And you all thought the Warriors ruined the NBA.
The 2018 NBA Playoffs begin Saturday, April 14th. If the final few weeks of the regular season have been any indication, we have a lot to look forward to. The star power, the stakes, and most importantly the parity will carry us through to June–even if we have to stomach a fourth consecutive Cavaliers/Warriors matchup.
Here are the most important storylines to pay attention to as we head into the trenches.
Who Gets In?
Four teams in the Western Conference could end up with 48 wins (it could have been five teams if New Orleans and San Antonio didn’t have to play each other on the last night of the season). While Houston and Golden State have separated themselves like oil from water at the top of the rankings, seeds 3 through 9 are so tightly bound it’ll be impossible to predict a single Western Conference playoff matchup until about 1 AM on Thursday morning.
Denver and Minnesota are slated for a play-in game on Wednesday night. Both sit at 46-35, and Minnesota holds the tiebreaker. Regardless of the outcome, there will be heartbreak: a buzzer-beater by Russell Westbrook devastated Denver’s playoff chances last year; Minnesota was touted as a serious contender–finally prepared to end their 14-year playoff drought–until Jimmy Butler’s knee injury sent the Wolves skidding. The Nuggets are in possession of a 6-game winning streak, while the Timberwolves have gone 8-9 since March 1.
Butler returned to action on April 6, restoring the toughness, leadership, and two-way prowess Minnesota was starved of for more than a month. If we know anything about Jimmy Butler, he’s not going down easy. If the Nuggets really want to beat Jimmy and double-double machine Karl-Anthony Towns, they have no choice but to channel consistency they’ve lacked all season. On Wednesday, the Nuggets will need nothing less than a stream of buckets from Will Barton, a triple-double from Nikola Jokic, some sort of defensive x-factor out of Paul Millsap, and genuinely dazzling play by young guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray. If the Timberwolves don’t want their spectacular season cut short, Jeff Teague has to be as aggressive as he was against the Grizzlies, and Andrew Wiggins is just going to have to show up.
What Can the Oklahoma City Thunder Accomplish?
If Russell Westbrook can pull down 16 rebounds on Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, he’ll officially average a triple-double for the second straight season. Not even Oscar Robertson has done that. Yet Westbrook is hardly an MVP candidate this year, despite earning the honors last year based almost entirely on his triple-double-centric play which propelled the doomed, Durant-less Thunder to 47 wins. No one’s on triple-double watch this season. Instead, the NBA universe has been on “will the Thunder blow this lead?” watch seemingly every other night since October. Russ was rewarded for his plight with two superstars in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, but the Oklahoma City Thunder have wildly underperformed.
Scheduled to win 48 games this year, the Thunder will have improved by just one game over 2016-17. Paul George suddenly can’t shoot, and while Carmelo Anthony would rather be struggling with his shot in OKC than suffering with his overall life in New York, Melo is having a slump of a season. Westbrook has never been a beautiful offensive player, and OKC has a losing record when he takes more than 17 shots (which is quite often). Oh, and none of them can shoot free throws.
Frustratingly, it’s not like the Thunder have endured a gaping offensive lineup loss, either: Westbrook, George, and Anthony have missed just nine games combined proving themselves a pointedly reliable “big three” in a season where star after star has gone down with heartbreaking injuries. But it’s the heartbreaking knee injury to defensive specialist and noted non-star Andre Roberson which has dramatically impacted the already confusing Thunder. Losing Roberson has practically ruined OKC’s defensive rating–so when their offense stagnates, it’s a catch-22. OKC has been offensively inefficient, disappointing, and just plain bad–but their defense was looking to be their way out. They’re trying to pick up the pieces, but it might be too late.
The Thunder have been pinned as “built for the playoffs,” and billed as a threatening potential first-round matchup for either the Rockets or the Warriors. OKC has put both of those teams through the ringer this year because, in truth, the Oklahoma City Thunder are an excellent team. They perform well against the league’s best, but it’s in games against bad teams or just average teams where they’re bewildering. When Westbrook and Steven Adams are flourishing in pick-and-roll, George is picking pockets, Melo is hitting catch-and-shoot threes, and Corey Brewer isn’t missing fast-break layups, the Thunder have all the ingredients to be a contender. But they can hardly ever blow games open to put teams away before the third quarter. It feels like every game comes down to the final possessions OKC is fated to squander. As the season has dwindled down, the potholes of OKC’s identity crises have begun to smooth. But skepticism remains.
The stakes are high: Paul George could happily leave in free agency if the Thunder are humiliated out of the playoffs, effectively ending the experiment and leaving the Thunder’s future up in the air once again. But for now, they can only hope for scoring, sound defense, and for Russ to keep doing what he’s doing (maybe with fewer turnovers).
Who Can We Trust to Challenge the Warriors?
The Warriors, locked out of the 1-seed for the first time since 2013-14, face new terrain. Without Steph Curry, the Warriors are going to have to take down a 7th-seeded team who may be performing with the caliber of a 3- or 4-seed. It doesn’t seem likely that Golden State can sweep their way through the first three rounds like they did in 2017: their bench has been disappointing, their defense is far from exemplary, and their two-time MVP is sidelined. The first round will be challenging. If the Nuggets knock out the Timberwolves on Wednesday night, they’ll be placed 7th. But if the Timberwolves win, they, the Jazz, or the Spurs could end up 7th.
This season, the Warriors are 2-2 against the Nuggets, 2-1 against the Wolves, 1-2 against the Jazz, and 3-1 against the Spurs. Overall, that’s an 8-6 record against potential first-round opponents, with one to play against Utah on Tuesday night. This is not indicative of an easy journey for a struggling Warriors team who have gone 7-9 since March 9, which marked the beginning of Curry’s absence due to ankle issues and an MCL sprain. Challenging Denver, Minnesota, Utah, or San Antonio could mean an exhausting 6- or 7-game series against a middling team desperate to stay alive. If it’s the Spurs on the other half of that matchup, you can guarantee they’ll be seeking revenge after a disappointing Western Conference Finals loss in 2017. We don’t yet know what kind of role Kawhi Leonard will or can play in any playoff matchup, let alone in the first round, but hope remains he can get some sort of revenge on the Warriors and Zaza Pachulia.
In the second round, the Warriors would have a similar hangup, taking on the winner of the 3-6 matchup. Steph Curry could be back by then, but he and his teammates would have to get through the Trail Blazers, the Pelicans, or the Thunder if not any of the aforementioned potential 7-seeds who fell elsewhere. Portland has won 2 straight against the Warriors; New Orleans beat Golden State convincingly on April 7, for the first time since 2015; Oklahoma City demolished Golden State twice this season, and has been teased as the Warriors’ kryptonite. Nothing’s going to come easy for the Warriors.
Golden State is favored by Las Vegas to keep their Larry O’Brien trophy, but the Houston Rockets aren’t letting the odds deter them from making a run. It’s expected and widely accepted that the Rockets and the Warriors will meet in the Western Conference Finals. Houston has run away with the league’s best record; they have fewer losses than their longest winning streak (17), and they could end up winning 66 games out of 82. The Rockets clinched the season series with Golden State on January 20. If the season opener was any metaphor–a 122-121 Rockets win in Oakland, edging out Kevin Durant‘s too-late game-winner–then Houston is primed to be Golden State’s most worthy challenger. After all, this incarnation of the Rockets was tailor-made specifically to compete with the Warriors: two dominant point guards in James Harden and Chris Paul (one of whom is all but officially MVP); Clint Capela, who manages to solve every offensive issue with the flick of a lob; their defensive pieces in Luc Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker, and Paul; and utterly unstoppable perimeter play have made fools of the rest of the NBA.
Whether the Warriors can withstand the Rockets’ storm and earn four wins without home-court advantage remains to be seen. But will they even get the opportunity to try?