After one of the most memorable last day of the season in recent history, the NBA heads into the “real season” with one dominating storyline to unfold over the next two months: Will the Golden State Warriors be able to continue their domination over the rest of the league and crown their record-setting regular season with another Larry O’Brien trophy?
If their eventual opponents are to have any chance of dethroning the heavily favorite Warriors, they would be wise to heed the sage advice of Omar from The Wire: “when you come at the king, you best not miss”.
On the basketball court, this should be taken (almost) literally. Lights out shooting is needed. And some other basic things, such as strong defense, low number of turnovers, smart situational coaching, etc. Let’s go ahead and look at the list of likely Warriors’ opponents and assess their chances.
This is the first round matchup starting on Saturday. Warriors swept the Rockets this year, by an average margin of victory of 12 points. The Rockets have gone through some personnel issues, with the entire Ty Lawson experiment proving to be a huge bust. Kevin McHale was let go as head coach. It looked like they were going to miss the playoffs until they stabilized the ship sometime in late January and managed to secure a playoff spot at the finish line.
The only benefit to the Houston franchise being in the playoffs should come in the form of increased TV exposure, gate receipts and concession sales incurred during the two home games to be played at the Toyota Center. They simply won’t be able to stay with the Warriors and do not possess the talent or weapons to trouble the Dubs beyond staying close and make it interesting in one or two of their games. I’m calling it a sweep.
Now things start getting a little more interesting. I am making a significant assumption here, which is that the Clippers come out on top against the Blazers. Even though the Warriors swept the season series, the Clippers proved a tough match up.
In one of the regular season’s most memorable games, the Warriors came back from 23 down to beat the Clippers. The average margin of victory over the four games was (only) 7. CP3 will (or should) be able to contain Curry. The match-ups in the paint seem to favor the Clippers, until you remember that there is no real antidote against the Warriors ball movement, and that on any given night there are two-to-three guys, other than the usual suspects, who can light it up from behind the arc.
But… but The Clippers are also the last team to defeat the Warriors in a series. This series would be more interesting if all the uncertainty surrounding Blake Griffin, his health and the chemistry on the team stopped being an issue. If the Clippers can hit their stride by early May, we can have a long series on our hand. This implies a lot of “ifs”. Barring any injuries to the Warriors core players, and the Clippers peaking and getting scorching hot, I don’t believe this series goes beyond five.
San Antonio Spurs
On paper this matchup presents the biggest obstacle to the Dubs quest for a second consecutive title. By the time these two teams will have met, there will be a lot of playoff basketball already been played, coupled with the 82 game season during which the Warriors had a big target on their backs every single night.
During their regular season direct match-ups, the Spurs did all the things that you are supposed to do to have a chance to beat the Warriors. Slowed the pace down, limited the number of possessions, battled in the paint and on the boards. And yet… the Spurs offense delivered some stinkers during those match-ups. Is it possible that he Spurs made sure not to tip their hand and are saving some tricks for the playoffs? Oh, yes indeed. For one thing, we did not see a full strength Spurs team in any of those match-ups. Geriatrics as they may be, the old, wily foxes of Duncan, Diaw, Manu Ginobli will be out there when it matters. We know better than to bet against Pop in the playoffs. Grab your popcorn and tune in to this series*.
*If somehow the Thunder get past the Spurs (which is very possible considering two of the top 10 players in the league are on the Thunder), the likelihood that OKC can take down the Dubs is just as reasonably high. Let’s say around 40 percent.
Oh yes, the Beast of the East, the most probable final obstacle for the Dubs en route to the title.
Well, the Warriors schooled LeBron & Co. in both their regular season meetings. The Cavs have pretty much sleepwalked through the Eastern Conference schedule and still managed to secure the number 1 seed. They head into the playoffs without any injury concerns. Unfortunately, same lack of concern does not apply to their spirits. Given all of LeBron’s passive aggressive social media activity, we have to wonder about the Cavs’ ability to rally around their leader over a two month campaign for the title. The Cavs have not added any significant pieces since last season, LeBron is a year older, and they are led by a first time head coach, who is chummy enough with his players that his head has been known to serve as a towel rack.
Something seems to be rotten in the state of Ohio. Can LeBron turn it on and carry the Cavs through April and May? Certainly and very likely. Will he have enough support from a healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to ensure a different outcome in the NBA Finals? That’s the million dollar question.
LeBron had a historic performance in the Finals last year. A one man show carrying the Cavs on his back and making the series interesting. Now he has the full supporting cast with him. Unfortunately, what we have seen in the two direct meetings this season, and throughout the regular season, is not indicative of a championship level performance.
Bottom line: The strongest challenge to the Warriors supremacy should come via San Antonio or OKC in the Western Conference Finals.