|Russell Westbrook has been a triple-double machine this year and will (probably) win the MVP, but can he get the Thunder out of the first round?|
Ed. Note- He's been away for a while, but resident stat expert and NBA guru Adam Lowenstein is back to break down all the first round matchups in the NBA's Western Conference Playoffs. Be on the lookout for Adam's Eastern Conference, and Celtics-specific previews to follow.
#1 Golden State Warriors vs. #8 Portland Trail Blazers
The best offensive team in the league is facing one of the most explosive. Damian Lillard, who scored a franchise-best 59 points on Saturday, and C.J. McCollum, the league’s leader in free throw percentage, are the main men leading the heavy underdog in this series.
Kevin Durant, who made his triumphant return on Saturday, is ready for his first postseason as a part of the Warriors. He and his team are looking to supplant the defending champion Cavaliers, but Durant missed his first nine 3-point attempts after returning. However, the fourth-highest per game scorer in NBA playoff history tallied 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in each of his first two contests since his injury, and he then dominated the Lakers for 29 points on 5-for-7 shooting from deep on Wednesday.
Possibly, the only weakness the Blazers can exploit is the Warriors’ conference-worst defensive rebound rate. I tried to find a positive where I could, but Terry Stotts’ squad could muster only 33 offensive rebounds total against Steve Kerr’s team this season.
The Blazers, who are also dealing with many injuries, allowed at least 125 points in 10 contests this past season, and they lost all 10. Oh, and three of those games came against the Warriors...
Golden State swept the four-game regular season series against Portland, and the same should happen in postseason.
Prediction: Warriors in 4
#2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #7 Memphis Grizzlies
We have an exact rematch of the 2016 NBA playoffs in terms of teams and homecourt advantage, but one coach will not be the same, as David Fizdale is making his postseason debut as an NBA head coach with Memphis. He and his less-than-normally injured Grizzlies (even with Tony Allen out indefinitely) will be taking on the seasoned Gregg Popovich, who enters the playoffs without Tim Duncan for the first time in his coaching career.
Fizdale won multiple rings in Miami, and he is now trying to establish a championship culture in Memphis, as he eclipsed the team’s win total from last year. Unlike Dave Joerger, Fizdale has been more fortunate with the injury bug. The only players the Grizzlies will be without in this series will be Chandler Parsons and most likely Allen, but as I am typing this, it is entirely possible a random Memphis player gets some freak illness, so who knows.
There is actually more interesting Fizdale information: He might have the Spurs’ number.
Well, in comparison to Joerger he does. Before this year, the Grizz had dropped nine consecutive contests to San Antonio, including a four-game sweep in last year’s postseason. This year, Fizdale’s team has taken two of four from Popovich’s squad this year. So, things could be looking up for Memphis.
Unfortunately for the fans at the Grindhouse, as opposed to the 2015-16 Grizzlies owning the Western Conference’s second-worst true shooting percentage, the 2016-17 version is the worst in the conference. Yeah, this could be another sweep, unfortunately.
The Grizzlies are making their seventh straight playoff appearance, but they are facing the battle-tested Spurs, who have made every postseason since 1998. San Antonio’s defense is the best in the NBA for the second straight season, so Popovich and company will have a relatively easy time.
Prediction: Spurs in 5
#3 Houston Rockets vs. #6 Oklahoma City Thunder
Billy Donovan’s Thunder are in the 3-6 matchup again, but the Durant-less squad is without homecourt advantage this time around. With the most hated man in Oklahoma City now in soaking in the sun on the West Coast, Russell Westbrook has ridden his fervor for Western Conference Finals revenge all the way to what most expect to be the Most Valuable Player trophy.
However, on the other bench is the other true MVP candidate: James Harden, who led the NBA in free throws and assists this season, is seeking revenge of his own, as the Thunder knocked the Rockets out of the playoffs in 2013. Harden, the first player to score 2,000 and assist on 2,000 points, is looking to avoid his fourth first-round exit in the last five years.
While Harden may dish out the most dimes this season, Westbrook owns the league’s best assist percentage. Meanwhile, the beard has committed the most turnovers in the NBA this season, but Mike D’Antoni’s system, which has helped him to be the frontrunner for the Coach of the Year award, has led to Harden having a career-high number of turnovers.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, turnovers are not a weakness of the Rockets, as Daryl Morey’s well-constructed team has lost just one of its nine worst turnover games at home this season; one of the eight victories was a 137-125 win over OKC.
This contest was the most recent meeting between the squads, and the Rockets are currently on a three-game winning streak against Thunder.
Westbrook fights the hardest he can and pushes the series to seven games, but it is not enough.
Prediction: Rockets in 7
#4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #5 Utah Jazz
We are at it again with these Clippers, as Doc Rivers looks to finally get over the hump that is the Western Conference semifinals, which Clippers fans hope is a reality this season. The Trail Blazers defeated Los Angeles last season, which exacerbated the Clippers’ failures as a franchise. Steve Ballmer’s team still has never reached a conference final.
This year will prove to be a difficult one for the Clippers, as their first-round matchup brings some unique challenges. They will face a hungry Utah that is making its first playoff appearance since 2012, as head coach Quin Snyder has improved the Jazz’s record each of his first three NBA seasons. Snyder will be the first person not named Jerry Sloan to coach a 50-win Jazz team in the playoffs. In 10 of the 14 times that Utah has won at least 50 contests, the Jazz has won its first-round series.
Rivers has led the Clippers to four of their five 50-win seasons, and last year was the first time a Rivers-led 50-win team dropped its first-round series in seven tries (including four times in Boston). Meanwhile, Snyder’s career as an NBA assistant has included several playoff series, but the 2009 D-League Coach of the Year has never reached a conference final. The winner of this series will most likely have to take on the defending Western Conference champion Warriors, so there’s that.
Anyway, let us focus back on the intrigue of this series before one of these teams get destroyed in the conference semifinals. We have the battle of the league’s most effective shooter (DeAndre Jordan) and the league’s best true shooter (Rudy Gobert). In addition, Jordan grabbed the most defensive rebounds this year, while Gobert was the NBA’s most prolific blocker.
I predicted the Clippers would win the 4-5 series last year, and I was wrong. I am going with same pick as last year and hoping for a better result.
Prediction: Clippers in 7
For more sports coverage, follow Adam Lowenstein on Twitter at @StatsAdam. Statistics used from Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN.com.