The Western Conference is clearly the dominant conference in the NBA at the moment. This year’s final standings make the disparity more evident than in recent years, with the Western Conference teams winning a total of 652 games, averaging 43.5 wins per team, and the East managing only 577 wins, for an average 38.5 wins. Examining the top tier teams in the NBA in terms of record, five of the top seven come out of the West. As a result, NBA fans are about five times as excited for the first round of the Western Conference playoffs as they are about the four Eastern Conference series. One could argue that injuries to Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Danny Granger were critical in that disparity, as the Bulls, Celtics and Pacers would all likely have won 5-10 more games had these three players been healthy.
Still, the Western Conference has been forced to beat up on each other for the past three years, and there is a reasonable case to be made to revamp the playoff format, and instead of seeding teams 1 through 8 in each conference, moving to a 1 through 16 format. Of course, removing the East/West format would remove much of the drama that comes with geographic rivalries (Boston-New York, Oklahoma City-Houston) as well as the greatly increased travel hours. Imagine a Boston-Golden State first round series, followed by a Boston-Los Angeles Clippers second round, and then a Boston-Denver third round. There is a reason the NBA schedule, for all of its absurdities (7 games in 10 days, 4 games in 5 days), has extended road trips. The efficiency of travel decreases a team’s chance to recover from the wear and tear of a too-long season.
Without further ado, here is the Western Conference Playoff Preview:
As most of us know, Stephen Curry set the NBA record for most 3-point field goals made in a season (272), while shooting 45.3%, and hitting 20 3′s in his final three games. Curry’s shooting this season was also historic due to the fact that he hit 45% of his field goals, 45% of his 3′s and 90% of his free-throws. Steph’s shot is a thing of beauty, and his ability to sustain a hot streak is unparalleled in the game today. However, the Warriors will not win relying solely on Steph’s shooting (as they did in the 118-116 loss to the Lakers last Friday. Curry’s 47 points were majestic, but without all five Warriors playing physical, determined defense, they won’t survive Denver’s athleticism and pace.
The Nuggets, who will be depending on Ty Lawson’s healing foot (plantar fascitis), push the pace more than any other club in the league besides Houston at a 97.8 rate. Meanwhile the Warriors finished 4th in pace, at 96.8. It's safe to say this series will be played at a sprint, which you might think plays into the Warriors hands. The pace demands that Golden State play big men who can keep up, which brings us to Andrew Bogut.
Bogut re-injured his repaired ankle against Oklahoma City on April 11th, and missed the last few games. Before the ankle aggravation, Bogut has been struggling offensively, but providing critical interior defense and relentless rebounding. Will Bogut be able to keep pace with Denver, especially at altitude?Without being able to depend on Bogut, the Warriors will either go small, despite David Lee’s shot-blocking inabilities, or big and slow with Festus Ezeli and his lack of any offensive game. Either way, Kenneth Faried and Javale McGee are going to make life difficult if Bogut can’t give the Warriors at least 25 useful minutes.
When Klay Thompson shoots well, the Golden State Warriors win. It’s almost that simple. Curry and Lee are about as consistent on the offensive end as any high-scoring duo in the NBA, but Klay Thompson is a shooter, and a young shooter at that. At age 23, and in his second NBA season, Thompson’s long-range shooting has determined the fate of many Golden State games this year. In wins, Thompson shoots 44% from distance, dropping in 17.9 points per game, compared with 33% in losses, accounting for a scoring average of 13.9. Thompson’s season, like the Warriors, has had its mountainous peaks and its desolate valleys. The valleys came in November and again in February (29% and 32% from the arc) while the peaks were sustained through the deep winter months, putting up a mark of 45% in December, 40% in January, and back up to 44% in March.
With the exception of Jarrett Jack, the Warriors are not a drive-and-kick team, and rarely draw double teams, which puts pressure on Curry and Thompson to take threes whenever they have open space. While this works for Steph because he is arguably the best pure shooter in the NBA (hop here for SI‘s Chris Ballard’s excellent Steph Curry profile, and the importance of Jarrett Jack’s play-making as a complement to Curry’s game.), Thompson could benefit from a wing player with penetrating ability. Despite his occasional flashes, Harrison Barnes is nowhere near ready to play the minutes he’s been forced into because of Brandon Rush’s absence. Mark Jackson has to find a way to run Thompson off of Bogut picks and get him space in the half-court, similarly to how Garnett was consistently able to open up shooting space for Ray Allen during Boston’s playoff runs. Thompson doesn’t have Allen’s innate maneuverability, but has the size to ward off smaller two-guards.
On the other side of the ball, Andrew Bogut is a force under the basket, and his presence will be especially critical against Denver’s penetrating ability. Bogut’s length and his Gasol-like ability to stretch out and avoid jumping for up-fakes drives would-be lane-slashers crazy. If Bogut can keep his stamina, and avoid foul-trouble, the Warriors will have a legitimate chance of upsetting the Lawson-impaired Nuggets. Keeping Denver’s Faried off of the glass is next to impossible, but Bogut, Lee, and pretty much every Warrior on the court, must make it a priority.
Players to Watch: Steph Curry and Kenneth Faried, just because they are two of the most entertaining and unique players in the NBA. Also: Ty Lawson’s ability to get to the rim as well as his foot, Andrew Bogut’s defense and his ankle, Klay Thompson’s 3-point shooting, and unheralded rookie Evan Fournier’s defense. But mainly, you’ll be amazed by Curry’s quick-release and Faried’s rebounding.
Darko Index Predicts: Warriors in 6, the head says Nuggets in 7, but the heart says Warriors in 6, as long as they steal Game 1 in Denver. (65% confidence rating).
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Thanks for reading Go Warriors!Jonah