The Western Conference is loaded. The four teams in the semifinal round—the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and Jazz—finished in the top five in net rating during the regular season. In a normal, non-Kevin-Durant-joining-a-73-win-team season, the Spurs and Rockets could easily be considered title favorites, while the Jazz could play the role of upstart usurper.
As it stands now, Golden State will be heavily favored the rest of the way in the postseason, regardless of the opponent. That’s not to say there won’t be intrigue on this side of the bracket, however. With Kawhi Leonard somehow ascending his game to a new celestial plane, James Harden whipping passes to a bevy of three-point shooters, and the Jazz navigating every injury-related obstacle, each remaining team in the West has proven itself to capable of greatness. As the stakes grow, we should be preparing to see some of the best basketball of the season.
Most Intriguing Matchup: Rockets vs. Spurs
James Harden vs. Kawhi Leonard. Mike D’Antoni vs. Gregg Popovich. There are storylines all over this series, which should be evenly matched, fast paced and high scoring. The two teams played four close games during the regular season, splitting the series 2–2, with no margin of victory larger than six points.
Harden will likely be required to do a bit more against San Antonio than he did against Oklahoma City. Harden had a couple off games against the Thunder that were offset by Houston’s explosive bench, a strategy that should be less effective against the Spurs. San Antonio, on the other hand, could use a little more balance. Leonard was sensational against the Grizzlies, but his supporting cast was largely inconsistent, though not as trainwrecky as Oklahoma City’s. This could be a series for LaMarcus Aldridge to do damage—he roasted Houston in 2014—but he was up and down against Memphis last round.
Style of play will be important here. The Rockets will be running and gunning, while the Spurs could be slowed by the likes of Pau Gasol, David Lee and Aldridge. Will San Antonio still play two bigs on the court for most of the series? Whichever team imposes its will early in the game could set the tone that particular night.
Harden should expect to see a lot of Danny Green on defense, but in the fourth quarter, Leonard will likely take on that defensive assignment, which will ratchet up the pressure on the Rockets’ shooters.
And don’t forget about D’Antoni’s extra motivation. The Spurs have knocked D’Antoni out of the playoffs three of the last four times he’s made the postseason—including the infamous 2007 playoffs, when a Robert Horry hip check derailed what was D’Antoni’s last great season until this one.
Second Fiddle: Warriors vs. Jazz
The last time we saw Golden State, the Warriors were humiliating the Blazers in Portland to finish off a sweep. The Jazz, meanwhile, needed seven games to finish off the Clippers, who played most of the series without Blake Griffin. Though Utah was dealing with its own injury issues, that was not exactly a great sign headed into a series with a dominant team.
The Warriors’ net rating of 18.3 in the playoffs is nearly double that of the second-place Spurs, and Golden State’s destruction of the Blazers came despite injuries to Kevin Durant, Matt Barnes, Shaun Livingston and coach Steve Kerr. Durant should be fit for the second round, which means we may actually see a substantial run for the Death Lineup, which played only six minutes together against Portland.
Golden State looked every bit like the juggernaut we expected in the first round. Stephen Curry is again playing like the unanimous MVP he was a year ago, Draymond Green has been playing the best defense of his career, Javale McGee is breaking games with his athleticism, and top to bottom the team is shooting lights out.
The Jazz do have the versatility and length to give the Warriors some fits. Utah’s best bet could be to slow the game down, and have guys like Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson grind out buckets in the halfcourt. The problem, of course, is that Golden State’s halfcourt defense is superb, and the Jazz’s preference to play slow can haunt them once the Dubs start connecting on threes. And while Utah has great defenders in George Hill and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz could have some issues matching up with Golden State on the wing. And what will Quin Snyder do with Gobert when the Warriors go small?
There will be some good basketball in this series, but make no mistake, this is a matchup between a very good team and an elite one.
Three Storylines To Watch
• Houston’s Bench: The Rockets had the highest-scoring bench during the regular season, and they shined against the Thunder. Big nights from Nene and Eric Gordon helped swing games in that series, and they will be needed even more against the Spurs. Green and Leonard are two of the better perimeter defenders in the league, meaning if any team is equipped to slow down Harden, it’s San Antonio.
If Houston is going to win this series, the formula will almost be similar to Round 1. With the Spurs becoming more and more reliant on Leonard for offense, the Rockets can use spurts when both benches are in the game to tilt the contest in their favor. If Houston gets big shooting nights from Gordon, Lou Williams or Nene, San Antonio could find itself lacking firepower, or putting an even larger burden on Leonard.
• What’s Going On With LaMarcus Aldridge? The Spurs signed Aldridge in 2015 with the hopes of pairing another star with Leonard, but in six games against Memphis, Aldridge struggled to carry the load of a second option. Aldridge is averaging only 14.8 points per game in these playoffs, shooting a pedestrian 45.3%. While Leonard’s playoff heroics have been enjoyable to watch, it’s understandable to wonder how sustainable it is, particularly during crunch time. This won’t be an easy series for Aldridge, who is a step slower than he was in 2014. He will have an opportunity to dominate his one-on-one matchup offensively, particularly if he finds himself guarded by Ryan Anderson or Trevor Ariza when San Antonio plays two bigs. But Aldridge will also have to be prepared to chase those guys around the three-point line on defense. How effective Aldridge is could ultimately be the bellwether for San Antonio’s success in this series.
• Injuries: Both the Warriors and Jazz overcame injuries during their first-round series wins. If the Jazz lose Gobert, Hayward or any other of their key players, Golden State will not be as charitable as the Clippers were in giving away games. If the Warriors have any vulnerability, it’s that Durant and/or other key bench guys aren’t fully healthy. The Blazers were not as deep as the Jazz, and they were dealing with their own massive injury to JusufNurkic. Golden State may not be able to afford to lose multiple players against a fully loaded Jazz squad. The loss of Kerr hasn’t proven to be a major issue for the Dubs in either of the last two seasons, but his absence is something to keep an eye on.
X-Factor: Javale McGee, Warriors
While Golden State’s small-ball attack wasn’t a huge key to its success against Portland, McGee absolutely dominated his time on the court. McGee averaged nearly 10 points per game while shooting 78.3% from the field in the first round, and his defense at the rim was also spectacular. The Warriors almost always went on a run when McGee entered the game, and his presence on the court could help neutralize Gobert. McGee simply gives the Warriors options, and if for any reason Mike Brown is uncomfortable going small against Utah, McGee has proven he can give the Dubs a serious lift off the bench.
Rockets in 6. Houston gets more shooting and just enough defense. Mike D’Antoni gets his revenge.
Warriors in 5. Don’t be surprised if it’s a sweep.