Of the 16 teams to win 65 or more games in the season, only three have failed to win the NBA title. So why don’t we just engrave the Golden State Warriors on the Larry O’Brien trophy? Because of the way this season has played out, there’s a good chance the 67-win Warriors could be the fourth team on the opening statement. While scoping out the Western Conference playoffs landscape, you’ll see that there was a blood bath. You know how it goes, only the strong survive.
The defending champs only managed to finish third in their division; all five teams from the Southwest division made the playoffs. Let’s take a look at the Western Conference playoffs pairings.
No. 1 Golden State Warriors
Unquestionably the best team throughout the 82-game regular season. They’re quite the popular team mainly because of their sweet shooting back court tandem of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. What the casual fan might not know is that they rate as the Association’s best defense based on points scored per 100 possessions.
Their modus operandi is ball movement compounded with complex player movement. The outside shooting scares opponents into hugging the arc and leaves so much space in the middle. Andrew Bogut or another big is often found with the ball free throw line extended and a quick perimeter player is always cutting to the hoop for an easy bucket.
They will fall if only a more playoff tested team is matched up against them that can impose their system and out execute the Warriors.
No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans
All season long, they hovered on the outside of the playoffs frame. They could have given up because nobody expected them to succeed. They could have used injury as an excuse; a lot of their key contributors missed some time this season, including Anthony Davis’s 14 games. The Jrue Holiday injury helped the team more than hurt because they’re a much more potent offense when Tyreke Evans is running the offense.
Their modus operandi is ball movement balanced between passing (all three perimeter starters are great passers) and isolation plays; even in isolation, the players make quick decisions and often feign the dribble handoff that opens the floor for lobs to the rim.
They will fall because they lack playoff experience but mostly because they are not yet a cohesive unit on defense. They should use this season as a stepping stone and do their best to keep this team together.
Warriors over the Pelicans in five games: I don’t foresee a sweep at all; the teams split the two games that “The Brow” played in. This is a lopsided matchup but home cooking and the crowd noise will help the upstarts win one game.
No. 2 Houston Rockets
It is quite impressive that they were able to land the two seed in the rugged Western Conference with all of the injuries they suffered during the course of the season. Most only think of Dwight Howard when discussing Rockets injuries but key contributor Terrence Jones missed almost 50 games, they’ll also be without starting point guard Patrick Beverley who missed the last 26, and the recently ruled-out Donatas Motiejunas.
Their modus operandi is anything that analytics say is good. They to do everything in their power to end each possession with a shot attempt at the rim, free throws or a corner three-point field goal; James Harden is the poster child for advanced metrics as he led the Association in free throw attempts and was fifth in three-point attempts.
They will fall if they don’t get contributions from Harden’s supporting cast. The playoff schedule offers Howard time to rest between games, he should see close to 30 minutes now; his defense will be key. But Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza, and Jones will have to use their length to snuff out opponents.
No. 7 Dallas Mavericks
They once had the most potent offense in the Association this season, then they traded for Rajon Rondo to help shore up its defense and all kinds of bad things transpired. Monta Ellis is now the number one option on this team but Dirk Nowitzki is who they will turn to for must-have buckets. Amare Stoudemire gives them a scoring punch while playing limited minutes off the bench.
The modus operandi of this team is highly debatable, they have had Rondo on the team for more than half the season and still can’t figure things out. Yet, there is enough talent on this team to still put points on the board, including Chandler Parsons who is very familiar with the way Houston operates.
They will fall if they’re not able to execute their offense. Houston won’t be a threat if you subscribe to what Mark Cuban says.
Rockets over the Mavericks in seven games: Rick Carlisle is a brilliant basketball mind and he knows his team functions better without Rondo off the floor. In order for Dallas to advance, Rondo will have to play a bit role. Houston is built to make a run, and they won’t be stopped here.
No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers
Franchise records were broken left and right this season. Blake Griffin’s mid-season injury woes might have been a blessing for the Clippers. Griffin’s absence forced Chris Paul to be more aggressive on offense by looking for buckets more often than he usually wants to. It also made for more shot attempts for J.J. Redick, who broke the team’s season record for three pointers made. The biggest benefactor was DeAndre Jordan, who led the Association in rebounding and field goal percentage.
Their modi operandi is the high pick and roll game with Paul and either of his starting bigs, and the other method is a Griffin isolation from the short post; the team usually ends up with a dunk or an open three-point shot. The Clippers led the NBA in offensive efficiency because of the aforementioned M.O. but they also like to get out on the break.
They will fall if their bench doesn’t raise their level of play from what they have done in the regular season. The starters often build leads only for the bench to let opponents back in the game.
No. 6 San Antonio Spurs
The defending NBA champs won 11 of their last 12 games of the season, with the one loss that closed out their season being the difference between them having the 2nd seed and where they are right now at sixth. Ten of those last 11 wins were by at least 12 points. They’re peaking at the right time. They’ve suffered through injuries but Popovich has done a great job of managing his players’ minutes and giving them days off at the right time. They have eight players that average 20 minutes with Kawhi Leonard the only one exceeding 30; they get a contribution from everyone.
Their modus operandi is well-known as “The Spurs Way.” Their system has been the envy of the Association with many organizations emulating them.
They will fall if they don’t play with hunger. The coast through most the regular season and flip the switch, but as we witnessed during the last game of the season, a motivated team can make things difficult for them.
Spurs over the Clippers in six games: It is unfortunate that these two teams have to face each other in the first round. They are both playing good basketball right now and either will pose a threat to the Warriors. This was the worst possible scenario for L.A. because the Spurs are running on all cylinders right now. They can be looking at a repeat if they get past this hurdle.
No. 4 Portland Trail Blazers
The lone representative from the Northwest division was granted the fourth seed due to an NBA rule that stipulates a division winner shall be seeded no lower than four. We have to give credit to LaMarcus Aldridge for opting against a hand surgery and playing with discomfort for more than half of the season.
Their modus operandi is the outside shot. They are a jump-shooting team through and through; three pointers, long twos, and mid rangers will be seen often. Damian Lillard and Aldridge both average over 20 points per game and they have four other guys that average at least eight.
They will fall if their shots aren’t dropping. If either of the all-stars are off of their game, they will need someone from the supporting cast to get hot; since Wes Matthews went down, Aaron Afflalo has been that guy. They’ll need to figure out a plan B quick when Grizzlies try to take the ball out of Lillard’s hand.
No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies
This team basically plays post-season type basketball in the regular season. They too have had players spend extensive time on the training table. The small forward position had been a weakness over the years but they seemed to have solved that problem with a mid-season trade for Jeff Green. They won’t go far without a healthy Mike Conley, however.
Their modus operandi is slowing the game down to a grind. There is nothing dynamic about their offense, they just work hard at executing sets, and if that fails, letting Z-Bo operate is never a bad idea. It’s the defense side of the ball where they earn their keep. When they can’t put points on the board, they make sure you don’t either.
They will fall if they can’t stay healthy. The guys on their bench play specific roles and aside from Tony Allen, aren’t able to do what the starters can.
Memphis over Portland in six games: Health will play a key role in deciding this series. Memphis swept the regular season series but they’ll likely be more affected by injury than Portland will, only enough for them to lose two games.
Other than the 1 versus 8, all of these series are up for grabs. Do you agree with the predictions? How would yours differ?
Read up on the Eastern Conference preview.