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.