Western Conference Preview: Warriors in five and other first-round predictions

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Western Conference Preview: Warriors in five and other first-round predictions

The playoffs are here. Another dominant regular season by the Western Conference is in the books. 

In case you haven’t read the Eastern Conference playoff preview, go here.

Onto the West.

No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Clippers (Schedule)

How does Steph look?

The Warriors’ opponent was up in the air through Wednesday night, but this was probably the biggest question no matter whom the Warriors faced first on their three-peat quest. Steph Curry tweaked his right ankle on a move against the Pelicans on Tuesday night and sent a shiver down every spine in the Bay Area. The Warriors didn’t seem too concerned even with his long history of ankle issues, but the team rested him in the regular-season finale anyway.

Steve Kerr said he wasn’t worried. But I am. It’s still unnerving anytime an injury report pops up with “Stephen Curry” and “ankle,” especially when it came in a meaningless game against a tanking team in April. Did Steph really need to play his third game in four nights in Game 81? Apparently so.

The good news for the Warriors is that Curry essentially got the night off from a load standpoint, playing only nine minutes against New Orleans. When the series kicks off on Saturday against the Clippers, Curry will have three full days of rest to get treatment and protect against aggravation with new director of sports medicine and performance Rick Celebrini.

The goal is a sweep. That would carve out an extended layoff before taking on the winner of the Rockets-Jazz series, a bloodbath that figures to go long. A sweep is doable. The Warriors have six All-Stars on the roster; the Clippers have none. They blasted L.A. in their last two matchups by an average of 22.5 points, notably with DeMarcus Cousins in uniform. Golden State’s only loss in the season series was largely due to Curry’s absence with a groin injury back in November.

There’s a notion that the Clippers are armed with a Curry stopper in Patrick Beverley. The evidence says otherwise. Against all teams, Curry scored 37.4 points every 100 team possessions this season, per NBA.com tracking data. Dating back to last season, Beverley has “limited” Curry to 21 points in 44 team possessions, equating to a rate of 47.7 points -- and no turnovers. 

If anything, this is Curry’s ideal matchup and the Warriors should make quick work of the Clippers. Golden State has swept its opponent four times in eight series during the Durant era. This could be five if Curry is 100 percent healthy. 

However, I’m baking in a Clippers win powered by their dominant bench anchored by Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.

No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

Can Nikola Jokic still be a superstar in a chess match?

You won’t find a bigger Jokic fan than Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Back in December, Popovich was asked whether Jokic is revolutionizing the game, which elicited a very Pop response, via ESPN: “When I think of revolution, I think of people like Che Guevara, Ivan Illich, Lenin. I don’t really think of Jokic as quite a revolutionary. So I think you’re a bit hyperbolic there. But he is one heck of a player. When you look at him … he won’t take it wrong. He’s a good guy. We were in Belgrade together. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s a tad pudgy, you know? And he doesn’t jump out of the gym. He doesn’t run that fast. But he might be one of the smartest players in the league. He’s got skills, and he knows how to use them.”

With Jokic in hand, the Nuggets split the season series against the Spurs and outscored Popovich’s squad by 22 points in the process. Although he carries a reputation as a soft defender that can be exposed, the Nuggets held the Spurs to a measly 100.7 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court in the regular-season series. Fun fact: Jokic limited the Spurs to that number without blocking a single shot in 135 minutes. So very Jokic.

Elite offenses like Houston, Golden State and Milwaukee pulverized Jokic lineups, but the Spurs have yet to crack the code. However, there is evidence that an offensive turnaround could be coming for San Antonio. Denver's defense allowed the lowest 3-point field goal percentage in the league, but I'm skeptical they can keep that up in this series. They give up the most corner 3-pointers in the NBA and the Spurs have the best 3-point percentage in the league, especially in the corners where Davis Bertans shot a blistering 62 percent. 

The Spurs are a sexy upset pick because this Nuggets squad has never been to the playoffs and San Antonio played them even during the regular season. With playoff experience and maybe the greatest coach in the history of the sport on their side, the Spurs may finally solve the Jokic riddle. He certainly is talented enough to make me look dumb, but I see the Nuggets exiting in the first round for the 11th time in the franchise’s last 12 playoff appearances.

No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder (Schedule)

Can Enes Kanter stay afloat against his former team?

The Thunder know how hard it is to play Kanter in a playoff scenario when scouting reports and film sessions can exploit his clumsy footwork. In the 2017 playoff series against the Rockets, the Thunder basically didn’t play Kanter as the Rockets pick-and-rolled him off the floor. 

With Russell Westbrook on hand, the Thunder figure to do the same to Kanter in this series. In 60 minutes with Kanter on the floor this season, the Thunder scored 121.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com tracking data. In their March 7 matchup, Jusuf Nurkic was ejected just before overtime, forcing Terry Stotts to stick with Kanter. It did not go well. The Thunder ran pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll right at Kanter, who fouled the ball-handler three times. With Nurkic unavailable, OKC scored 16 points in five minutes. 

The good news for Portland is that Westbrook has been sneaky inefficient this season in the pick-and-roll, ranking dead-last in the category among 28 players with at least 400 pick-and-roll plays to their name, per Synergy tracking. Westbrook can be especially turnover-prone when he hits a wall and tries to jump-pass his way out of it, but it’s hard to envision Kanter providing that resistance consistently.

The Thunder won all four of their regular-season matchups against the Trail Blazers, but Portland won’t go down without a fight. Yes, they’ve been swept the past two first rounds and that burden won’t be easy to shake off, but this Portland team has shown the perseverance of the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” They went 8-2 in McCollum’s 10-game absence, with five of those wins coming without Nurkic. Portland has no choice but to go full-throttle as an offensive juggernaut in this series. The Thunder are a horrible matchup for the Blazers, but with McCollum back and Lillard elevating his playmaking abilities, I think the Blazers avoid the brooms but can’t avoid the upset. 

No. 4 Houston Rockets and No. 5 Utah Jazz

Does great offense beat great defense?

Buckle up, this might be the strongest 4-versus-5 matchup we’ve seen in a long time. According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index and Basketball-Reference’s SRS analytical measuring sticks, the Rockets and the Jazz are both top-five teams in all of the NBA. And since the All-Star break, no teams have been better by point differential.

This is a headache to gauge. If you’re looking to the regular-season series for some answers, good luck. Chris Paul only played in two of the matchups, but the Rockets struggled to maximize the James Harden and Paul tandem. In 53 minutes with the two stars on the floor against the Jazz, the Rockets were outscored by 14 points, mustering a pitiful 93.9 points per 100 possessions scoring rate. In that sample, yes, great defense bested great offense, but that was back in December before the Rockets began ripping teams apart.

To make things tougher, the Jazz and Rockets haven’t faced off since the All-Star break. In the Feb. 2 matchup, Harden was electric, tallying 43 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, six steals and four blocks in a 125-98 victory. Both Paul and Clint Capela didn’t play, and Rudy Gobert barely played in the Dec. 6 matchup because he was ejected for swatting a cup off the announcers’ table in the first three minutes. With Gobert on the floor, the Jazz have kept the Rockets’ high-powered offense in check.

If you zoom out to last season for more intel, the Rockets swept the Jazz in the regular season when they had better defensive wings to throw at Donovan Mitchell, who has been an inferno lately. In this series, Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers will have to pick up that assignment. Harden only defended Mitchell on 37-of-294 possessions this season. It’ll be interesting to see how the Jazz can keep Harden from hiding on the defensive end. 

In the end, I’m going to the medical reports to decide this one. Ricky Rubio, Raul Neto and Kyle Korver have been sidelined basically all of April while Dante Exum is out for the season with a knee injury. With Utah’s banged-up backcourt and Paul healthy, I’m siding with Houston to win what will surely be a battle of attrition. 

 

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

NBA’s biggest questions before return

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NBC Sports

NBA’s biggest questions before return

The NBA is back. Well, sort of.

No Stephen Curry, Draymond Green or Klay Thompson.

No Trae Young, Karl-Anthony Towns or D’Angelo Russell. Teams in large markets like the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks will be watching from home. Charlotte, Detroit and Cleveland: back to the big board.

But for everyone else, NBA games are upon us. 

For weeks, the league office, the board of governors and the National Basketball Players Association have gone back-and-forth on a variety of ideas with the explicit goal of resuming the NBA season in some form. Everyone wanted to play basketball. That was never in doubt. But not everyone wanted to play basketball if it meant a substantial risk of getting infected with coronavirus or suffering a major injury due to the extreme circumstances.

Following Thursday’s board of governors vote, the NBA believes it has a plan to account for both of those risks. But as they say, the devil is in the details. 

As much as we’d like to believe we have all the answers and everything is wrapped with a bow, the world does not work that way. There’s still plenty of uncertainty in this plan.

Here are seven lingering questions as the NBA proceeds towards July 31.

Is it, you know, safe?

“It’s about the data, not the date.” Commissioner Adam Silver said those words on a conference call with the media in late April while addressing the NBA’s eventual return-to-play plans.

Well, it’s early June and we have a date. The data? That’s another story.

The league and the players union have insisted that health comes first and there are signs that they’re taking that side of the plan very seriously. For one, they’ve planned to convene at one central site. Secondly, according to an ESPN report, there are plans for daily testing, which would be an enormous undertaking financially, logistically and politically. 

In my discussions with epidemiologists and infectious-disease experts, those were critical elements of a safe return-to-play plan, but there are still finer details that need to be addressed. Who’s allowed in the bubble? What kind of tests will those people receive? Does the league have the requisite supplies? What about hotel, food and maintenance staff testing? 

Above all, the NBA would be wise to have a concrete plan in the case that one or multiple people inside the bubble test positive. How many positive tests are acceptable? One? One per team? Does a positive test in August have different implications than one in October presumably in the Finals? 

In talks with teams around the league, this is one of the thornier issues that team executives need the league to address. A strictly-enforced guideline on how to handle positive tests would do a lot to strip away the emotions that can get in the way of making sound decisions and help the league protect its employees -- players, coaches, execs or team staffers -- from harm.

Not every team is in the same position. Take the New Orleans Pelicans, whose head coach, Alvin Gentry, is 65 years old. His top assistant, Jeff Bzdelik, is 67 years old. The CDC states that people 65 years or older are considered a high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. If a positive test pops up on their team, does the NBA need to take stronger action than other teams? What if they played a team with a positive test? 

Should Gentry and Bzdelik have to wear a mask on the sidelines? Should they be on the sidelines? These are thorny questions that don’t appear to have answers at the moment. 

And that’s just one coaching staff. What about referees? The NBA’s longest-tenured referee, Ken Mauer, is 65 years old. So is longtime NBA referee Michael Smith. If Gentry and Bzdelik have to wear masks, do Mauer and Smith have to wear masks as well? Can you officiate that way? And would the NBA let them officiate games of teams if they officiated a team with a recent positive test?

It feels a bit like we’re putting the cart before the horse. We’ve already planned a return date when one of its teams, the Spurs, haven’t deemed it safe to reopen their own practice facility because of coronavirus concerns

All these questions are tricky because there is still so much we don’t know about the novel coronavirus. But teams are hoping the league addresses them clearly in a league-issued document.

Will NBA players take a knee?

As the league plots a return to the court, NBA players, the vast majority of whom identify as black or African-American, are facing more than a deadly pandemic. Perhaps no one put it more clearly than former NBA All-Star Caron Butler, who said Wednesday night on the NBA’s official platform: “We’ve been dealing with two viruses: COVID-19 and racism.”

When it comes to social issues and civil rights, NBA stars have been some of the most outspoken in all of American sports. These days have been no different. LeBron James, who in 2017 called the President a “bum” for his response to Stephen Curry’s White House rebuff, recently blasted Drew Brees on Twitter after the Saints quarterback reiterated that kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful to the military.  

Players like Curry, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Towns have marched or attended rallies in recent days to protest systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of law enforcement. One of the most vocal activists in the country has been Floyd’s friend, Stephen Jackson, a 14-year NBA veteran.

While the NHL has plans for a return and MLB is negotiating for one, there’s no doubt that the NBA will be the main draw in town. As such, the NBA megaphone may be louder than ever. 

However, some players already feel a restart may be taking away from the larger societal conversation.

Los Angeles Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley is known as one of the fiercest competitors in the league, but he strongly disagreed with the renewed focus on basketball.

Beverley wasn’t alone. When news broke Wednesday of the imminent agreement on return-to-play, Brooklyn Nets forward Wilson Chandler tweeted: “Government can’t wait until the NBA start the season back. Need a distraction from the bulls*** that’s going on. Always in need of a distraction.” Miami Heat guard Andre Iguodala, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, San Antonio Spurs forward Trey Lyles each retweeted Chandler’s sentiment with supportive comments.

On Wednesday night, Kuzma went further, tweeting a photo of Brees kneeling with teammates with the caption: “This shows you that there are a lot of people & companies out there right now that will say they stand with us but only do it so they dont get bashed not because they mean it.”

League insiders have been supportive of NBA players protesting in the streets of America. But what happens if they take those protests to the basketball court? Or the national anthem itself? 

If NBA players decide to kneel during the anthem like Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players did, it will be in violation of NBA rules. In the Player/Team Conduct and Dress section of the Official NBA Rule Book, Rule 2 states: “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and lineup in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.”

In 2017, the commissioner said he expects players to stand and follow the rules. The players did fall in line, choosing instead to stand with interlocked arms during the anthem for several games. 

NBA players might choose a different demonstration this time around. Kneeling during the anthem is officially against NBA rules, but it remains to be seen what the official punishment would be if NBA players decided to protest in that manner. One thing’s for sure: The world will be watching.

Is the scheduling fair?

The NBA landed on a compromise. They could have played the rest of the regular season or gone straight to the playoffs. Playing the rest of the regular season would mean teams would have to play 17 games on average. The NBA decided to split the difference and play eight.

Fair enough. But who would those 22 teams play in those eight games? One idea is to pick up where they left off before the league shutdown on March 11 and play the next eight games on the schedule. Seems fair, right?

That doesn’t work in a league where eight teams are no longer playing. For example, the Spurs’ next eight opponents were, in order: Denver, Minnesota, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, Utah, Utah again and finally a repeat date with Minnesota. Minnesota and Chicago aren’t going to be in Orlando. 

So what do you do? If you take those three games out and move up the next three opponents in line, the Spurs would then play Denver, Golden State and Sacramento. Uh, oh. Golden State won’t be there either. If you take Golden State out and look to their next scheduled game … you find Golden State, again. The next opponent would be New Orleans. To just get to eight games, the Spurs would have to look at their next 15 games.

But that sprouts two more problems. First, the Spurs just replaced non-playoff teams opponents with playoff-aspiring teams. Is that fair? By pure luck, the Grizzlies have already played 15 of their 16 scheduled games against the eight non-bubble teams, going 11-4 against the league’s doormat clubs. On the other hand, the Spurs just got five of their easier games erased and replaced them with harder opponents. Yikes.

And that brings the second issue. The Spurs’ eighth game against New Orleans? The Pelicans would be long done by then. 

To solve this issue, the league could just scrap the regular-season schedule and play a new set of games with fairer distribution of games.

You might say, “Who cares? Just play the games.” Try telling that to New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento, four small-market teams that are all but dead-locked in the standings and fighting for that final playoff spot. Every detail matters. 

Of course, there’s nothing fair about a pandemic. But there are things that the NBA can control. This is one of them, and it could have long-lasting ripple effects, especially for small market teams.

Given the huge moats surrounding the No. 8 seeds (Magic have a 5.5-game lead on the Wizards and Grizzlies have a 3.5-game lead on three teams), schedule equity could be a moot point anyway. The play-in game (it’s not a tournament) only comes into play if the ninth seed is within four games or fewer of the eighth seed at the end of the eight games. Even then, the No. 9 seed would have to win twice against the No. 8 seed to punch their ticket. Not to throw a wet blanket on the bubble teams, but if you’re not in the eighth seed by now, you’re basically Lloyd Christmas talking to Mary Swanson.

Will players be physically ready?

This is not like the 2011 lockout. This is a pandemic, not a work stoppage. In previous lockouts, the players regularly played pick-up games, sometimes for charity in front of crowds, to stay in shape. This time around, NBA players haven’t been allowed to play five-on-five in months. 

Early on in the process, the NBA presented a plan in which all 30 teams would return under the bubble environment, but that idea was met with considerable resistance, according to league sources. Multiple players and teams expressed disagreement with that idea and would rather not play than risk injury and infection. Portland was the lone team that dissented during Thursday’s vote and its star player, Damian Lillard, went on the record in late May to say he would sit out unless the Blazers could fight for the playoffs. Lillard told Yahoo Sports he was just coming off a groin injury and that factored into his calculus: “I'll be putting myself at risk for injury and reinjure myself.” 

The Blazers were given that chance to make the playoffs and still the team voted against. While it’s unclear how much of a role Lillard’s comments played into the Blazers’ position, it’s telling that even a superstar with five years guaranteed after this season is still iffy about risking it. According to reports, the Blazers preferred other formats and listened to their players before making the call.

Imagine being a free agent on a bubble team this summer and getting your body ready to play potentially only eight games. Is it worth it? If Washington Wizards sharpshooting forward and unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Davis Bertans felt the risk wasn’t worth the reward, I wouldn’t blame him for sitting out these games to protect what might be the biggest payday of his career.

Athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and medical staffs will be hard-pressed to get their players ready in time for the July 31 kickoff. Three months of no basketball will disrupt the kinetic chain of joints, muscles and ligaments that make NBA players so thrilling to watch. 

On that note, prepare for some bad basketball as players work themselves back into shape. According to Basketball Reference tracking, the two biggest drops in year-to-year offensive efficiency in NBA history came during lockout seasons in 2011-12 (minus-2.7) and 1998-99 (minus-2.8). With a denser schedule and accelerated training camps, teams coughed up the ball at higher rates and shooting percentages bottomed out. Expect more of the same in the coming months. Basketball is back … ish.

What about the other eight teams?

The NBA’s 22-team return-to-play plan means we won’t see the Golden State Warriors in action until December. Here’s a crazy thought: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will go 18 months without playing in real games together. Life comes at you fast in the NBA. 

I hope the other eight teams will be able to participate in some sort of charity tournament or other competition between now and whenever the 2020-21 season starts (Curry vs. Thompson showdown, anyone!?). Nine months without playing basketball is a long time -- especially for teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves who remade their roster at the trade deadline and had almost no time to build on-court chemistry. D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns played in one game together in the 2019-20 season.

There’s also the issue of the draft and the draft lottery. For the teams that make the playoffs, draft order will be based on their regular-season record, including their eight “seeded” games. But for the lottery teams, the lottery odds are locked in as of their record on March 11. 

That eliminates the incentive for the Wizards to tank the eight-game slate in epic fashion, go 0-and-8 and leap the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls in the draft order odds. As my astute colleague Dan Feldman points out, that would raise the Wizards’ odds of a top-three pick from six percent to 15 percent. 

My hope is that the Wizards wouldn’t do that for the spirit of the competition, but the fact that the NBA pre-empted such an egregious tank job by freezing draft odds on March 11 is a tacit admission that teams are incentivized to throw games. We should just abolish the draft all together and let prospects choose their destination like we do for NBA free agents already. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Charlotte and Chicago have to be happy the league stepped in. If there’s a silver lining for the Delete Eight, as John Hollinger brilliantly dubbed them, it’s that they can finally move forward with clarity. The draft is tentatively set for Oct. 15 and the Bulls, who have picked seventh in the last two drafts, have the seventh-best odds in the draft lottery. At least there’s some semblance of normalcy in all this.

How weird is this going to be?

Super weird, at first. Are we going to have ads covering up the seats? Are we going to pipe in crowd noise? How much will that taint the viewer experience? 

We’ll probably get used to that, just like we’re used to laugh tracks on sitcoms. We better get used to it. Believe me, the NBA or the players’ union won’t allow raw audio from the court to be heard at home. That screams PR disaster. 

Even if they could offer an “uncensored” feed for a nominal fee to scrape together some extra dough, I’m guessing the unsavory stuff would trickle out onto the internet in no time. There are better ways for the NBA to have fans feel more engaged and closer to the action. Referee cams? Alternate broadcaster teams? NBA Jam-like flames when a player hits consecutive shots? Let’s get weird.

What does this mean for the NBA beyond 2020?

Even before this pandemic hit, I’ve argued that the NBA should kick off the regular season on Christmas Day. It’s time to make it a permanent change. Most fans don’t tune into the NBA until Christmas anyway (the league office programs its national TV schedule accordingly). The NBA has owned that day on the sports calendar. Just make it official already.

Although the NBA says that it will “likely” begin the 2020-21 season on Dec. 1, I wouldn’t be surprised if they buy some more time to raise the chances that they can get at least some fans in the seats. The commissioner has told players recently that ticket revenue typically makes up 40 percent of the league’s income, according to a report from Shams Charania. That’s an enormous pile of cash to leave behind in 2020-21. 

It’d be difficult to slowly re-integrate fans into the stands without shutting down for a period of time, allowing arena staff to reset protocols and observe new health guidelines. Perhaps the NBA can gradually fill seats on the fly without a pause in the schedule, but finding a sensible and healthy way to recoup ticket revenues should be a top priority for 2020-21.

From a fatigue standpoint, a Dec. 1 start for next season seems to be pushing it. The Finals will end sometime in early October and training camp would be slated for Nov. 10. Do we really want the league’s best players and teams to be coming into training camp ragged for 2020-21? After an injury-marred season from Curry and Williamson, I’d imagine the league will be looking to ensure every possibility that its top draws are as healthy as possible.

It seems the dates for 2020-21 are moving targets, according to reports from ESPN. My educated guess is that the league settles on Christmas Day as the 2020-21 season opener, pending any major coronavirus developments. A lot can change between now and then.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

NBA has more work to do after George Floyd response

NBA has more work to do after George Floyd response

Out of 30 NBA teams, 28 issued official statements on Twitter regarding the George Floyd killing. The only two teams that failed to issue a statement with the New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs, as of the morning of June 3. 

Spurs coach and team president Gregg Popovich condemned police brutality, white privlege and leadership issues in an interview with The Nation. The Spurs organization have not yet publicly backed Popovich's comments.

Out of those 28 teams, 26 cited Floyd by name, but only six official statements released on Twitter included the words police, law enforcement, or those in uniform. The Washington Wizards released possibly the strongest statement, notably doing so on behalf of their players, including the phrase, "We will no longer tolerate the assassination of people of color in this country."