NBA fans are gearing up for the playoffs, and there is a lot to be excited about. Parity is not something we have grown accustomed to in the NBA in recent years, with the Warriors dominating post-season play, leaving little room for upsets by lower seeded teams. However, as this year’s playoffs are set to kickoff, the Warriors appear to be just a shadow of themselves, and are severely undermanned heading in to the most pivotal time of the season. Meanwhile, the Rockets have also seemingly taken a step back from their early and mid-season dominance. Both squads remain the clear Western Conference favorites to reach the finals, although all other six playoffs teams are capable of making some noise and taking down the top dogs in the West.
The incredibly close race in the Western Conference came down to the last night of the season, to our enjoyment. With five teams separated by just one game ahead of the final stretch of the season, and seeding still up for grabs heading into the final night, teams have been playing with their backs against the wall, which clearly led to an elevated level of play across the board. When teams are cornered, they fight back knowing that everything is on the line. They are no longer concerned with who they are playing, but rather come to the realization that they must fight and play together, in an effort to prolong their season.
It’s a great preview as to what we may see in the weeks to come.
This season, there are two familiar foes the top teams in the West should be worried about, even if their regular season was marred by ups, downs, drama and rumors: the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City is stacked on paper, and their level of play has certainly improved during the last week of the season, demonstrating their mental toughness and resilience. The Thunder were able to overcome a massive deficit at Houston on Saturday in a critical spot for their playoff aspirations. Losing that game could have pushed the team to the brink of elimination and a massive underachievement.
In a few days when the playoffs officially commence, the Utah Jazz will have their hands full with this squad for many reasons. First, just looking at the sheer talent that OKC possesses is enough to put a scare into the West’s top dogs. The combination of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Steven Adams can cause problems for any title contender, particularly when they play up to their potential. Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP, is known for taking over games at a moment’s notice, and it would be very difficult for any team to stop him when he’s playing his best. Westbrook closed out the regular season finale with 20 rebounds, becoming the first player in NBA history to average a triple double in multiple seasons.
Though he is not the only reason for OKC’s high aspirations. The additions of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George make the Thunder very dangerous and capable of keeping pace with any team offensively. While the Jazz have been playing well over the past couple of months, their path to the second round will be highly challenging. Whether they acknowledge it or not, Houston would be fortunate to avoid playing the Thunder in a potential second round matchup.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs will face the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, with Game 1 set to take place on Saturday at Oracle Arena. While the instinctive reaction is to think the the Warriors are the far superior team, a closer look at the past month tells a different story. The Spurs have been forced to fight and claw their way to an NBA record 21st consecutive playoff appearance, ahead of a first round rematch of last year’s conference championship. In that series, Spurs star Kawhi Leonard was able to guide the team to a massive 25-point lead prior to halftime. An unfortunate 3rd quarter injury to his left ankle forced him out of the rest of the game (and series), and allowed Golden State to surge back to win in dramatic comeback fashion. The Spurs were swept in the subsequent three games, and the rest is history.
As we look at this year’s matchup, there is one huge difference – Stephen Curry is injured and has been ruled out for the entire first round of the playoffs. Curry’s injury sent Golden State into a downward spiral. In the last game of the season, the Warriors were blown out by the Jazz to the tune of 119-79. The team has not done well in Curry’s absence, posting a 7-10 record over its past 17 games, and is limping into a first round against a hungry and experienced Spurs club. One of those losses was an 89-75 defeat at the hands of the Spurs, who will surely look to that game as a catalyst for the upcoming series.
While there is no word on the availability of Leonard at this point, San Antonio has already had to play at a high level without him for most of the season, including their late season push to secure the 7 seed. Since Steve Kerr joined as head coach of the Warriors in 2014, the Spurs have been his biggest adversary. Gregg Popovich always has his team ready to play, particularly around playoff time, and the veteran presence of Manu Ginobili, Rudy Gay, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker could pose a tough challenge for Kevin Durant and company. The Spurs will not go down easily, as they chase their annual championship aspirations. Golden State will also have its hands full with LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging 23.1 PPG and 8.5 RPG.
The Spurs are also one of the strongest home teams in the NBA, holding a 33-8 record at AT&T Center, where the Warriors have historically been horrendous. Golden State holds a putrid 3-26 (.103) record in this building since the 2002-03 season, marking the lowest winning percentage for any team in a road venue in NBA history (min. 20 games). If the Warriors plan to get by the Spurs, they cannot afford to drop a home game and give San Antonio home court advantage.