We’ve done the East, now it’s time for the West.
As per usual, these are much more gut-instinct heavy than the usual fare around here, because if history has taught me anything, it’s that you can do a bunch of extra work, crunch a bunch of numbers, and be just as wrong, because the playoffs are just a completely different beast from the regular season.
HOUSTON vs. MINNESOTA – Rockets in 5
I’d have said sweep here, but reportedly Chris Paul is battling some injuries sustained late in the season, which means that the unbeatable triumvirate of CP3, James Harden, and Clint Capela may not be fully intact in the first round.
But none of that matters. Minnesota needed a late collapse from the Nuggets and an overtime victory at home just to make the playoffs. They can’t play a lick of defense—a Tom Thibodeau-coached team finished 27th in Defensive Rating.
They have the second-worst player by VORP who played at least 2,000 minutes, one of two guys who the numbers say was worse than any guy you could’ve dragged out of the G-League, in Andrew Wiggins, arguably the worst starter in the entire league.
And Jimmy Butler‘s health is still something of an open question.
You put all that together and Minnesota might win Game 3 just because the worse team always seems to steal one if they have even a modicum of talent (and you don’t make the Western Conference playoffs without talent), but Houston will run Minny off the floor and bury about a hundred three-pointers in the five-game series.
UTAH vs. OKLAHOMA CITY – Jazz in 6
The Jazz actually finished fifth in the West after losing the finale to Portland, which means they go on the road to Oklahoma City for the opener.
Trouble is, the Thunder have the other terrible starter in this series, the guy who was even worse than Wiggins, and that’s the completely washed-up Carmelo Anthony.
Utah also went 29-6 in their last 35 games of the season after being left for dead, Donovan Mitchell, while the second-best rookie in the league, still had a spectacular debut season, they have the Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert to keep Steven Adams off the offensive glass and limit the Thunder to one shot…it’s Matchup Hell when the game slows down in the playoffs.
And sure, Russell Westbrook and Paul George will win two of these games by themselves. But the Jazz, since Gobert returned from injury in January, have been only behind the Rockets as the best team in the entire league.
They’ll close it out in Salt Lake City after stealing one on the road.
GOLDEN STATE vs. SAN ANTONIO – Warriors in 5
Yes, 5. Even without Stephen Curry, the Dubs are just too much for the Spurs. San Antonio runs its offense through LaMarcus Aldridge, and when you have a guy who lives and dies by the two-point midrange jump shot going up against a team that has Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, you’re starting every game down 10-0.
Durant will smother Aldridge defensively, and the Spurs just don’t have enough perimeter weapons to win that shootout. Draymond Green is still one of the best defenders in the league, and even though Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches who ever lived, Steve Kerr is no slouch.
The Warriors just have too much power. They’re not bowing out that easily, as intriguing as this matchup looks.
PORTLAND vs. NEW ORLEANS – Blazers in 7
The Pelicans are better than anyone gives them credit for, and they might just be better without DeMarcus Cousins (who can’t play with Anthony Davis and still give the Pels the flexibility they need to run a ball-movement offense; Boogie and the Brow would’ve been scary in 1997 but the game has passed Twin Towers basketball by.)
But Portland can run them off the floor with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic isn’t as good as Davis but he’s not so much of a dropoff that he hands games to the Pellies just by being out there, and when push comes to shove, the Blazers have the Portland home crowd behind them for a Game 7.
Truth be told, the Pelicans might not have truly deserved to be here. They had the worst conference record of any West playoff team, beating up Eastern Conference opponents but having a nasty habit of losing to good teams on their own side of the nation.
Portland’s not great, but New Orleans isn’t even as good. It’s close. It could go either way. But it’s going chalk.
HOUSTON vs. UTAH – Rockets in 7
The Jazz will give the Rockets fits. Mitchell’s athleticism will be a pain in the rear for Harden’s defense, while Gobert will neutralize and outmuscle Capela inside.
If Chris Paul isn’t healthy for this series, it could be the upset for the ages that this side of the bracket needs.
But we’re still talking about the Rockets here, and that means their superior offensive capability combined with Mitchell’s tendency to morph into Jerry Stackhouse when he’s chasing counting stats and scoring 30 points on 30 shots will mean they just have too much firepower.
This will be Utah’s coming-out party, the “team of the future” talk going full bore, but ultimately, Houston is just too good.
GOLDEN STATE vs. PORTLAND – Warriors in 7
You do realize that the Blazers have always given the Warriors fits, right? They took two of four in the regular season, Steph is going to be rusty as the hinges on the front door of an abandoned house, and that means the Blazers might just take Game 1 and set the series on a path where the Warriors have a Game 6 on the road that they simply won’t lose because they’ll have all their weapons back at full strength.
Because that’s how I see this going. Portland wins Game 1 in Oakland. The home team holds serve from that point on…and then the Blazers blow a 3-1 lead, losing a pivotal Game 6 and going back on the road where the Warriors blow them out by 40 in an anti-climactic Game 7 and setting up the matchup we all knew was all but inevitable all season long…
Western Conference Finals
HOUSTON vs. GOLDEN STATE – Warriors in 6
And the Dubs, with all four of their stars coming together and being cohesive once again, dismantle the Houston defense. The Rockets backcourt can contain Steph and Klay. But who stops Draymond and Durant? Capela’s weakness on defense is that he’s not mobile enough to chase big men out, especially when the ball pings around the way it does in the Warriors’ ball-movement-heavy offense.
And the Rockets’ three-point prowess may be great, it may even win them a couple of games, but they’re not guaranteed to end up with more made threes on any given night, and the Warriors, not Houston, led the league not just in three-point percentage but in two-point make rate as well.
Everything the Rockets do, the Warriors do just a little bit better, and the Dubs have done this three times now.
NBA FINALS – Warriors Over Raptors In 4
And we all talk about how the WCF was the “real Finals” and start saber-rattling for one of those conference-agnostic 16-team playoff tournaments because if the WNBA can have conference-blind tournaments to make sure the two best teams have the best chance of reaching each other in the Finals, why can’t the men?
But the Raptors already got their moral victory because they’re the class of the East now and not even LeBron can deny them…unless LeBron goes to Philadelphia to stay in the East and leads the Sixers to the 2019 title.
But in 2018? Stephen Curry, Finals MVP.