With the postseason here, finally, these are the biggest questions for each Western Conference playoff team.
Two teams in the West are clearly elite — the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. However, the other six are nothing to sneeze at. Let’s take a look at what could be the potential hiccups for each squad going into the rest of April and beyond.
Golden State Warriors, 67-15 – Is It All a Love Fest Behind Closed Doors?
This Warriors team has looked unstoppable for the most part, and even with Kevin Durant sidelined for nearly a quarter of the season, they separated themselves and are the clear favorite to win the Larry O’Brien trophy. Golden State has the league’s best record (67-15) for the third year in a row, and have a superb net rating of 12.1 (per nba.com). The way they’ve been able to spread the rock among their four All-Stars has been magical, and the Warriors have a team assist rate of 70.5 percent and a true shooting rate of 59.7 percent. Their team defense is on par with last year, too, which is surprising.
KD has likely had his most efficient season to date, as he’s also had his best shooting season with an overall field goal clip of 53.7 percent, and a scorching 65.1 true shooting percentage (per Basketball Reference). He’s also made his case for making one of the All-NBA defensive teams as well.
Stephen Curry has been scorchingly hot these last few months, too, and we all know what Draymond Green and Klay Thompson bring to the table with their two-way excellence. The only real question for me in regards to the Warriors team is this — do things get bumpy?
Publicly, all the guys say that Draymond’s antics is what fuels them, and that they love his demonstrative ways. He was the one guy you would think that was the question mark in this super team scenario, and that’s obvious. Occasionally, you might think his ways of leading could rub rather low-key guys like Durant the wrong way, as it appeared that way before.
However, everything has seemed to work very well to this point, so I wouldn’t see Golden State having many concerns going forward. They still have a very deep bench, too, even though it’s not quite what it once was. Matt Barnes gives that second unit some edge, and they often feed off that.
San Antonio Spurs, 61-21 – Can They Compete At The Point Guard Position?
It’s remarkable what Gregg Popovich has done with this Spurs team with the departure of Tim Duncan, who’s maybe the best power forward in NBA history. The Big Fundamental was one of the better leaders in the league and that’s not easy to replace. It goes to show that San Antonio’s success is pretty much timeless.
Pop should get the bulk of the credit for turning what was a development project in Kawhi Leonard into an MVP candidate, as he’s now the best two-way player in the NBA. I’m not concerned about “The Claw” or any of the depth of the frontcourt and wings on this veteran basketball team. They are dynamite on their home court, and they can win a game anywhere in this league.
The Spurs play team-first ball on both ends, and you know that comes straight from the top down. However, I am concerned about the point guard position, which is loaded in the Western Conference. Tony Parker has all the playoff experience and pedigree in the world, and that’s important for your primary floor general. That said, he’s looked like a dinosaur this season.
Parker is averaging his lowest point (10.1) and assist per game (4.5) totals since his rookie season in 01-02. He’s also had the worst box plus/minus of his career at minus-3.0. He’s played a bit better as of late, but who can he guard on the other end? Parker will probably not defend point guards for long stretches, but he’s also not the same threat to penetrate and score.
The Spurs have only started Patty Mills eight games this year, and I’m not sure their point guard production can equal the levels of the other teams in the conference. Pop is going to have to be as creative as ever, although he is more than capable of getting this team to the promised land yet again. We shall see.
Houston Rockets, 55-27 – Can They Defend Well Enough If They Are Cold?
You know what this team is all about. Clutch City is all about the fact that three is better than two, and that James Harden makes anything and everything go. Houston has the frontrunner for the Coach of the Year in Mike D’Antoni, and they have wholeheartedly bought into his style.
The Rockets are second in offensive rating (111.8) and true shooting rate (58.3 percent), per nba.com. They are perfectly built around the Beard offensively, but the question mark of all D’Antoni teams in the playoffs is on the defensive end.
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If the Rockets have an off shooting night, they’ll lose. Going up against the two elite teams in the West who have great offensive coaching staffs is going to spell trouble for them on defense. Houston gives up the most paint points in the NBA with 49.0 per game, and they are just 23rd in opponent field goal rate at 46.3 percent.
That’s the worst of the West playoff teams. It raises to question: can they get enough key stops against playoff competition when they play superstars the likes of Russell Westbrook, Kawhi and Steph? That would be a tall order, especially in crunch time. The Rockets have the lowest clutch net rating of the West playoff teams. They will need to be more mentally tough in close games in the postseason.
Los Angeles Clippers, 51-31 – Are The Stars Fully Invested?
The Clips have probably passed their window at a Finals run. However, they are more than capable of shocking some people and having a deep playoff push, as they have a superstar in Chris Paul and a notable supporting cast headlined by Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick is pretty valuable, too. That said, this team has had its day in the Sun for a while now.
They’ve had unfortunate injuries at the worst times in the playoffs in the past, including last year with both CP3 and Griffin going down. This season they are healthier, but I just don’t like their potential matchups.
In the first round, they face a tough opponent in the Utah Jazz, who are third in the league in defensive rating and play a physical game at a snail’s pace. That could wear on them, and if they get to the next round, Golden State is their most likely matchup
The Dubs have obliterated the Clips in the last few years, and it’s hard to believe they would have a chance in that series. Also, you have to think that CP3 and Griffin have free agency in the back of their minds, as they both can be going elsewhere after the season concludes. I see a team that is past their prime here, and you have to begin to wonder about Doc Rivers’ future as the coach of this team.
Utah Jazz, 51-31 – Does The Lack Of Playoff Experience Hurt Them?
Utah has made incredible strides this year, and I believe they’ve surprised some people. Quin Snyder has done a great job navigating this squad through the West without a real star player on the roster. They’ve needed this kind of resurgent season because their best player, Gordon Hayward, could be leaving with free agency looming.
He has emerged as one of the most underrated players in the league this year, making the West All-Star team with career-highs in points per game (21.9), player efficiency rating (22.2) and offensive box plus/minus (plus-4.2). He’s the focal point offensively, and big man Rudy Gobert is the key to their defensive prowess.
He’s also taken a huge leap forward this year and is in the running for both the Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards. Gobert is leading the NBA in blocks, defensive win shares and is also first in true shooting percentage.
The problem is the offensive end as a whole for this team. Utah’s slow pace style can make it hard to get into a rhythm, and they’ve had a barrage of injuries. If George Hill can get healthier, that helps them, but I’m not sure he’s close to 100 percent healthy.
They will need to lean on their veteran bench guys with playoff experience because outside of Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, there’s not a whole lot of postseason exposure. That includes the head coach. Intangibles like that matter going up against coaches like Doc Rivers and Steve Kerr, and there could be jitters on the road for this squad.
Oklahoma City Thunder, 47-35 – Where’s The Help For Russ?
This team plays hard, and it’s amazing that they’ve won 47 games. Russ is must-see TV, and the numbers indicate that it truly is “Brodie SZN.” The Thunder have rallied around their MVP candidate, and they have some solid role players. Andre Roberson is perhaps the best perimeter defender in the NBA with his length and athleticism, but they need guys to help Russ in the shooting department.
Oklahoma City has the second-worst true shooting rate of the West playoff teams at 54 percent, and they have trouble scoring at times in the halfcourt. When OKC is at their best, they are getting easy buckets in transition from Russ leak-outs and I don’t know if they can rely on Westbrook generating offense for the rest of the squad against the best teams in the West for a series.
If the Thunder can hammer the ball inside, and get consistent production each game from Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, they have a chance to make some noise. I just don’t know what they can get night-to-night from their other players at the guard position and on the wing.
Victor Oladipo needs to play great on both ends, and they need to hit more threes as a team. For the Thunder to beat their potential opponents in the playoffs, they’re going to need to shoot the three better than their league-worst 32.7 percent. Russ is shooting that much better himself this year, though.
Memphis Grizzlies, 43-39 – What Role Players Step Up Each Game?
We know the narrative with this Grizzlies team. It’s about the grit and grind; their hard-nosed defense can give perimeter-oriented teams fits. Memphis is third in the league in points allowed, and they are sixth in defensive efficiency. They’re tough, and they are never an easy team to play in a seven-game series. Nonetheless, it’s the lack of offensive firepower that is still their biggest concern.
Outside of Mike Conley, who is having a career year scoring the basketball, and Marc Gasol, it’s fairly uncertain where they go for buckets on a consistent basis. Memphis has gotten more than they could have ever expected from a 40-year-old Vince Carter, and they still can get buckets from Zach Randolph at times. (So much for Chandler Parsons, right?)
It’s the younger guys that are the biggest question, though. JaMychal Green is a stud at the defensive end of the floor and has developed a decent jumper, but they’ll need huge contributions from him if they are going to matchup with the Spurs frontline. Along with that, can they get big numbers out of sharpshooter Troy Daniels and exploit mismatches for tweener James Ennis? Those two guys will be the x-factors.
One person the Grizzlies are sure to miss is Tony Allen, who’s expected to miss the entire series against San Antonio with a calf strain. He doesn’t produce much offensive, but he personifies their blue collor attitude and his one of the league’s most intimidating defenders.
Portland Trail Blazers, 41-41 – Can They Go On Huge Runs?
This Portland team is a pretty solid eight-seed. They were eighth in the NBA in points per game and sixth in three-point percentage. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were the headliners of their torrid offense, and they’ve remained in the NBA’s best backcourt conversation.
Let’s not forget about Allen Crabbe, either. He’s second in the NBA in three-point percentage, and they’ll need him to be hot in every game if they’re going to have a fighting chance against the Warriors.
The key for this Portland squad is if they can go on big runs and bring the fight to Golden State. That has to do with them getting strings of stops. That’s not likely, and the Trail Blazers are just 21st in defensive rating, making them the worst of the West playoff teams in that category.
If they are going to have any shot at shocking the world, they’ll need guys like Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless to be big-time stoppers and score efficiently. Hopefully, they can get something out of Jusuf Nurkic as well, whose status for the series is up in the air.
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