The NBA playoffs are finally here, and the Western Conference features some interesting first-round clashes: a grind-it-out slugfest between Memphis and San Antonio; a battle of MVP candidates in Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and Houston's James Harden; a (lopsided) rivalry between the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers; and what likely will be a Golden State–Portland three-point frenzy.
Let's take a closer look at the key battles in each series, and what the underdogs can do in order to come out on top.
No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 1 Golden State Warriors
Eight weeks ago, Portland seemed resigned to missing the playoffs. Trading starting center Mason Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets for Jusuf Nurkic looked like a long-term move, given that Nurkic was arriving both out of shape and presumably out of sync with his new teammates.
Much to everyone's surprise, Nurkic found new motivation, quickly shed 20 pounds, and has fit in alongside Damian Lillard and the Blazers even better than Plumlee did in his two seasons as the team's starting center. After dropping three of their first four games following the trade, the Blazers won 13 of their next 16 with Nurkic in the lineup.
At seven feet tall and anywhere from 280 to 300 pounds (depending on his conditioning), Nurkic is an enormous human being. When he plants himself on the block or underneath the basket for an offensive rebound, there's no moving him. Likewise, holding rebounding position against him for more than a second or two is nearly impossible—even the league's biggest centers get pushed around by him.
The Blazers do an excellent job of keeping the paint uncluttered for Nurkic to roll toward the rim, using creative and well-timed cuts that finish with Nurkic in the high pick-and-roll alongside Lillard or C.J. McCollum. Nurkic still rushes shots and uses some awkward footwork that might make him susceptible to weak-side blocks and even charge calls, but he puts a lot of pressure on the defense to get there first. Rotate late, and defenders risk ending up on the wrong side of a poster dunk.
Golden State's thin frontcourt makes this series interesting. Zaza Pachulia will be able to bang with Nurkic without giving up too much ground, but the Warriors still prefer playing small, employing their death lineup in key moments and late in games. Nurkic makes that tactic much more risky; he's one of the few centers that Draymond Green can't physically match. Green's best bet will be to use his speed and annoyingly physical play to fluster Nurkic into rushed shots.
That said, Nurkic is one of the NBA's best at getting fouled; since joining the Blazers, he has drawn a foul on 6.8 percent of Portland's offensive possessions. Most of these foul are committed by undersized bigs attempting to fight around him for rebounds, and weak-side defenders trying to get in his way on rolls to the rim. If Nurkic can draw fouls on Green early in the series when the Warriors go small, the Blazers might be able to neutralize Golden State's most dangerous punch. On the other hand, if Green can get Nurkic out of offensive rhythm and keep him off the glass, both their individual matchup and the series will go to the Warriors.
No. 2 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies
Thanks to the NBA's schedule-makers, the Spurs and the Grizzlies have played each other three times over the last three weeks, and four times over the last two months. In those contests, a team scored more than 100 points exactly once. This isn't surprising, considering the Spurs and the Grizzlies rank No. 27 and No. 28, respectively, in pace, and No. 1 and No. 2 in defensive rating. This series will be a defensive battle, which is just the way both teams want it.
Moreover, this series will be something of an amazing statistical and stylistic anachronism: in an era where the NBA is moving away from post-ups and toward perimeter-oriented actions, both San Antonio and Memphis remain inside-out teams.
Somewhat ironically, this series might come down to which team can shoot better from behind the arc. The Spurs are unique in that they rank No. 1 in the league in three-point percentage yet rank 24th in three-point frequency. Memphis is much closer to average in both categories, but has much more success when its three-point shots are falling. The Grizzlies are 30-9 when making at least 10 three-pointers, and just 13-28 when making nine or fewer. Their interior scoring, rebounding, and defense are fairly constant across wins and losses, but their three-point shooting is a big variable. The Spurs, on the other hand, are great at taking away the three-point shot, holding opponents to an average rate of just 28.1 three-point attempts, the third-lowest in the league.
For both teams, the key to their three-point shooting will be dribble penetration. Both teams have elite perimeter defenders and are very tight with their defensive rotations, limiting the amount of kickout three-point opportunities they allow. In the two Spurs losses, Tony Parker and Patty Mills were held to a total of just 18 points and nine assists. In their two wins, the same point guard duo scored more than doubled that output with 48 total points and 20 total assists.
Mike Conley is great at defending Parker in the half-court, fighting under screens, walling off the driving lanes, and forcing Parker into contested pull-up jump shots—something that for most players is easier said than done. Parker has gotten the better of Conley in transition, though, especially when the Spurs have used drag screens.
The Grizzlies have a shot against the Spurs if they can contain drives and limit three-point opportunities. Low-scoring, low-possession games are more susceptible to variance, and the best way to up the variance is with the three-point shot. This series will be fought in the paint, but likely won outside it.
No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 3 Houston Rockets
The Thunder won just one of their four matchups against Houston this season, and it's probably not a coincidence that their lone win came in the only game that the Rockets' Patrick Beverley did not play. Beverley has been a nightmare for Russell Westbrook dating back to a 2013 first-round series between these teams, when Beverley ran into him, a collision that led to a Westbrook knee injury.
In many ways, Beverley is Westbrook's defensive reflection. Like Westbrook, he plays with burning intensity, carries himself with swagger, and has a giant chip on his shoulder. Westbrook might be the bigger star by far, but Beverley will go at him every time down the floor, and is one of the few NBA players who does not fear the Thunder point guard one bit.
In their three individual matchups during the regular season, Westbrook shot 8.5 percent worse when Beverley was on the floor—and during those same minutes, the Rockets outscored the Thunder by 17 points. At times, it seemed as though Westbrook was too aware of this, and took it too personally; his usage rate spiked to 47.1 percent when Beverley was on the court, six percent higher than the NBA-record 41.1 percent that averaged all season. Meanwhile, Westbrook's assist ratio—the percentage of the Thunder's possessions that end with him giving an assist—fell precipitously, from 27.5 percent to 13.6 percent.
Both numbers are due to the Rockets trusting Beverley to contain Westbrook without over-helping on drives and isolations. Beverley does a great job of picking up Westbrook in transition before he can gain a head of steam, forcing the Thunder into a half-court game. While most opponents send early help when Westbrook isolates in the post, the Rockets allow Beverley to guard him individually, taking away passing angles.
The Thunder try to get Beverley off of Westbrook by throwing him into pick-and-rolls, and this has been by far their best option. Still, Beverley never gives up on plays, and when Westbrook gets lazy or thinks he's found an exploitable switch prematurely, Beverley sneaks up and makes him pay.
Harden also will have his hands full with André Roberson. Similar to the Westbrook-Beverley matchup, Harden's field-goal percentage drops well below his season average when Roberson is on the floor, and everything that is true of Beverley on Westbrook is true of Roberson on Harden. The biggest difference? The Rockets have other scorers and playmakers who can pick up the slack for their star guard in ways that the Thunder can't. That could be the ultimate difference.
No. 5 Utah Jazz vs. No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have owned the Jazz for the last several seasons, winning 18 of their last 20 matchups. This season, Los Angeles is 3-1 against Utah, including two wins in which it has held the Jazz to under 76 points.
The Clippers have experience on their side, having made the playoffs for each of the last five seasons with the core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. By contrast, the Jazz's core is in its first postseason. The Clippers also entered the final night of the NBA season on a six-game winning streak, and they've scored at least 110 points in all but one of those games. A large reason for that has been great play from Griffin, who is averaging 26.8 points per game on 61.7 percent shooting over that span.
Griffin could be a real problem for Utah, since the Jazz have struggled to find consistency from their power forwards all season. Derrick Favors is the best defensive option against bigger power forwards, and at his peak he certainly has the defensive chops to match up with Griffin. Problem is, Favors missed 31 games this season, and 15 games since March 8.
In his absence, the Jazz have found success behind smaller, stretchier lineups. They have a scorching 116 offensive rating in 436 minutes with Joe Johnson playing smallball power forward since the Favors injury, a mark on par with teams like the Golden State Warriors. But Utah also has been vulnerable to teams that like to play big. Griffin feasts on mismatches in the post against smaller defenders, and the Clippers have been effective at finding switches for him when the Jazz play small. Boris Diaw has the size to handle Griffin in the post, but Griffin makes him pay with rim runs and dribble handoffs.
Favors could change everything for the Jazz in this series, but given all he has gone through this season, it's impossible to know if he's ready for playoff-level basketball against an elite athlete. Can Utah rely on him to play 25 minutes per game with postseason intensity? That may be the deciding factor in this series.
The first round of the playoffs typically features a handful of blowouts and sweeps, but there's a decent chance that this year's Western Conference series will be competitive across the board. A lot depends on health—especially with regards to Nurkic and Favors—but if the underdog teams are healthy, they should be dangerous.
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