When you compare the two conferences, the West is far superior to the East. The three best records this season were all by teams in the West. There were two heavy favorites to begin the season in the West: Golden State and San Antonio. That remains the case after the first round. Let’s take a look at the two Western Conference semifinals series to see if either Utah or Houston can upset these two juggernauts.
#1 Golden State Warriors vs. #5 Utah Jazz
1st Round: Golden State swept Portland in 4 games, Utah beat Los Angeles in 7 games.
The X-factor for Golden State has to be all-star forward Draymond Green. Green is the guy doing all the dirty work, while the aforementioned trio light up the arena. His versatility defensively is a huge asset for Golden State. Green has the ability to guard any position on the floor. The Warriors might not have as much depth as they had in years past but there’s too much star power here for them to be stopped.
The 8th seeded Trailblazers were no match for the mighty Warriors, and the Jazz won’t be either. The Jazz will need Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert to be at their best to not get blown out of the building. The one area where Golden State lacks in star power is at the center position. Gobert is a mammoth and should have no problems dominating in the paint. However, he has never been an elite offensive player. The French center averages only 14.o PPG during the regular season, and that number fell to a measly 8.4 in the first round. The Jazz are a great defensive team and led the NBA in points allowed during the season. However, there’s simply too much firepower on Golden State for this defense to handle. The Jazz don’t have the talent offensively to keep pace with the points Golden State will put up.
Key Matchup: Gordon Hayward and Klay Thompson (Or whoever is guarding him) – In order for the Jazz to make any noise this series, Hayward is going to have to play the best basketball of his career. Whomever the Warriors choose to defend him (likely Klay Thompson) is going to have their hands full. The Butler product has developed into a great scorer with the ability to drive to the paint or hit from deep. If the Warriors can slow down Hayward, the Jazz won’t win a single game this series.
Prediction: Golden State wins in 5 games
#2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #3 Houston Rockets
1st Round: San Antonio beat Memphis in 6 games, Houston beat Oklahoma City in 5 games.
With opposing defenses focused on Harden, that leaves a lot of open shots for the likes of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Trevor Ariza. The Rockets led the NBA during the regular season in three-pointers made and attempted. If San Antonio leaves these guys open, they’re going to get burned. The Spurs will have to try to limit Harden driving into the paint. That’s the key to Houston’s offense. If any team can accomplish this, it’s the Spurs. They were the 2nd best defensive team in the NBA behind Utah in the regular season and have the talent, both on the perimeter and in the paint, to slow down this Houston offense.
The Spurs put up their second straight 60 win season and handled Memphis in six games in the first round. No Tim Duncan, no problem. Kawhi Leonard is the leader of this team now and he responded with having his best offensive season to date. Leonard averaged a career-high 25.5 PPG during the regular season and has turned it on even more in the playoffs scoring 31.2 PPG in the Memphis series.
There is not a deeper team left in the West than the Spurs. They’re especially deep in the frontcourt with veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, David Lee, and youngster Dwayne Dedmon. There are a lot of aging veterans on this team. In order to keep them fresh for the postseason, regular rest was given to Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Gasol. If the Spurs can continue to defend at an elite level, they should be able to get by Houston in a long series.
Key Matchup: Kawhi Leonard and James Harden – Not many players were able to guard Harden during the regular season. His size, strength, and quickness are too much for opposing point guards to handle. If Tony Parker was guarding him he would get eaten alive by the MVP candidate. The only player that can match up with Harden is Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs small forward is regarded as one of the best defenders in the league and have the size and quickness to defend Harden. Expect Leonard to keep Harden in check, forcing other Rockets players to step up offensively.
Prediction: San Antonio wins in 7 games