by Ken Cheng
With 23 games left in the regular season, certain trends have begun to emerge from the 47-12 Warriors. Specific players on both the starting unit (i.e. Draymond Green) and bench (i.e. Shaun Livingston) are beginning to see subtle upticks in minutes. Aging, or otherwise high-usage, players are being rested longer or intermittently sat for non-vital games. Players with obvious deficiencies (like Mo Speights and David Lee) are seeing their roles reduced as a necessary byproduct of rotation shortening. These trends point to a clear and logical conclusion: Coach Steve Kerr and his staff have begun the process of honing the Warriors into playoff form. The pre-emptive strategy the Warriors have employed in the name of post-season preparation should make fans feel very comfortable. The glut of really good teams in the Western Conference that Kerr and Co. are rolling this plan out for, however, should have the exact opposite effect.
The Warriors will have to go 12-9 in the playoffs, at worst, against three very good teams to reach the NBA Finals. This is a tough task no matter how you cut it. But despite the high level of quality from top to bottom, the fact remains that certain potential opponents inspire greater fear in the hearts of Warriors fans than others, regardless of where those teams fall in playoff seeding. The following is this Warriors fan’s unofficial Fear Ranking of Western Conference teams, from least scary to most, weighed on a scale of 1-10 — with 1 being “GTFOH, I ain’t scared of you!” and 10 being “I’d rather we just shake hands and walk away as friends.”
Perhaps this is just over-confidence run amok, but it’s difficult to see the team that doubles as Steph Curry’s favorite NBA piñata winning even a single game out of seven against the ‘14-‘15 version of the Warriors. Fear Ranking: 3/10
Even before Wesley Matthews – a low-key contender for 2nd best player on the team – went down for the rest of the season, the Blazers have historically been a team that does many of the same things that the Warriors do, only 5% worse. Portland is a tough place to win and it would be easy for the Warriors to drop a game or two there. But that’s it. Fear Ranking: 6/10
It’s amazing how a season can completely alter one’s perception of a team. Had this exercise been done last season, Houston would’ve been at the very top of the Fear Rankings. But this year? After four straight blowouts of what is clearly a soft and easily-disheveled team? And with Steph Curry possibly playing with a point to prove after the MVP race is settled? I can’t imagine a scenario in which Warriors fans wouldn’t welcome this series. Fear Ranking: 6.5/10
Oklahoma City Thunder
The most likely first round matchup doubles as the most anticipated first round matchup in recent sports history. After four head-to-head contests, the Warriors are 3-1 against the Thunder this season – though it can be argued only one of those games stood as any real representation of either team’s roster at full-strength. The Warriors won that game by the biggest margin of the four.
Since then, the Thunder have added D.J. Augustin, Enes Kanter, and Dion Waiters to tide the team over while Kevin Durant recuperates from injury. In addition, Russell Westbrook has played at near superhuman levels, vaulting himself into the MVP discussion. The result? The “new look” Thunder have gone 6-3 since the All Star break, with wins coming against the Mavs, Hornets, Nuggets, Pacers, Lakers, and 76ers (in overtime, at home). Fear Ranking: 7/10
We’ll know more after Sunday’s nationally televised game, but like the Thunder, the Clippers scariness level depends on the availability of their All Star forward. Even though Chris Paul has played at undercover MVP levels and DeAndre Jordan is having one of the best contract year runs ever seen, there is an undercurrent of perpetual underachievement that continues to dog the Clips. We know that these teams always play each other tough, so it may simply be a matter of who is healthiest and who can avoid critical, end-of-game, mistakes (*cough*) if and when they meet in another 7-game series. Chances are, though, Mo Speights won’t be starting at center this time. Fear Ranking: 7.5/10
San Antonio Spurs
As though ordained punishment by the basketball gods for decades of ineptitude, there is still a very real possibility that the Warriors will draw the Spurs in the first round. And only a fool who doesn’t know the long history of embarrassing Warriors defeats at the hands of the Spurs would let the result of their last matchup (a Friday night blowout win on ESPN) provoke some belief that they’ve have finally turned the tide in their 20-year campaign of futility against the Popovich-ites. Fear Ranking: 8/10
The Warriors are 1-6 against the Grizzlies, going back to the start of the ’12-’13 season. Frankly, I’d rather they just shake hands and walk away as friends. Fear Ranking: 10/10