By Josh Liddick, Sports Talk Philly editor
On Thursday, Sports Talk Philly's Brandon Apter previewed the first-round matchups of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Today, I bring to you a nice little outlook of the Western Conference side of the NBA playoffs and what to expect. You might be happy to know that there is more talent and good teams out in the West than just the Warriors this year. There are seven teams that are looking to change the image of the NBA Finals.
So let's take a few moments to preview what to watch in the next week or two, depending on how long these series go.
Houston Rockets (1) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (8) – Rockets won season series 4-0
The Rockets are the West's best team in terms of record, however some people still have them below the Warriors in the conference. The offense Head Coach Mike D'Antoni has run this season has worked to perfection. The Rockets have been a well-oiled machine all throughout the season. James Harden is the favorite to win the MVP award, Chris Paul has reverted back to his previous All-Star self, and the way the two superstars have co-existed this year should not be undervalued. The Rockets rank third in the NBA in points per game (112.4), eighth in points allowed (103.9) and are ranked in the middle of the pack (15th) in Field Goal percentage (46.0%). Clint Capela has developed into a very reliable rebounder for the Rockets, leading the team with 10.8 per game. The Rockets are the odds-on favorite to win this series and the NBA title this season, as they very well should be.
The way the eighth-seeded Timberwolves got into the playoffs was remarkable. Winning in the final game of the regular season to punch their ticket to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years is something they were definitely looking to avoid. However, they survived, and now get to face the mighty top-seeded Houston Rockets. The Wolves are an unusual team to come in at the eighth seed in the conference, because they have so much potential at being one of the most talented teams in the league. Jimmy Butler is the star of the Wolves, and his season has been riddled with injuries, notably a knee injury that kept him out for much of the second half of the season. His return is a main reason the Wolves are in the playoffs, and the main reason why this series could be so competitive. Without Butler, the Rockets could easily sweep the Wolves, even with Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the NBA's best centers, and Andrew Wiggins. With Jimmy Butler, the Wolves could very well be the fourth seed in the West, which makes them a very annoying opponent for Houston. Jeff Teague has been a viable point guard for the Wolves this season, averaging seven assists, and Taj Gibson has had some kind of rebirth in the league with Minnesota, rebounding the ball well, but also shooting the rock well also. Gibson comes into the series with a team-high 57.7 percent field-goal percentage. Minnesota ranks eighth in the NBA in points per game (109.5) and 17th in points allowed (107.3). The Wolves have a knack for getting the ball in the net, ranked t-4th in the league for field-goal percentage (47.6 %).
The Wolves seem like they would be a popular sleeper pick especially with Jimmy Butler back from knee surgery looking to make an impact, but only if it was against any other team, not James Harden and the Rockets.
Prediction: Josh Liddick: Rockets in 6, Brandon Apter: Rockets in 5
Golden State Warriors (2) vs. San Antonio Spurs (7) – Warriors won season series 3-1
In previous years, Warriors/Spurs would be the highlight Western Conference Finals series, definitely not in the first round. But here we are, and the Warriors have some immense doubt surrounding the team heading into this year's playoffs. The Warriors are usually the overwhelming favorite to bring home the NBA Title, but injuries to many of their key players have derailed a lot of their expectations on how successful they're going to be. 58-24 is probably the worst the Warriors have been during their run of two championships in three years. With the lineup of superstars that they have, winning a title should be almost a guarantee. The chance of Golden State getting to its fourth-straight NBA Finals is still very high, but what if Steph Curry can't return? Or what if he does, but he just isn't the same? The Warriors can still win without Curry, but their last two months or so have been the shakiest the team has ever been. Kevin Durant has been hurt this year, so has Klay Thompson, and so has Draymond Green. The question for the Warriors isn't if they can get out of the first two rounds, it's if they can beat Houston in the West Finals. Even with all of their injury problems throughout the season, the Warriors still rank first in the NBA in scoring (113.5 ppg). They're first in assists (29.3) and first in blocks (7.5). The blocks are mostly a testament to their different frontcourt in Javale McGee (0.88), David West (1.03), Jordan Bell (0.98) and small forward Kevon Looney (0.85), as well as Durant (1.75) and Green (1.30). The Warriors' bench has also been a bright spot for many different reasons, highlighted by veterans Shaun Livingston and Nick Young. The Warriors are a tough out, even without Curry.
The Spurs are not the Spurs you are used to. Don't be fooled by their seventh-seed and the aura of the coach that is Gregg Popovich. They have struggled all season long, and even with injuries to Golden State, there just isn't a scenario where the Spurs can win this series. The controversy surrounding Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich along with "his Spurs" has reached intense peaks throughout the season. He's left the team, came back to the team, left the team again, and now his status for the playoffs is "doubtful." He's more than likely played his last game as a Spur, and when the team needs him the most, he's out of sight. It's a frustrating situation, but the Spurs need quality play from LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, Pau Gasol, and their super veteran Manu Ginobili. If they're lucky, the Spurs will win a game, but it's looking less and less likely.
Predictions: Josh: Warriors in 4, Brandon: Warriors in 6
Portland Trail Blazers (3) vs. New Orleans Pelicans (6) – Season series 2-2
The Portland Trail Blazers are a fun team especially because of the round they took to get where they're at in the Western Conference playoffs. They're the West's third seed, but not by a lot. The Pelicans, their first round opponent, are just a game away from being the third seed in the conference. That's how close the race was this season. The Blazers are anchored by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who in many cases could be considered one of the NBA's more elite backcourts. The Blazers ranked pretty low for scoring this season, ranked 17th in the NBA (105.6 ppg). Portland is ranked fifth for points allowed though, only allowing 103 points per game this season. Jusuf Nurkic has been a great rebounding presence for Rip City, collecting nine boards a game. Scoring wise, the three players mentioned above are the only three Blazers averaging more than 10 points a game this season. Defensive wise, this could be a favorable situation for the Pelicans and one that could end up biting Portland in the butt throughout the series.
The Pels are a scary team. No DeMarcus Cousins, due to a devastating achilles injury, but they still have Anthony Davis, who has had a dominating year for New Orleans. The crazy part about the Pelicans' upcoming playoff run is that they have no expectations surrounding how far they go, given the freak injury to their second-best player at the middle of the year. There's no pressure, and for a lot of reasons, that might be their biggest advantage for their success. Rajon Rondo has been his old self the last couple weeks, averaging 8.2 assists this season and 8.3 points. Davis is averaging 28.1 points per game this year, mixed with his nearly three blocks per game. Jrue Holiday has been an amazing defensive presence, and will be a great defender for the Lillard/McCollum backcourt. Also, the mid-season acquisition of power forward Nikola Mirotic was a standout move and a great piece to throw out on the court in Cousins' absence, with the ability to shoot 3-pointers as well. The Pelicans also have sneaky good bench pieces in Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore. The Pelicans may just be the dark horse of the NBA playoffs this season.
Predictions: Josh: Pelicans in 6, Brandon: Pelicans in 6
Utah Jazz (4) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (5) – Thunder won season series 3-1
Well Jazz fans, you made it. It's the NBA playoffs and you're the fourth seed even without Gordon Hayward. Fortunately for you all, you had a rookie by the name of Donovan Mitchell to come in and do all the scoring. On Sports Talk Philly, we've done a lot of talking about Mitchell and his rookie of the year hopes against Sixers' Ben Simmons, but for an entire team, the Jazz have been very good this season. However, this next series could tell a lot about how good the Jazz really are. The Thunder are no joke, even if they are a five-seed in the West. The Jazz have their work cut out for them, but with that being said, this could be an extremely entertaining series. Mitchell may be averaging 20.5 points per game, and the all-time leader for rookie for 3-point shooting, but the Jazz also have other players to make this series interesting. Rudy Gobert may most likely take home Defensive Player of the Year this season. Averaging 10.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks is nothing to joke about. Joe Ingles is the team's best 3-point shooter at 44.0 percent. Jae Crowder can also shoot threes, but his defense is more valuable to what Quin Snyder's team is doing following his trade at the deadline from the Cavs. And the resurgent Ricky Rubio leads Utah in assists (5.3) and steals (1.6). The Jazz allow the least points of any team per game this season (99.8), but are ranked 19th in points scored per game (104.1). The question lies with Mitchell about whether he can sustain his season success as a rookie into the playoffs. The question is still very much out there, especially with a team of stars like the Thunder.
Russell Westbrook should be considered for MVP this year, but he likely won't be in the conversation. The reigning award-winner finished the year averaging a triple-double for the second year in a row. He averaged over 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists this season. Paul George has been good, but not as good as many thought he'd be. He's averaging just a tick from 22 points per game this year. George still averages a little over two steals per game, which shows how valuable his defense is. Despite being 33-years-old, Carmelo Anthony is still averaging 16.2 points this season. The trio of key players for OKC will show their experience in the playoffs, as all three hope this time of year triggers what could be a very entertaining Thunder team. Don't forget about Steven Adams at center, who's averaging nine boards and a block per game this year. The Thunder are ranked 12th in points scored in the NBA (107.9), and allow the 10th-least total at 104.4. The Thunder are shooting 45.8 percent from the field, 36.7 percent from behind the arc.
Predictions: Josh: Thunder in 6, Brandon: Thunder in 7