#1 Warriors vs. #8 Clippers- Warriors lead 3-1
With the exception of a monumental game two letdown by the Warriors that saw the Clippers walk back a thirty-one point second-half deficit, this 1-8 matchup has largely progressed as expected. Some variability between the Warriors myriad all-stars, but generally, no problems for the champs. Klay Thompson was absent for the first few games before going off for 32 in game four. Kevin Durant struggled mightily in games one and two, getting ejected, then fouling out, before settling down and scoring 38 points in only thirty minutes in game three. That’s the thing about these Warriors. They’re just on a different level, and there’s few teams that can really challenge them when even two of their three primary scorers are locked in. When all
three are in sync, forget about it. That’s why the Rockets should be a at least a little mad at the Clippers for that impressive comeback win. You get the feeling that it snapped the Warriors out of their malaise. If that had happened in the next series (a more-than-likely Warriors-Rockets rematch), it could have been all that the Rockets needed to get over the hump in a critical game. Just to catch the defending champs on cruise control. It’s not going to happen now. The Clippers will probably go down in five, but they’ve woken the dragon, and that’s bad for everyone else.
#2 Nuggets vs. #7 Spurs- Nuggets lead 3-2
I’m not saying that the only thing going for Denver is homefield advantage…but it really felt like a big deal to me that the Spurs snatched one away in Denver. The Spurs are a thorny contender, anchored by LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, but no one expected them to really be in this series. Denver has been too good at home all season, and Pau Millsap, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic should be able to close this thing out. But at 3-2, with the series in doubt, it’s going to be gut-check time for the Nuggets Thursday night in San Antonio. To win, Denver will need to prevent the Spurs role players from going bonkers, like Derrick White did in the Spurs game three win, pouring in 36 points to lead all scorers. Greg Popovich isn’t revered as one of the NBA’s great all-time coaches, and I expect to see the Spurs push this thing to a winner-take-all game seven. Who says the first round of the NBA playoffs is never exciting???
#3 Trail Blazers vs. #6- Thunder- Trail Blazers win 4-1
If that was a “bad shot”, I’m super curious as to what a good one is. Paul George’s saltiness over a first round exit aside, Damian Lillard’s series-clinching buzzer beater was one of the greatest closeout shots we’ve ever seen. Add in the fact that he had a hand in his face, and it was a looong three-pointer (over thirty feet), and you have the stuff of legends. Here’s the thing though, it wasn’t a low percentage shot. Maybe for Paul George and the rest of the NBA not named Steph Curry, but Lillard is pretty damn good from that range. Per ESPN, he’s averaging just under 40% from outside of thirty feet. When you compare that with the league average of 35% for ALL three pointers, it becomes clear that Lillard’s shooting range is, much like Curry’s, special. Despite OKC winning game three 120-108 to keep things interesting, this series laid bare a few hard truths. Russell Westbrook is a straight-up liability come playoff time, and his game is too engrained to change. Despite Westbrook’s 29-pt. triple-double in the final game of the series, he was barely the third-best player on the court, behind Lillard’s masterful 50 pt. effort and Paul George, who outscored Westbrook, despite taking eleven fewer shots. Westbrook shot barely 33% from the floor in a closeout game. George hit 70% of his shots from the floor. You can’t win consistently in the NBA playoffs when your best player takes a back seat to hero ball. The Thunder will head home and try to put a band-aid on a mortal wound once again, while the Trail Blazers will wait to see who emerges from the Nuggets-Spurs series. Either way, the second round of these Western Conference playoffs will be gripping.
#4 Rockets vs. #5 Jazz- Houston leads 3-1
Here’s what I like about Houston. They’re the NBA equivalent of a Rocky movie. All haymakers, constant kill shots flying all over the place. It doesn’t really look like real boxing, or in this case, basketball, but that’s ok. It’s pretty fun to watch. It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it. James Harden dominates the ball, but he’s still chipping in double digit assists nightly. Chris Paul isn’t the player he once was, but he’s an excellent companion piece to one of the games most complete scorers. The Jazz have a different feel about them after their game four win, though, don’t they. Donovan Mitchell is becoming the team leader we thought he might be, chipping in 31 pts in the 107-91 win. Jae Crowder was no joke early, carrying the Jazz with a first quarter barrage and shooting 8-13 from the field, scoring 23. Ricky Rubio was aggressive driving to the basket, scoring 18 and adding 11 assists, providing some spark to a Jazz team that looked bewildered at the pace of the game earlier in the series. I don’t see the Jazz digging out of this 3-1 hole by any stretch, but with that trio paired with Rudy Gobert’s contributions on both ends of the court, they have a lot to build on next year.
Image Source: AP Images