Previewing Round 2 of the NBA Playoffs: Western Conference Edition
Wither the Competition to the Warriors?
While filled with less uncertainty than its counterparts in the East, the playoff bracket in the West nevertheless took longer to shake out, largely due to the West’s inclusion of the first round’s only seven-game series. Now that the Utah Jazz have finally overcome the Los Angeles Clippers, it’s time to preview the second round of the playoffs in the Western Conference, as I previously did with the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
Who Makes it to the Eastern Conference Finals?medium.com
Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Utah Jazz (5)
Regular Season: Warriors 2–1
As a prize for stealing home-court advantage and grinding through seven evenly matched games against the Clippers, the Jazz won the right to take on a Golden State team that just swept through Portland and has not played a game in over a week. It’s tough being the underdog. The Warriors had one of the league’s best defenses during the regular season and boasted the number one defense through the first round of the playoffs, limiting opponents to 99.5 points per 100 possessions while scoring 117.1 points per 100 possessions as recorded by basketball-reference.com. With or without Durant, they remain the NBA’s preeminent offense and can shoot their way out of a game should their defense suddenly lapse. What exactly can Utah do here?
Fortunately, the Jazz have a great defense of their own, anchored by the league’s leading shot-blocker Rudy Gobert — a defensive player of the year candidate nicknamed the “Stifle Tower” and the “French Rejection.” Gobert should provide a steady presence for the Jazz in the paint and on the glass, which coupled with the Jazz’s slower pace of 89.7 possessions per 48 minutes to the Warriors’ 102.3, should throw the Dubs out of their usual fast-paced rhythm from time to time. The Warriors also have their own injury woes to deal with, notably missing coach Steve Kerr, Kevin Durant, and key support players through much of the first round. If Utah can take advantage of these issues for Golden State and maintain efficient playmaking from stars Gordon Hayward and George Hill, then they might have a chance at making this a competitive series.
Final Pick: Warriors in five
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Houston Rockets (3)
Regular Season: Spurs 3–1
The battle of Texas begins in San Antonio, where a weary but battle-tested Spurs team prepares to make another run toward the Western Conference Finals through another division rival whom they narrowly defeated and lost to over four games in the regular season. Now that both teams have reached the conference semis, it’s time to test the durability of their victories from round one, which begins with their supporting casts.
Tony Parker showed a return to form during the Spurs’ series against the Memphis Grizzlies, which could make things difficult for the Rockets bulldog defender Patrick Beverley as he tries to chase down Parker driving to the basket and prevent Parker’s ridiculous scoop layups. That said, the rest of the Spurs roster has largely underwhelmed, forcing coach Gregg Popovich to lean on a 31-year old LaMarcus Aldridge for heavy minutes alongside foundational player Kawhi Leonard.
Speaking of foundational players, James Harden’s health remains in question heading into the series. While he should be able to play through his ankle injury, he will likely sacrifice efficiency if hobbling when shooting from behind the arc, especially against a Spurs team that had the best defense against the corner-3 during the regular season. If San Antonio can limit the threat of Houston’s pick-and-roll ball movement, then the Rockets might find themselves in a hole defensively against an experienced Spurs roster. Expect to see plenty of one-on-one between Harden and Leonard — at least when Houston has the ball — as well as Leonard leading his team on both offense and defense possessions throughout the series.
Final Pick: Rockets in six