In any given season, only a few teams have a legit chance of taking home the title. This may seem sad, but honestly, this is merely the current state of the NBA. No matter where you look, many of the game’s great superstars struggle to lead their respective clubs to the promised land. Some, unfortunately, may never, ever get the job done.
Still, in the end, nothing is guaranteed; championships aren’t just handed out. Players must rise to the occasion and teams must be capable of enduring certain trials and tribulations. That is the beauty of the postseason, where competition tends to bring out the best in the best. And now that the 2017 NBA Playoffs are officially underway, it’s time to turn our attention to where a handful of the top teams in the league reside — the Western Conference.
During the regular season, the best in the West tended to be better than the rest (sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves). But in the playoffs, none of that matters anymore. It’s all about the task at hand; focusing on one game at a time, and advancing to the next round. Something that’s easier said than done if you ask us. Eight Western Conference teams still have a shot at championship glory. Of course, only four clubs will live to fight another day. Here’s a look at the first-round matchups in the Western Conference and how we see them playing out.
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers
The Golden State Warriors enter the playoffs with the best record (67-15) in basketball. Led by Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, the Dubs averaged 115.9 points per game (first of 30) during the regular season and had the top offensive rating (115.6) in the NBA. As if that’s not scary enough, this group allowed just 104.3 points per game (11th of 30) and finished the year with the second best defensive rating (104) in the league. Simply put, the Warriors are beyond legit — they’re freaking frightening.
This, however, will not scare off Damian Lillard (27 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 5.9 APG) and the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. This club put up 107.9 points per game in the regular season — good enough for eighth in the league — and finished the year winning seven of its last 10 contests. The Blazers are also sixth in the league in three-point percentage, shooting a cool 37.5% on the year. As far as we’re concerned, basketball fans couldn’t ask for a better one-versus-eight matchup.
Unfortunately, for the all excitement this series will inevitably bring, the Dubs are just too much for the Trail Blazers to handle. Aside from giving up 108.5 points per game (25th of 30) this year and finishing with a lackluster 110.8 defensive rating (24th of 30), Portland got killed in all four of its regular season games against Golden State; a series that saw the Warriors average 125 points per game, shoot 52.9% from the field, connect on 38.8% of their three-point attempts, and rack up 32.8 assists a night.
The Blazers might take one game at home during this first-round matchup. However, with the Warriors already jumping out to an early lead in the series, we’re not holding our breath for an upset.
Prediction: Golden State in fives games
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies
The San Antonio Spurs are already one of the most successful franchises in professional sports, and that trend continued in 2016–17. With a 61-21 record, Gregg Popovich’s crew made its mark on the defensive end of the floor, limiting the opposition to just 98.1 points per game (second of 30) and posting a 103.5 defensive rating (first of 30). On top of that, the Spurs were particularly lethal from beyond the arc, connecting on an NBA-best 39.1% of their three-point attempts. This team definitely has what it takes to be the last one standing.
But first, San Antonio has to get past the No. 7-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. This season, All-Star Marc Gasol netted 19.5 points a night while teammate, Mike Conley, showed why the Grizz gave him the largest contract in NBA history, averaging 20.5 points and 6.3 assists per game of his own. In his first season as head coach, David Fizdale also got the Grizzlies to tighten up on defense, where they allowed just 100 points per game (third of 30) and wound up with a 107.1 defensive rating (seventh of 30).
In a battle between two of the league’s top defensive teams, one club is going to break. Take a wild guess which one that’ll be.
While the Grizzlies split their season series with the Spurs, the playoffs are a whole different ballgame. And at this stage of the game, we have a hard time betting against the team from San Antonio; especially when Memphis struggled down the stretch, winning just three of its last 10 games. At this point, the Spurs already hold a commanding two-games-to-none lead. This series is pretty much over.
Prediction: Spurs in four games
(3) Houston Rockets vs. (6) Oklahoma City Thunder
Under the guidance of head coach Mike D’Antoni, the Houston Rockets made James Harden the point guard, picked up the pace, and turned into an offensive juggernaut. They put up 115.3 points per game (second of 30), attempted 40.3 three-pointers a night (first in the NBA), averaged 25.2 assists per game (third in the NBA), and finished the year with an offensive rating of 114.7 (second of 30). This 55-win Rockets team is the real deal. And now’s their chance to show it.
That is, unless Russell Westbrook decides to carry his triple-double averaging/one-man wrecking crew show over into the postseason. Seriously, the guy has been an absolute monster in 2016–17, averaging 31.6 points (first in the NBA), 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game. He’s practically willed the Thunder into the playoffs, and in doing so, moved himself to the front of the MVP race. If ever a first-round series was destined for fireworks, as well as bouts of individual excellence, it’s this one.
Westbrook is an absolute stud; no one could possibly refute this. But then again, so is Harden. And his Rockets are simply the better team. This should be a high-octane/high-scoring series featuring dazzling displays of individual excellence; one that basketball fans are itching to see. Yet, in the end, while The Brodie is talented enough to lead the Thunder to a few victories, we’re not sure OKC has enough firepower to take the series. It’s probably best to fear The Beard.
Prediction: Houston in six games
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Utah Jazz
The Los Angeles Clippers enter the postseason on an incredible hot streak. Doc Rivers’ crew ended the regular season on a seven-game winning streak and went 8-2 in its last 10 contests. The key to this team’s success always hinges on its health. With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan raring to go, we may finally get to see a Clippers team actually live up to its potential.
Of course, let’s not discount the Jazz. Led by superstar Gordon Hayward, Utah finished the regular season on a two-game winning streak, which included going 7-3 in its final 10 games. The Jazz won 51 games this year, and boast arguably the best defensive unit (thank you, Rudy Gobert) in the NBA, allowing a mere 96.8 points per game (first of 30) to go along with a 105.3 defensive rating (third of 30). Four-five matchups tends to be tight, grind-it-out affairs. That’s exactly what we expect to see here.
We could totally see the Jazz winning this series. Their defense is tight and the stage is definitely not too big for them. However, although we could envision this matchup going the distance, we’re not sure the Jazz will be the last team standing. Sure, they took the first game of the series thanks to a last-second bucket by Joe Johnson, but we fully expect the Clippers to rebound (we’re looking at you, DeAndre 3000) and ultimately advance to the next round of the playoffs.
Prediction: Los Angeles in seven games