- The Western Conference bracket is filled with some major storylines. How vulnerable are the Warriors without Stephen Curry? Can the Thunder take it to another level? The Crossover examines each series in the wild wild west.
None of the four Western Conference playoff matchups were decided until Wednesday night, the official end of the regular season. Every hour since has been a mad scramble for the coaching and video staffs involved—a frantic turn from focus on their own team to a specific opponent.
The playoffs yield the best basketball because of how tailored every challenge is to the team involved. Teams no longer run a base offense or defense, but one customized to their opponents limitations. It’s a deeply personal means of competition. If a player can’t shoot, the defense will refuse to guard them, broadcasting their disrespect to a national TV audience. If a player can’t guard, they’ll be picked on relentlessly until they’re removed from the game entirely.
What makes the Rockets and Warriors so frustrating is how few weaknesses they present—and how effectively they cover for them. The Timberwolves and Spurs, respectively, will have their work cut out for them. Yet in the middle matchups, we find two series ripe for tactical experimentation. The Blazers, Thunder, Jazz, and Pelicans all wear their limitations on their sleeve; each is so reliant on their top players as to be put at a precarious balance. The coming weeks will see all four pushed from every angle, testing their balance and their capacity to respond. And the lucky winners will have the privilege of enduring that same scrutiny once more—this time from the Rockets and Warriors themselves.
Most Intriguing Storyline: Can the Thunder hit their highest gear?
No team in the West has embraced variance quite like the Thunder, who have managed to dominate and implode in almost equal measure. The best of OKC—something we haven’t seen consistently or often enough this season—would scare any opposing coaching staff. Gameplanning against Russell Westbrook is always an ordeal. The ferocity of his driving game is such a unique test for a defense, and when perfectly calibrated it can be overwhelming. Factor in Paul George, Steven Adams, Carmelo Anthony, and a punchy cast of reserves, and the Thunder have the personnel necessary to mount a challenge to any team in the field.
At issue are the conditions to make that challenge a reality. Oklahoma City’s defense has been flaky ever since Andre Roberson went down for the season with a ruptured patellar tendon. Its offense—while efficient overall—is prone to the kinds of fits and starts that can derail a playoff run. The Thunder aren’t a team waiting to flip the switch so much as one veering desperately to find their groove. If they do, it could change the outlook of the entire Western Conference bracket.
Biggest X-Factor: Rajon Rondo, Pelicans
There has never been a clean fit for New Orleans’ mercurial point guard, which makes his most effective stints all the more noticeable. His game remains fundamentally unchanged; the Rondo we’ve come to know from years of over-passing and hesitant shooting remains a glaring presence in the modern NBA. Yet when his game is working—as is periodically the case with a team that relies on his mid-play facilitation—it elevates the Pelicans beyond their standing. New Orleans needs the version of Rondo that slowed Isaiah Thomas in the playoffs last year to do the same to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. They need a creator who can alleviate some of the pressure on Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, even if he won’t often be knocking down shots himself. Rondo coming up big could change the complexion of the Pelicans’ series—in part because the alternative would leave an already shallow team short yet another viable rotation piece.
What to Watch
(1) Houston vs. (8) Minnesota: Can the Wolves get any stops at all?
The Wolves aren’t exactly the picture of defensive discipline, which is pretty much the only way to keep competitive in a series against the Rockets. Every layer of your coverage needs to be in order. Whichever defenders are assigned to cover James Harden and Chris Paul—or are switched into covering them mid-play—face the most challenging isolation matchups in the league. The pick-and-roll defense has to be so impeccably timed as to disrupt the rhythms of Clint Capela, but without favoring him so much as to give up lanes to Harden or Paul. The help has to come quickly, but the second level of help even more so; if you’re the sort of team that can only make one rotation reliably (as is often the case with the Wolves), you have no shot of stopping Houston’s initial actions and keeping their arsenal of three-point shooters under wraps. It’s for that reason that the Rockets literally doubled up the Wolves in made threes during the season series, turning a strength into an overwhelming mathematical edge. Whether Minnesota can keep any of these specific elements contained will dictate how long they survive in this series. Great as it is to see the Wolves in the postseason again, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be long for it.
The pick: Rockets in 4.
(2) Golden State vs. (7) San Antonio: How vulnerable are the Warriors?
There is an incredible amount of respect for the Spurs around the league, and in the Bay Area in particular. Players and coaches with the Warriors have spoken candidly over the years about the trouble the Spurs have caused them—a glowing endorsement from one of the greatest teams of all time. But let’s get one thing clear up front: these are not those Spurs, in the sense that they don’t present the full-strength Warriors any real threat.
The injured, short-handed Warriors, on the other hand, have shown that they can fall out of their groove against pretty much anyone. And that’s what the rest of the league will be watching—not for a potential first-round upset, but as a stress test of a defending champion that hasn’t been healthy in months. Stephen Curry will likely miss the entire series. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are working through some nagging issues. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are only a few weeks removed from missing time themselves. A defense like San Antonio’s will make Golden State earn everything, and it can be especially stifling with Dejounte Murray and Danny Green at the point of attack. This is a low-risk series for the Warriors, but the kind that should hint at how they might play—both with and without Curry—the rest of the way.
The pick: Warriors in 5.
(3) Portland vs. (6) New Orleans: Which supporting cast shows up?
Both the Blazers and Pelicans have high-level defenders to throw at the other’s stars, but it’s telling that Davis and Lillard had 77 points between them in their last regular season meeting. You don’t hold down players this good for an entire series. You only hope to make their lives difficult enough that you can overcome them by committee. Fittingly, each defense will put that idea to the test. If you’re New Orleans, your goal is to get the ball into the hands of anyone who isn’t Lillard or McCollum as often as possible (even Jusuf Nurkic is preferable).
If you’re Portland, your aim is to deny Davis touches at every turn, thereby forcing possessions into the hands of Solomon Hill, Emeka Okafor, or Darius Miller. Those sorts of contributors will have to knock down shots, lest the integrity of the offense buckle beneath them. The scrutiny of a seven-game series will quickly decide who needs to be guarded and who doesn’t. Outstanding as Davis, Lillard, and McCollum might be, none wants to turn the corner to find multiple defenders and a crowded lane waiting for them. The winner of this series will be the team that best alleviates that pressure—whether through role players stepping up as contributors or stars, through some creative quirk, circumventing the premise entirely.
The pick: Trail Blazers in 6
(4) Oklahoma City vs. (5) Utah: Who dictates the matchup game?
What makes both the Thunder and Jazz such an interesting pair is that both teams have their options. There is the flexibility to play big and small, to cross-match between positions, and to put skilled players to use in unconventional ways. In the broadest sense, their series will be decided by the intersection of what both teams do best: OKC’s explosive offense working against the grain of one of the best defenses in the league. Yet the terms of engagement are all up for grabs, starting with how each team elects to match up. Who should guard Russell Westbrook between Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio, and who should wreak havoc off the ball? How much should Paul George check Mitchell, the engine of Utah’s entire offense, after barely guarding him in the regular season? How might Derrick Favors look to attack Carmelo Anthony and vice versa?
This promises to be a fun, competitive series, which makes the strategic choices on the margins that much more meaningful—and also quite challenging to predict. The Jazz have the more trustworthy baseline, but the Thunder have more dangerous potential. My lean is toward security after watching OKC waffle all season, in particular because no matchup play on the board can easily get Rudy Gobert out of Westbrook’s way.
The pick: Jazz in 6.