Ahead of the 2017-18 NBA season, the prevailing thought was no team stood much of a chance against the Warriors. Few believed any contenders in the West could challenge Golden State in a seven-game series.
Then the Rockets shot out of a cannon and climbed to the top of the West standings. Chris Paul merged seamlessly with James Harden and the rest of the trigger-happy Houston shooters. Harden somehow managed to take his game to an even higher level — he will be the 2018 NBA MVP, and it would be silly to argue otherwise — and suddenly it seemed as though the Warriors might actually break a sweat before reaching the NBA Finals.
NBA PLAYOFFS 2018: Postseason odds for tight races in East, West
A Warriors-Rockets battle in the Western Conference finals sounds like a formality at this point. The potential playoff field in the West simply doesn't have the firepower to keep up with the conference's elite, right?
Well, over the course of the stretch run, the West has proven to be loaded with dangerous teams located outside of Oakland and Houston. Eight teams have been battling for the final six playoff spots since the All-Star break, and each has already reached 40 wins.
And when it comes to playoff basketball, health is everything. The dreaded injury bug has hit the Warriors. Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have all missed time with injuries. Stephen Curry’s ankle problems caused him to miss significant time in the middle of the season, and head coach Steve Kerr has stated that Curry’s concerning MCL injury will keep him out of at least the first round of the playoffs.
The Rockets, while mostly healthy, are still unproven. Paul has never been to the Western Conference finals, and Harden’s bizarre performance in Game 6 of last year’s Western Conference semifinals has not been forgotten.
The Warriors and Rockets will have to navigate difficult roads in order to earn a trip to the NBA Finals, so let’s take a closer look at the teams hoping to ruin their championship dreams.
(NOTE: The six teams below all currently hold playoff spots. The Clippers and Nuggets are not far behind, but for the purpose of this exercise, they have been eliminated.)
Does anyone want to play Portland right now? The Trail Blazers have won 16 of their last 20 games with Damian Lillard pushing his name into the MVP conversation. (Just the conversation. As previously mentioned, it's Harden's award.) Lillard is averaging 28.9 points per game since the All-Star break while shooting 36.0 percent from beyond the arc on 9.4 attempts per game.
But Portland is not winning solely because of its offense. The Blazers have the ninth-best defensive rating in the NBA (104.5) and sixth-best since the All-Star break (102.6). They are much more consistent on both sides of the ball.
With Lillard and CJ McCollum capable of carrying the Blazers offensively on any given night, a banged-up Warriors team and the unproven Rockets cannot take them lightly.
It has been a roller-coaster season for the Thunder. The offseason acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony (placed alongside reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and monster center Steven Adams) seemed to put Oklahoma City in a position to at least give Golden State something to think about.
But the star trio has struggled to play consistently together. George's shooting has fallen off a cliff since the All-Star break. Anthony is averaging a career-low 16.3 points per game while also shooting a career-low 40.5 percent from the field, leading to questions about whether Billy Donovan should still guarantee him starting status.
Still, the Thunder are dangerous despite their up-and-down nature. Westbrook is once again close to averaging a triple-double for the season, and he has improved his turnover margin. The Thunder are also one of the best defensive teams in the league with a top-10 mark in terms of defensive efficiency. Their net rating, often a better indicator of team performance than overall record, is a strong plus-2.9.
OKC defeated Golden State in two of the three meetings between the rivals this year, and the Thunder split the season series with the Rockets. If the Thunder can find a way to get Anthony into some kind of groove come playoff time and Westbrook and George hit their usual production, they will be a tough out for any team in the West.
With DeMarcus Cousins out for the year with a ruptured Achilles, the Pelicans have surprised many around the league by holding steady as part of the playoff picture. Even with Cousins down, they have managed to be very effective offensively. New Orleans is just outside of the top 10 in offensive rating in the league.
This is largely due to Anthony Davis playing out-of-this-world basketball since the All-Star break. Davis is averaging 31.1 points (53.6 percent shooting), 12.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. Davis should wind up in the top three of MVP voting based on his performance.
Even with Davis, the Pelicans do not have enough talent to beat either Golden State or Houston in the playoffs. Jrue Holiday has been terrific this season, but supporting players like Rajon Rondo, E’Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic and Ian Clark and will not be enough come playoff time.
Hey, Davis could be good enough to steal a game or two in a series at least. That's something.
Is it ever a good call to count a Gregg Popovich team out? Popovich has once again worked his magic with a below-average roster missing its top player in Kawhi Leonard for the majority of the season.
The idea of Leonard returning is what makes the Spurs so intriguing come playoff time. Without Leonard, the Spurs should not be taken lightly (they still have a top-five defense and execute their game plan as well as any team), but they won’t have enough weapons offensively to compete with the Warriors or Rockets. And that's without mentioning LaMarcus Aldridge's recent knee injury, which should be a major concern.
Spurs have a decent cushion on DEN and LAC, and tie-breakers over both (DEN tie-break still theoretically in play) so they should be fine. But their offense w/o LMA is a bunch of nice-looking hand-offs that don't actually go anywhere. https://t.co/Hy2PAzrkeh
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 28, 2018
With Leonard in the lineup, though, the Spurs become a frightening lower seed. Do not forget that the Spurs possessed a 23-point lead in last year’s Western Conference finals opener against the Warriors before Leonard’s ankle injury essentially ended the series.
A healthy Leonard changes things for the Spurs, and that element should put the Warriors and Rockets on notice.
Utah has been the surprise story in the West. Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell has shown time after time that he is capable of playing at a high level and leading an NBA offense. He kept the team afloat without frontcourt anchor Rudy Gobert, and with the "Stifle Tower" back at full force protecting the rim, the Jazz have managed to win 11 of their last 15 games.
The Jazz have the second-best defensive rating in the league (102.0) behind the Celtics (101.2), but that number becomes even more impressive when taking a look at what Utah has done since the All-Star break. The Jazz have dropped that mark well below any of the NBA's best defensive units (95.6). The Rockets are second in that stretch (101.3), and they aren't even in the same zip code as the Jazz.
It's unlikely the Jazz win a playoff series, but they will be a huge pain for any opponent.
The Timberwolves and Spurs have something in common. They could both use their stars ahead of the playoffs.
Jimmy Butler is targeting a return before the end of the regular season after having surgery to repair his right knee in February. Before Butler’s injury, Minnesota was fighting for a top-three seed in the West. In Butler’s absence, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague have played exceptionally well. Towns recently exploded for a franchise-record 56 points against the Hawks, using an array of drives, jumpers and long-range bombs.
The issue with the Timberwolves has been on the defensive side of the court (25th in defensive efficiency), which is surprising considering Tom Thibodeau is leading this squad. It will be impossible to beat either the Warriors or Rockets if the Wolves continue to play as poorly defensively.