If it wasn’t clear already, after last night it’s ever-obvious the Warriors need to avoid the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs. The same should be said of the San Antonio Spurs; banged up or not, it’s hard to imagine Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan failing to will this underrated group to the second round.
That’s not revelatory. The Thunder and Spurs are on a short list of top-tier title contenders that’s three teams long. Since-the-New Year dominance of Denver, post-Rudy Gay trade revival of Memphis and 17-game December winning streak of the Clippers not withstanding, no team in the conference has been as consistently and expectantly dominant as Oklahoma City and San Antonio. It’s no surprise they’ll rank 1-2 in some playoff order barring something drastic and will be solid postseason favorites until they meet one another. Experience and truly elite talent is a unique combination, and those teams have it, plus countless ancillary factors that make them worthy championship contenders.
With yesterday’s loss to the aforementioned Thunder, the Warriors find themselves in tenuous playoff position. Golden State is just a half game ahead of the Houston Rockets for sixth in the Western Conference with three games remaining. Houston holds the tie-breaker by virtue of sweeping the season series against the Warriors and has four games left on its regular season schedule. Both teams play on a 14-game Friday night against foes with something to play for; the Warriors are in Los Angeles to face the desperate Lakers, and the Rockets host the Grizzlies, who hope to secure home court advantage in the first round or move all the way up to the 3-seed.
Needless to say on a 14-game evening, other matchups matter with respect to Golden State’s playoff positioning, too. The Thunder and Spurs are in a dead heat for the conference’s top spot, the Nuggets, Clippers and Grizzlies are fighting for the 3/4/5 directly below them, and it’s still possible the Warriors slip to the 8-seed by season’s end, putting extra emphasis on tonight’s game in Los Angeles and Utah’s in Minnesota.
This is endlessly complicated, so let’s suss it all out. There’s some debate as to who the Warriors prefer in the first round among the Nuggets/Grizzlies/Clippers triumvirate, but it won’t matter if Houston overtakes them for the 6-seed. In that case Golden State meets Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the first round, a possibility we’ve already decided is of the worst kind. So Golden State needs to finish sixth, and to do so must emerge from the regular season with a better overall record than Houston. Obviously, then, cheer for the Grizzlies tonight. That’s a double-edged sword, though, as a Memphis win would enhance its chances of gaining the 3-seed and meeting a 6-seed Warriors in the first round; the thought here is Golden State has a better first round chance against either Denver or the Clippers than mighty Memphis. It’s a catch-22, you can’t win them all, there’s two sides to that coin, etcetera; root for the Rockets and worry about the Grizzlies later.
Speaking of the Clippers, their chances of catching the Nuggets or Grizzlies to snag the 3-seed have become increasingly unlikely; they’re two games behind the former and one behind the latter. That’s a shame wearing Warriors glasses, because LAC hasn’t only been the definition of middling recently but also a favorite opponent of Golden State during the regular season. Only so much can be made of regular season results with respect to playoff importance, but the Warriors’ success against the Clippers seems legitimate – there’s not a matchup where GSW is easily out-classed and LAC doesn’t boast the kind of offense that gives Mark Jackson’s inconsistent defense fits. Cheer for the Clippers tonight and for the next week; they need every win they can get to overtake Denver/Memphis in season’s final days.
Denver’s an interesting case, one we broke down last week after Danilo Gallinari’s season-ending injury. The past few days have only given us more reason for confusion, too. The Nuggets have beaten the Rockets and Spurs by double-digits since Gallinari went down, and have done so without the services of Ty Lawson, too, who George Karl recently admitted would not be fully healthy for the playoffs. It’s tough to imagine Denver can sustain that kind of success without arguably its two best players or even a hobbled Lawson come playoff time when the game slows down and rotations shorten. Still, the Nuggets refusal to fall in the face of injury can’t be discounted, and how the Warriors fare against speed and athleticism can’t, either. Be a Dallas Mavericks fan tonight, then, and hope Denver wakes up tomorrow a game closer to losing hold of the 3-seed to the Clippers.
This is all assuming you agree that the Warriors stand the best first round chance against Chris Paul and company, of course. If you think it’s Denver, instead, there’s certainly a case to be made. If you want Memphis in their stead, you’re crazy. And if you prefer Houston steals the 6-seed so Golden State meets the Thunder or Spurs in the first round, you simply can’t be saved.
Which reminds me, you should probably be cheering for the Warriors, too. Enjoy the action.
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