The Warriors are well on their way towards their first playoff berth since the 2006-2007 season, better known as the “We Believe” campaign. For those analytics people out there, the Warriors have a 97% chance at making the playoffs according to Hollinger’s NBA Playoff Odds (his odds also have the Warriors at .03% chance to win the Finals, but what does he know?).
The last month and a half or so have been stressful for Warriors fans. The Warriors had a six game losing streak stretching through the All-Star break, which began with the infamous 119-140 drumming by the Rockets and concluding with the 101-115 loss in Utah.
One week later, the Warriors started another multi-game losing streak that started with the post-fight loss in Indiana and ending with one of the more disappointing losses of the season, a loss to the hapless 76ers which ended their seven game losing streak.
Since the March 4 win vs. Toronto, the Warriors have seemingly been trading a couple wins with a loss or two, giving Warriors fans some relief while also raising more questions. This team is no way a powerhouse, but that doesn’t mean their chances of advancing in the Western Conference playoffs is out the window.
The most common question raised amongst fans after wins is: “Who do we want to play in the first round?” While on the contrary, after losses — like the 95-115 home loss vs. Chicago — had fans asking: “Where would we be with James Harden!?” or saying “This team won’t win a game in the first round.”
It’s quite entertaining to see the struggle that many go through on a game-by-game basis. The Warriors are an above average club in the midst of a surprisingly successful season with a second year coach and the 11th youngest roster in the NBA (average age being 25.9). Still, many are treating this team like say, Dallas, who is normally a perennial playoff power but is in the middle of a downtrodden, lottery-bound mess.
Before we declare who we’d rather face in the first round of the playoffs, it’s very much necessary to know what this team really is. This is also known as being a realist, which if you’ve been with this team for any longer than this season, you know these are few and far between in Warriors Ground. With that said, let’s look at the most likely first round candidates this team will have to play.
Disclaimer: if this team collapses, misses the playoffs and heads into an off-season full of typical Warriors mayhem, don’t be afraid to blame yours truly.
In order of who I would like to see the Warriors play…
1) Los Angeles Clippers
The best kept rivalry in the NBA and the matchup most fans want to see, a Warriors vs. Clippers series has all the makings of a classic.
The Clippers, with their floptastic (not a real word) talent and highlight slams, are either the most overhyped team in the league or the most slept on. The between the legs alley-oops, Brandon Knight memes and Kia commercials have this team always in the limelight. Their deep but inconsistent bench, shaky head coach and halfcourt offense have many clamoring for a chance at the best team in Los Angeles.
How are the Clippers possibly slept on? Their 17 game winning streak seems like ages ago, but this is still very much the team that failed to lose a game in December. They still have the best point guard in the league (and one of the greatest competitors this game has seen), the most athletic power forward in the league, the NBA’s best sixth man and a bench full of capable veterans (and Eric Bledsoe). Some bad losses and .gif-worthy flops aside, this team can be a Finals contender when they’re at their best.
The Warriors matchup incredibly well with the Clippers. They seem to have the Clippers number, winning the season series 3-1 by an average winning margin of 10.6 points. Stephen Curry also plays his best vs. Chris Paul, averaging 23 points on 52.3% shooting (53.6% from three) in the four games played this season. They also have a similar style of play, albeit with different success rates in certain areas.
The Clippers are the most vulnerable of the potential first round matchups, which may be why numerous teams are quietly hoping for a chance to face them come the first round. CP3 is great, Blake is turning the corner offensively and Jamal Crawford can score with anybody. But, everyone else on that team is a wild card. They’re are no certainties with this team. They boast incredible talent with no clear system in place, which is why the Warriors should be quietly hoping they are playing Lob City come the first round.
2) Oklahoma City Thunder
Am I crazy for thinking Oklahoma City is the second best matchup for the Warriors? Yeah, probably a little, but I’ve been called much worse.
The Thunder are 52-19, have the third best home record in the NBA (31-5), are second in the league in offensive efficiency (110.0), fourth in the league in defensive efficiency (99.2) and still have Kevin Durant at their disposal (his 28.3 PPG leads the league).
(Yes, definitely crazy)
The Thunder (still) shows the ability to stall in the halfcourt, leading to numerous isolation situations that lead to a either a bad miss or forced made shot (see: Jarrett Jack). The skill-sets of both Westbrook and Durant often hide this deficiency, but that doesn’t make it any less disconcerting.
Last season, when Westbrook or Durant (or both) were struggling, James Harden was the guy to keep them rolling. Harden was the linchpin between them, bringing the ability to draw fouls, create his own shot and be a killer all on the same possession. When Harden struggled mightily in the Finals, the team followed suit.
The Harden insurance policy is no more, and while Kevin Martin can shoot just as well as Harden (both are at 44.9% FG for the season), he doesn’t posses nearly the offensive package that Harden does. How will the Thunder adjust? More isolations? More Ibaka or (gulp) Perkins post-ups?
These are major concerns for a team that is coming off their first Finals appearance last season. While I understand the financial concerns regarding Harden, this Thunder team was on the cusp of a championship. Regardless of the Finals outcome, if the Thunder bring back Harden they’re surely the favorite to win the Western Conference and would be the best matchup vs. the nearly unstoppable Miami Heat.
The Warriors can run with the Thunder. Westbrook is prone to a turnover or three and some bad shots, halting many Thunder possessions and thus leading to possible fast-break opportunities for Golden State. Winning games in Oklahoma City will me a problem, but the Thunder haven’t seen this team with Andrew Bogut, which will certainly cause additional problems for the Ibaka-Perkins frontcourt.
If the Warriors can get the Thunder out of their groove, whether that’s forcing erratic shots, turnovers or keeping the Thunder defense on edge with the Curry-Thompson, they can win more games than many people think. Whether they can win a series between them is another question, but this is no longer the unbeatable Thunder team we’ve become known to seeing regardless of regular season record.
3) Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis boasts the most complete frontcourt in the NBA, has one of the more underrated guards in the league (Conley) and carries the second best defense in the league based on opponent PPG (89.7).
Memphis is also 3-0 against the Warriors this season, as the Grizzlies are the ideal opposite to the Warriors fast-paced style of play. Even without Rudy Gay — the subject of much criticism throughout the season — the Grizzlies are dangerous. The addition of Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis have given them sneaky depth, and their previous playoff experience will prove invaluable come the postseason.
The lack of a superstar is an overrated meme, as both Memphis and Denver are numbing that argument as each game passes. Still, both teams are unproven given their new makeup. The injury to Marc Gasol (abdominal tear) leaves the Grizzlies frontcourt effectiveness in serious doubt, and any team that gives Jerryd Bayless 20.1 MIN per game is due for some surprises come late in the season.
These are major questions for a Grizzlies team so dependent on the defensive prowess of Gasol and production out of the halfcourt offense. The potential for a hindered Gasol in the first round should leave the Warriors with some resemblance of ease if Memphis is indeed their come the first round.
4) Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets had the quietest 15 game win streak in the history of the NBA. This streak was snapped last night in New Orleans, but without Ty Lawson this is no sign of major concern.
The Nuggets might be the most intriguing team in the league. As someone who picked George Karl to win Coach of the Year before the season, I loved what the Nuggets brought coming into the season and those preseason predictions have indeed come to fruition. Denver is 24th in the league with their OPP PPG at 101.2, but rank third in the league in PPG with 105.7. Karl’s offense — prone to quick possessions and fast breaks — carries a PACE (the number of possessions a team uses per game) factor of 97.6, good for second in the league.
Their roster is a near perfect blend of scoring, passing, defending and rebounding. Despite the impressive offensive numbers and fluid roster, the Nuggets (much like the Grizzlies) carry a certain unknown as the playoffs near. Yes, this team has impressed in the regular season, but when the game slows down the playoffs as they always do, what then? Can Ty Lawson lead a consistent halfcourt offense? Is Andre Iguodola the go-to scorer simply based off process of elimination? How will JaVale McGee play in a playoff atmosphere?
The style of play the Nuggets bring isn’t all that much different from the Warriors, the Nuggets are simply more effective at it. If this is the first round matchup, expect no shortage of scoring runs, dunks and questionable decisions on both ends. What should worry the Warriors is the city of Denver (Nuggets are 32-3 at home), the point guard combination of Ty Lawson and Andre Miller and the ferociousness of Kenneth Faried.
There are simply too many advantages for Denver for the Warriors to overcome. Denver, like every team the Warriors could face, present problems. The difference lies in the Nuggets ability to outshine the Warriors in what they do best: scoring. While the Nuggets have yet see Andrew Bogut in uniform, it’s hard to imagine (in this series) his presence making a substantial difference in the outcome.
5) San Antonio Spurs
It’s the Spurs.