For three years running, the Golden State Warriors have played in the final game of the NBA season. Two of those games ended in elation; one ended in heartbreak.
On Saturday, the Warriors - stacked with absurd levels of talent - will begin their quest to be one of the final teams standing for the fourth straight year. And despite all of their talent and experience, this will be the hardest journey yet.
The Warriors “only” won 58 games this year, a far cry from their previous three totals of 73 once and 67 twice. They dealt with injuries to all four of their All-Stars, and many of their role players, and begin the postseason with no Stephen Curry, no Patrick McCaw, and plenty of bumps and bruises on the players who will be on the court.
Still, you’ve got to like their chances. When healthy, this team is elite. And even when not healthy . . . well, they finished with the league’s second-best net rating, despite a combined 66 games missed by Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
It won’t be easy, but the Dubs are right in this thing.
But it’s not just the challenges of the season that stand in the Warriors way. It’s also three highly talented teams that they’ll have to go through in order to once more play for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Here’s their path to the Finals.
Western Conference Opening Round
Opponent: San Antonio Spurs
Offensive rating: 17th (15.5)
Defensive rating: 4th (102.4)
Net rating: 7th (+3.1)
Season series: Warriors won 3-1
By their own outlandish standards, the Spurs had something of a down year. It was the first time since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season that the team failed to win 50 games. In other news, high bars are high.
But the story of the season for San Antonio was the mysterious absence of Kawhi Leonard. Perhaps taking advantage of being the go-to guy with no Leonard around, LaMarcus Aldridge turned in a season that should earn him an All-NBA nod, and his stellar play makes the Spurs a hard out.
And, of course, San Antonio still employs Gregg Popovich, who (to this pair of eyes, at least) is still the greatest coach in NBA history.
Coaching matters double in the playoffs, so the Warriors will have their hands full in round one, especially since they don’t anticipate having Curry back until the second round. But even so, this is their series to win.
Western Conference Semifinals
Likely opponent: Portland Trail Blazers
Offensive rating: 16th (106.1)
Defensive rating: 8th (104.2)
Net rating: 11th (+1.9)
Season series: Blazers won 2-1
The Blazers have been one of the more fascinating stories this season. After sneaking into the eight-spot in the West last year (and promptly being swept by the Dubs), Portland exploded this year. Yet, despite their high-octane backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Blazers succeeded in the least expected way: with a mediocre offense, and a strong defense.
Still, Lillard and his offensive brilliance are the story for Portland; they’ll go as far as he carries them.
Of course, the Warriors have a pair of players like that as well, in Durant and Curry, who will hopefully be returning for this series. One thing is for sure: this series would be a lot of fun. With Curry, it should comfortably go to Golden State. Without Curry? Anything short of seven games would be disappointing for NBA fans.
Potential opponent: New Orleans Pelicans
Offensive rating: 9th (107.7)
Defensive rating: 13th (105.6)
Net rating: 10th (+2.1)
Season series: Warriors won 3-1
The Warriors could easily face the Pelicans in the semifinals, as New Orleans has the star power to get through Portland. And a second round date with the Pelicans sure would be interesting.
Anthony Davis is a problem that the Warriors simply cannot solve. The MVP candidate has had an absurdly good season, and only got better once fellow All-Star DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles.
New Orleans probably doesn’t the depth, or the coaching to hang with the Warriors in a seven-game series, regardless of whether Curry plays. But they are a highly dangerous team.
Western Conference Finals
Likely opponent: Houston Rockets
Offensive rating: 2nd (112.2)
Defensive rating: 6th (103.8)
Net rating: 1st (8.5)
Season series: Rockets won 2-1
What’s there to say about the Rockets that hasn’t already been said? They were the best team in the league this season, whether you look at the standings or the advanced metrics.
Houston rode what is sure to be an MVP season from James Harden, and, just for giggles, added one of the best point guards of all time in Chris Paul, assuring that the Rockets have a Hall of Fame playmaker on the courts at all times.
Perhaps most impressive is Houston’s defensive renaissance. The additions of Paul, PJ Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute, mixed with the growth of Capela (and Harden’s increased attention on that end of the court) vaulted the Rockets from a below-average defense last year, to a highly stingy unit this season.
Houston can do it all: they move the ball, space the floor with shooters, play great defense, and have elite go-to scorers for when the game slows down. And, quite importantly, they hold home court advantage all through the playoffs.
Should the teams match up in the Conference Finals, the Warriors will likely not be favored, which would be new territory for them.
But would it ever be fun.