Houston Rockets — James Harden
We can go on for hours about how the Rockets match-up position-by-position with the reigning champion Warriors. We could talk about how Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker are a big help in containing Kevin Durant, and the development of Clint Capela grants the Rockets an extra dimension on both ends. All of that conversation is for naught if James Harden has a repeat performance of his forgettable 2017 postseason run.
The Rockets-Warriors series comes down to one factor, and that’s Harden. If he’s not playing at an MVP level, Houston is toast. Chris Paul was brought in to lessen the burden, and ensure that Harden wouldn’t tire out in the deep trenches of April and May. It’s time for one of the league’s best players to put his stamp on a historic playoff run.
Golden State Warriors — Health
The Warriors’ quartet of stars are too talented to lose a best-of-7 series to any team in the league. The only way this train was ever going to derail would be due to injuries.
The medical records are beginning to pile up in the Bay Area. Klay Thompson fractured his thumb, Kevin Durant has dealt with hip soreness, Andre Iguodala and Zaza Pachulia have been in and out of the lineup, Nick Young and Draymond Green are recovering from the flu, Patrick McCaw has had some scares, and even recently signed Quinn Cook hurt his hand last week.
Most notably, Stephen Curry has continued to deal with an MCL sprain he suffered in early March. Curry’s absence has been further proof that he remains the most integral part to unlocking this team. He’s the engine that makes the Warriors go, and without him in the lineup, the offense becomes far more stagnant. If his ailments linger throughout the postseason, Golden State becomes vulnerable.
Portland Trail Blazers — Defense
Aside from Damian Lillard playing at an MVP level, the biggest reason for Portland’s success this year has been their defense. The Trail Blazers are ranked fifth in opponents points per game (103.1), and eighth in defensive rating (106.5). Last season, the Trail Blazers ranked 25th and 24th in those categories, respectively.
This comes as a bit of shock as the Trail Blazers have virtually the same team as last year. Typically when you see a big leap in the rankings, it’s because of the personnel additions, but Portland’s rotation is nearly identical to the one Terry Stotts used in 2017.
Additionally, the players on Portland aren’t traditional “stoppers.” Lillard and C.J. McCollum have never been touted for their defensive prowess. Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless are solid on that end, but certainly aren’t shutdown perimeter defenders. Even their centers, Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis, aren’t regarded as elite rim protecting bigs. It’s an interesting development for a team that has performed well-beyond initial expectations.
The Trail Blazers can show the NBA world they aren’t a fluke by maintaining their defensive swagger into the postseason.
Oklahoma City Thunder — Three-Point Shooting (from Paul George and Carmelo Anthony)
Russell Westbrook will be ready to go once the postseason opens, but he needs major contributions from Oklahoma’s 2017 offseason acquisitions. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are key for making a deep playoff run, and their ability to spread the floor will be imperative to unlocking the Thunder offense.
Given Westbrook’s ability to slash, Thunder perimeter players will be afforded plenty of opportunities to fire away. George is one of the elite shooters in the league, but tailed off a bit towards the end of the year. In 23 games after the All-Star break, George shot just 38-percent on his three-point attempts (down from 43.2-percent in games prior) — including a 29.3-percent mark in the month of March. Anthony chipped in with a 27-percent conversion rate in April, and is just above 40-percent from the field on the year.
Two of the league’s biggest names need to have good shooting nights for the Thunder to stand any chance in the rugged West.
Utah Jazz — Rudy Gobert
The Utah Jazz have been the feel good story of 2018. Once 10 games below .500, the Jazz and coach Quin Snyder caught fire in the middle of the season, riding the wave of lengthy win streaks into a playoff spot. Donovan Mitchell has been sensational in his freshman year, Ricky Rubio has come to life (leaving Minnesota helped somebody — what a shocker), and Joe Ingles hasn’t missed a corner three all year (53-percent).
Snyder has done a masterful job navigating Utah through the depths, but his skills will be put to the test in the event of a match-up with one of the Western Conference’s elite. The lingering question will be how many minutes Snyder will give Rudy Gobert.
There’s nobody in the league that deters slashers from the rim quite like Gobert. He forces players to play outside of their comfort zone — shoot a floater a couple inches higher, take an extra dribble, or hesitate for just a second. Although Mitchell has been great, Gobert is the most valuable player on this team, and will likely receive the Defensive Player of the Year award after appearing in just 56 games.
Against small ball lineups, Gobert can be exploited. But the Jazz can only reach their full capabilities with him on the floor. It will be intriguing to see which situations Snyder chooses to utilize his star center.
New Orleans Pelicans — Pace
The Pelicans have made one thing clear this season — they want to play fast.
New Orleans leads the league in pace. They average 100.5 possessions per 48 minutes, nearly six possession more than the languid 30th ranked Grizzlies. It’s been their calling card this season. When the Pelicans play at or above their 100.5 pace, they are 29-17. In games that they play slower, they’re a .500 team.
The uptempo style always seemed to be a fit for the athletic Pelicans. Having a freakish center like Anthony Davis helps, but Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo also thrive in transition.
It will be telling if the Pelicans can continue their pace throughout the slog of the playoffs. Games typically slow down once the postseason starts, and New Orleans hasn’t been nearly as effective running half-court sets.
San Antonio Spurs — Kawhi Leonard
We’ve grown accustomed to the machine that Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford have created in San Antonio, but the work this team has done in 2018 is truly special. Without the services of their best player, the Spurs have scratched and clawed their way throughout a rugged Western Conference. LaMarcus Aldridge looks rejuvenated, Rudy Gay has been a solid contributor, and the development of Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson has been exquisite to watch.
However, this team has a cut-and-dry ceiling without Kawhi Leonard in tow. He’s their best scorer, off-the-bounce threat, and perimeter defender. Going up against the likes of James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Russell Westbrook is far less daunting when Leonard is healthy and locked-in.
If he doesn’t end up playing, the Spurs will make a quick exit in the 2018 playoffs.
Minnesota Timberwolves — Fatigue
Tom Thibodeau has an affinity for running his stars into the ground. Luol Deng regularly led the league in minutes during his Chicago tenure, and we’ve all seen the lasting effects Thibodeau’s genius/madness has had on Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. He keeps a short rotation, and simply refuses to take his top guys out.
He’s carried that with him to Minnesota. Three T’Wolves’ — Andrew Wiggins, KarlAnthony Towns, and Taj Gibson — landed in the top-15 for total minutes played. On a per game basis, Jimmy Butler finished third in minutes — mere seconds behind league leader LeBron James. Minnesota fans consistently hammered their coach for not handing over some of Jeff Teague’s time to Tyus Jones. Thibodeau has a style, and he sticks to it. But that style has ultimately led to tired players come playoff time.
Rotations always shrink this time of the year — so in a sense, the Timberwolves are well-prepared for the playoffs. However, with Butler just coming off injury, and little depth to speak of, the Timberwolves could be burnt out.
Sources: Stats per Basketball Reference, Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports