An early Western Conference Finals rematch and some hungry newcomers in Portland and Denver.
The Rockets-Warriors matchup may be the most hyped West semifinals series in a long time, and with good reason. Houston may have trailed in the standings, but the Rockets posted a better net rating than Denver and Portland over 82 games.
But there are no Cinderellas here. There were no upsets by seeding in the first round. The strongest have survived. Let’s get to the preview and picks:
1. Golden State Warriors vs. 4. Houston Rockets
The big question: Is the Rockets’ defense legit?
For much of the season, the front office’s decision not to bring back free agent and defensive stalwart Trevor Ariza -- and to a lesser extent Luc Mbah a Moute -- looked like it might doom the Houston Rockets.
Following a brutal start to the season, they cut bait on Carmelo Anthony and brought back defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik in November. But for most of the season, the defense was hemorrhaging points to opponents like a team readying itself for Cancun, not the NBA Finals. The Rockets ranked bottom five in the NBA in defensive efficiency through Feb.1, with only a two-game cushion separating them from the playoffs and the lottery.
And then, sheer dominance.
Beginning with a Feb. 2 win over Utah when James Harden exploded for 43 points, 12 rebounds, six steals and four blocks, the Rockets dug in behind their MVP candidate and ranked as the fourth-best defense in the NBA over the rest of the season, winning 24 of their next 31 games. The defense didn’t look like such a liability anymore. Utah, a team that scored at least 109 points in each of its final 16 games of the regular season, put together these totals in its five first-round games against Houston: 90, 98, 101, 107 and 93.
Think the Rockets miss Ariza still? Actually, I think they will in this series. For one, the Jazz couldn’t hit an open 3-pointer to save their lives, which isn’t something to expect with the Warriors. Secondly, Ariza was the Rockets’ go-to Kevin Durant defender. The gory details: In 230 possessions guarding Durant last postseason, he held the scoring champion to 27.4 points per 100 possessions. In the 311 possessions where someone else did, Durant’s scoring rate skyrocketed to 48.9 points per 100 possessions. Yeah.
Sure, P.J. Tucker held his own in the regular-season matchups, but we know Durant takes his game to another level in the playoffs. His pair of Finals MVPs leave no doubt.
The Ariza factor aside, there’s a notion that the Warriors were lucky to escape the Western Conference Finals last season. Yes, Chris Paul sat Games 5-7 and the Rockets missed 27 consecutive 3s in Game 7. But the Warriors were plain better, and still are, by record and point differential. While it’s true that the series went seven games last year, it must be noted that it was the most lopsided seven-game series in Western Conference playoff history, with the Warriors outscoring the Rockets by a whopping 63 points. And the Rockets had home-court advantage.
I don’t see the Warriors winning that convincingly this time. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s ankles are gimpy. Harden is too good and the team is rested and motivated. With that said, I’m not sold on the Rockets’ undermanned defense enough to predict an upset.
The pick: Warriors in seven
2. Denver Nuggets vs. 3. Portland Trail Blazers
The big question: How will the Blazers handle Nikola Jokic?
The odds looked stacked against Portland in the first round. The Blazers had lost eight straight postseason games and dropped all four games to OKC in the regular season. Even worse, Jusuf Nurkic was out and Enes Kanter would be the last line of defense against Russell Westbrook. And what happened? The Blazers proceeded to bounce the Thunder in five games.
This Denver matchup feels similar. The Blazers are facing another nightly triple-double threat, except he’s 7-feet tall -- Nikola Jokic. Not only that, but the Nuggets won all three of the Portland matchups that Jokic played in this regular season, mirroring the Thunder’s recent dominance over the Blazers. That points to Denver taking care of business again, right?
Despite piling up similar statistics, Jokic poses a much different threat than Westbrook. He can exploit Kanter directly in ways that Westbrook and Paul George can’t without forcing switches or pick-and-rolls. I shudder to think about Kanter staying in front of Jokic’s ballerina-feet at the top of the key. If Kanter can’t, Portland’s options aren’t great. Meyers Leonard was almost unplayable in the regular-season matchups and Terry Stotts kept Zach Collins exclusively on Mason Plumlee and Paul Millsap this season.
Throw in the fact that Kanter is laboring through a separated shoulder, and it’s easy to see why the Nuggets will have an easier time penetrating the Blazers’ defense than OKC did. Steven Adams simply isn’t a magician with the ball like Jokic.
But the Nuggets figure to experience some stylistic whiplash in this matchup, too. The Blazers are a completely different team than the Spurs, both in size and attack. Portland rolls with one traditional big on the floor while the Spurs wield two. With Lillard and CJ McCollum leading the way, the Blazers launched 31.6 3-pointers per game in the first round compared to San Antonio’s meager 19.9. The Spurs prefer to run their actions inside-out, generating almost twice as many post touches per game than the Blazers, per NBA.com/stats.
It’ll come down to who can make shots (duh). Denver had the best 3-point field goal percentage defense in the NBA this season and San Antonio saw its 3-point attack marginalized even more than usual -- though much of that was due to Gregg Popovich’s distrust of sharpshooter Davis Bertans. I expect Lillard and McCollum to rain from downtown and neutralize the Nuggets’ significant depth advantage. The Blazers will have their hands full with Jokic, but I see Lillard prevailing again -- but not in five games.