The Golden State Warriors have two objectives for the rest of the regular season: stay healthy and well-rested, and take the first seed away from the Houston Rockets. Fortunately, they seem to be playing with renewed vigor, and have a fairly easy schedule the rest of the way.
Below these two historically elite teams, eight teams are vying for six spots in the playoffs. They’re all so close together in record that every night, the standings are thrown out of wack. The Western Conference playoff race is simply absurdly tight.
If you're idle nowadays in the Western Conference, you're most likely dropping in the standings. :(— The Bird WWWWWWWrites (@thebirdwrites) March 3, 2018
(On the plus side, notice the #Pelicans have the same number of losses as the #3 and #4 seeds!) pic.twitter.com/lfmXK6qVt4
Because the Warriors are virtually locked into either the first or second seed, they’ll be playing the seventh or eighth seed in the first round. Who would the toughest opponents for them in the first round?
8. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have the least star talent of any team from 3rd to 10th, but Doc Rivers has quietly enabled his ragtag group to play beyond their individual ability. After dealing away Blake Griffin before the trade deadline, many expected the Clippers to fall in the standings. Though their potential ceiling isn’t as high now, they seem to be more consistent on a night-to-night basis.
That said, the Warriors would easily defeat this team. The Warriors owned the Clippers with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and will have fewer problems beating this team. They’d sweep them.
The Clippers are currently on the outside looking in, but they’re only 2.5 games back of the third seed. With other teams falling, the Clippers have a better chance than many expect to not only make the playoffs, but possibly secure even the fifth or sixth seed, as long as their many injury problems don’t affect their record.
7. Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers have been on a hot streak lately, even beating the Warriors before All-Star Break. They’re one of the only fully healthy teams left, and have played much better defense than anybody could have expected. Damian Lillard is particularly having an outstanding season.
The Warriors have beaten the Trail Blazers in both of the past two postseasons, sweeping them last year. This year’s Portland team is not much different from those in years’ past—the Warriors should be able to handle them easily.
Portland, currently sitting at third in the West, seems to the safest team of any of these eight to make the playoffs. I’d be surprised if the Warriors and Blazers ended facing each other in the first round, but it would be a fortunate matchup for the Warriors.
6. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have won seven straight solely because Anthony Davis is a basketball monstrosity. Ever since DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles, he’s been singlehandedly putting New Orleans on his back.
No Warrior can really individually defend Anthony Davis. But the supporting cast is simply too weak: Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic (and maybe E’Twaun Moore) are decent, but the rest of the players are weaknesses waiting to be exploited. On one end, the Warriors can swarm Davis, and on the other, the Pelicans will have no answer for Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
The Pelicans are hot now, but I’m worried that Anthony Davis’ production is unsustainable. He may be the best player on any of these eight teams, but he can’t carry this much of a load forever. The Pelicans may sadly miss the playoffs again.
5. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets’ high-octane offense really is special, with Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray scoring in bunches. Their defense isn’t as great, but the return of Paul Millsap from injury should help there. They play fast, hit a lot of threes, and and move the ball well.
The Nuggets have generally played the Warriors well, beating them twice this season. A playoff series with them could also be tough because of Denver’s high altitude. The Warriors’ defense better be ready for a series with them. That said, in a playoff series, the Nuggets won’t have a chance defending Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
The Nuggets are currently eighth seed, making a first round matchup with the Warriors pretty plausible. I don’t think they either miss the playoffs or rise up dramatically in the standings, but with this close of a race, anything can happen.
Part II to come...