly Westbrook has been on a mission ever since July 4th, and when you look closer at how this team matches up with HOU, there are encouraging signs. For example, the starting unit against HOU this season has a defensive rating of 99.6, has a TS% of 59% and plays at a pace that would be 5th in the NBA. With rotations shortening in the playoffs, the fact that OKC won’t have to rely on their bench as much against the Rockets will make a gigantic difference. It doesn’t matter what combination of bench players play against HOU, it has been a total and complete disaster. Defensive ratings skyrocket, offensive ratings plummet. One would think that limiting the minutes the OKC reserves play should make this a little closer of a series than what we saw during the regular season.
Greenie Pick: Rockets in 6
(4) LA Clippers (51-31) vs (5) Utah Jazz (51-31)
Head-to-head record: LAC won 3-1
Starting Units: LAC – Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan UTA – George Hill, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Joe Ingles
Are the Clippers finally not going to shit their pants? Is this the matchup that will produce an upset in the West? Did Utah overachieve or are they this good? All of these are great questions. A classic veteran vs kid situation here. This Clippers team has been together what seems like forever, never quite getting over that hump (people forget CP3 has never made a Conference Finals). Utah is a fast rising Western Conference team with LEGIT young talent and a good coach, who is having their best season since 2009-10.
The case for UTA: You throw out a breakout year from a first time All Star in Hayward, the potential DPOY in Gobert, a point guard in Hill that is having a career year, and add in the fact that the Jazz have the best defense in the NBA, and you can understand why people are liking the Jazz in this series. For me, this is all going to come down to which team can make the other change their style of play. The Jazz play at the slowest pace in the league (93.6). They want to slow you down and make you beat their devastating half court defense. Some might call this a boring style of play, but in the playoffs it’s almost the perfect approach.
Their problem is going to come on the offensive end. Their offense’s efficiency is average at best, and they only score around 100 a game. That’s not going to be enough if they have to get into a shootout. In looking at how their offense excels, their best bet is to have frequent P&Rs with Hill/Gobert. Hill averages 1.0 points per possession as the primary ball handler here, and Gobert a 1.38 points per possession as the roll man. What make the Jazz a potential tough out, is they can run this with pretty much anyone on their roster. If you’ve watched them play you notice that almost every one of their possessions involves some sort of high screen, only it doesn’t always have to come from a big
The case for LAC: Well for starters, they’re healthy for the first time in what seems like forever. They finished a year with a better point differential than UTA, which in the playoffs is a metric you can put some weight into. They’re also entering the playoffs winners of seven straight, have the 6th best scoring offense in the league, block absolutely everything, don’t really turn it over, and keep you honest by having the ability to play both inside and outside. If this game was played simply on paper, you take LAC in a sweep. The way they played the last few weeks of the season, and the teams they beat (CLE, UTA, WSH, SA, HOU) I think that gives us a glimpse as to how they stack up against good competition when healthy.
Their problem is the exact opposite from Utah, their defense is average at best (minus rim protection). Almost every defensive metric you look at, the Clippers rank right smack in the middle of the pack. If you believe the Clippers are going to win this series you’re basically banking on the fact that not only will talent win out, but that playoff experience will help them combat a stingy defense. It should be mentioned though, with CP3 and Blake’s ability to opt out after this year, can’t you see a brutal series being the final straw and them hitting free agency?
Greenie Pick: Utah in 7
Do I feel great about mostly going chalk in the first round? Not really, but the top half of the West is just too nasty to think there are going to be more than one upset at most in the first round for this conference in my opinion. Either way, with all the storylines within each series, it should be great basketball no matter what happens.