As the NBA playoffs begin, the Golden State Warriors enter as the favorites to win it all. While that does not come as a surprise to anyone who follows basketball, what may be surprising is that they actually have better odds to win it all this year than they did last year, when they set the NBA record for most wins in a season with 73.
This is due to the fact that while they had a better regular season record last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs also had record-setting seasons, so people thought those two teams could beat the Warriors in a seven-game series.
This year, however, the Warriors have improved on last year’s tremendous success with the addition of former Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant. His addition, combined with the fact they did not lose many players from last year’s team, is why many people believe this Warriors team is better than last year’s.
Before Durant went down for 19 games with an injury at the end of the year, the Warriors were clicking on all cylinders. They were on pace for the third best record in NBA history, trailing only last year’s team and the iconic 1996 Chicago Bulls. Including the game where Durant got hurt just two minutes in, the Warriors lost five of their next seven games, showing how pivotal he was to their team.
After losing three in a row, however, the Warriors went on to win 14 straight games, securing their third straight season with 67 or more wins, another NBA record. That run was compounded with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ complete collapse during this stretch. From the time of the Durant injury to the end of the regular season, the Cavaliers went 10-14 and lost the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, a spot they had held all year.
Even the San Antonio Spurs fell off at the end of the year, losing four of their last five games to end the regular season. The combination of the Warriors going on a run and the Cavaliers and Spurs entering slumps is why the Warriors are more favored to win this year than they were last year. With that being said, the games still must be played, which leaves open the possibility that they lose, because all it takes is one streaky team to knock off a frontrunner like the Warriors. In my opinion, the teams with the best chance to do this are the Los Angeles Clippers, the Houston Rockets and the Boston Celtics.
Los Angeles Clippers: This pick relies on the one thing that has been the Clippers’ Achilles Heel ever since they became playoff-relevant again: injuries. It seems like every year, they are one of the best teams in the West, with their dynamic players who match up on paper with any combination of players in the League.
If the Clippers can stay healthy during the playoffs, they could pose a problem for the Warriors. In some respects, the Clippers are the opposite of the Warriors. While the Warriors have no true center (starter Zaza Pachulia averaged only 18 minutes per game during the regular season), the Clippers have one of the best in the League in DeAndre Jordan.
Draymond Green would be matched up against Jordan most times, and both players would be judged more on their defensive impact than their scoring impact. When it comes to scoring, the spotlight will be on Durant’s matchup against Blake Griffin. These two are the stars for their teams and carry the brunt of the scoring responsibilities, though in different manners.
While Durant is a perimeter shooter, Griffin is a post player, so it will be interesting to see how the matchups work out. The Warriors may put Andre Iguodala on Griffin, as Iguodala is a much more experienced defender. Similarly, the Clippers could put defensive specialist Luc Mbah a Moute on Durant, though he would be giving up some height to Durant. Regardless of who defends who, the matchup will come down to which scorer can outplay the other.
The final pivotal matchup would be Stephen Curry against Chris Paul, which is probably the most polar matchup of all. Curry is a score-first point guard, who is the only player in NBA history to make over 300 three-pointers in a season (this year was his second time doing it, he made 402 threes last year). Paul, on the other hand, is a pass-first point guard, who has led the NBA in assists four different times. One surprising stat about this matchup is that these two guards have shot the same percentage from three this year.
If the Clippers want to have a chance to beat the Warriors, they must stick to their style of play, and they cannot let the game turn into a perimeter matchup.
Chris Paul must distribute the ball all around, Blake Griffin must find ways to score and Deandre Jordan must affect shots and grab rebounds.
Houston Rockets: The game plan for the Rockets to beat the Warriors is not nearly as matchup-oriented as the Clippers plan.
For the Rockets to win, they must make their shots. Their offense is built around James Harden, who has become more of a facilitator this year. Harden needs to take over the series to get the Rockets the shots they need to win.
The Rockets have shot as many as 61 three-pointers in a game this year (an NBA record), and while they do not have to take that many three-pointer shots against the Warriors, they have to make a good amount of the ones they do take. They get all the threes through attacking the basket and kicking it out, which all starts with Harden.
The Rockets are probably the only team that can outscore the Warriors, but to do so, Harden must have an MVP-type series. Given his body of work during the regular season, that is more than possible.
Boston Celtics: The only thing I can logically explain is that the Celtics just win.
They are led by point guard Isaiah Thomas, who had to endure a tragedy before the playoffs started when his sister passed away because of a car accident on Saturday. That tragedy could spur a Celtics rally behind it if they face off against the Warriors.
The team itself consists of many role players and a good mix of young players and veterans. The core has also played together for a few years now, so they understand each other and how to be successful. The Celtics will not play the flashy game that the Warriors play, but that might be just the key to beating the Warriors. The Celtics are the best executing team in the League, and they make the most of their talent. It might just be enough to win them the Championship.