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Western Conference Playoff Preview

Western Conference Playoff Preview
This week, we’ll be doing overall playoff previews for each conference and individual series previews for each matchup. Find all of our NBA playoff content here and on Twitter (@GamblingPodcast and @NBAZachB). Up first, the Western Conference.

Western Conference Playoff Preview

What a year this has been for the Western Conference. While much has been made throughout the decade about the disheartening disparity between the two conferences (which may even lead us to a revamped playoff format), this year the reality lived up to the hype. The West was an absolute bloodbath, and the standings reflect that. Houston and Golden State sat, for almost the entire season, comfortably perched atop the conference, looking down at everyone else and duking it out individually for the #1 seed.

For everybody else, however, the pressure has been on since even January or February, a rare state of affairs for a league that tends to lack regular season drama. Sitting on the last night of the regular season, just two games separate the #3 seed from the #9 seed, a sign of the tremendous depth of the conference, indeed, but also its bland parity. Sure, people have been clamoring about Portland all year as they’ve occupied the top end of the standings, yet the reality is they’ve been virtually no better than the teams who’ve come in at the back end of the conference.

While Houston and Golden State seem like the cream of the crop, it is undeniably true that “anything can happen” in this year’s Western Conference Playoffs. The days of the foregone conclusion are long gone, partially due to parity throughout the playoff field yet likely moreover, the variance introduced by the league-wide reliance on three-point shooting. Anyone can go cold, and anyone can get hot. Don’t be surprised to see a couple upsets or series’ that go longer than expected. If you can win 47 games in this league (which everyone sitting at this table did), you can beat anyone on any night. A couple lucky breaks here and there, then, can turn a seeming sweep into a sweat for even the most overwhelming favorite.

The elite talent level in this conference, too, will be so fun to watch during these playoffs. Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard, and Gregg Popovich are all players who can be the best player (or coach) on the floor for an entire series. Sometimes talent just wins, and if AD averages 35 and 20 in a series, why can’t the Pelicans go far? Having the best player on the floor can often mean more than which team had the better regular season record, and herculean efforts from angry individuals will be what it will take to knock off Houston or Golden State.

And, of course, the ultimate matchup that everyone thinks will define this conference is Golden State vs. Houston. I really, really don’t like what I’ve seen from Golden State this year and especially as of late, where they’ve just come out flat on so many different occasions. How the fuck do you lose by 40 to the Jazz in April? I don’t care how meaningless the game was, it’s just unacceptable. That, combined with Stephen Curry’s injury, has led me to one of the hotter takes of my career at the Sports Gambling Podcast: I am officially out on Golden State exceptionalism.

I don’t believe in the light-switch anymore. While they may (and knowing my luck, probably will) come back to make me regret that take, I’m looking at them as just the #2 seed in the West: a great team, no doubt, with a boatload of talent. But to not win even 60 games with this group is just flat-out embarrassing. In terms of motivation, how hungry are they really? How badly do they want to win this championship? Or, are they more worried about losing it because of the shitstorm that would follow a loss from this group?

You just can’t overestimate the motivational chasm between Houston and Golden State. Houston is a team that has never done a thing, and ate all year but is still starving for playoff success. Golden State seems way too comfortable, just like they did every time they played Houston this year. The Warriors get down early and just keep waiting and waiting for the light-switch to turn on. As Drake would say, “sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t.” That’s not a formula I want to get behind in the Playoffs.

I know it sounds like I’m ready to write off the Warriors; that is by no means my intention… they are a -140 favorite to win the conference, for goodness sakes. What I mean to say is that they are so high-variance that it’s almost not fun to talk about anymore. What analysis can I give you on their team when, in reality, there are two separate teams that could show up: one is the best team in the league by far, and one is really nothing special and could get bounced in the first round. My aim in this preview is to treat them as somewhere in between the two, assuming we’ll get different performances on a night-by-night basis.

Key Questions Facing Each Team

Houston: Can D’Antoni get over his playoff hump?

Houston’s innovative offensive system is the same one that succeeded in Phoenix and New York, yet both of those teams failed to meet expectations in the playoffs after regular season success. It’s been the same for Houston, too, who got bounced by San Antonio last year. Is this year going to be different?

Golden State: Does the light-switch still exist?

Of course, Stephen Curry’s injury looms large over the Warriors’ hopes to repeat, but I’m worried about their effort level and consistency. You can only say “alright now here we go boys” so many times before it becomes an empty motivator. They’re literally limping into the playoffs and haven’t been able to locate their light-switch in some time.

Portland: Is roster continuity a good thing or a bad thing “when the going gets tough”?

Portland, mostly out of necessity, has bucked the “blow it up” trend that has swept the across the league. Instead, they’ve kept largely the same core for a handful of years now, centered around the Lillard-McCollum backcourt. They haven’t found playoff success in the past, is the thing, and while the team’s comfort with one another likely was responsible for their impressive regular season, it also means familiarity with losing together in the playoffs. This situation exists in stark contrast to teams like Utah and OKC, who have lost in the past but are now attending the playoffs with an entirely new group of guys and a new team energy.

Utah: Can Rudy Gobert play against Golden State or Houston?

Rudy Gobert is perhaps the best defensive player in the league, albeit with one massive caveat: he can’t defend the perimeter whatsoever. In the playoffs, when everything is stratified, Gobert will have to prove he can stay on the floor against entirely small-ball lineups that feature shooting and spacing. He is so central to everything that the Jazz do on both ends of the floor that I’m not sure they can survive without him. If he can’t defend unless the other team has a traditional non-spacing big on the floor, however, I’m not sure they can survive with him, either.

San Antonio: What can Popovich get out of this roster?

It’s really crazy to think that this team almost won 50 games with Kawhi playing just 200 minutes all season long. Just an unbelievable coaching job from Popovich. Yet, you have to worry about the ceiling of a team whose one star is a 32 year-old big guy, even if he is playing some of the best basketball of his career. I never want to doubt Pop, Manu, and co., yet the talent disparity between this team and whoever they play should be overwhelming. 

Oklahoma City: What is the late-game lineup? What will the supporting cast bring to the table?

Russell Westbrook has been a mercurial playoff superstar, yet you still have to ride or die with a guy who you know will give you 200% effort and bring it every single night. I’m just worried about a team who doesn’t know their late-game five yet. We’re 82 games in and neither Billy Donovan nor the roster seems to know — surprises are not good in the playoffs. Will Melo sit? I can’t remember a team in the past few years with this much lineup ambiguity headed into the playoffs, which is both good and bad. And, above all, will Paul George be Playoff PG13, a second superstar? Or will he be OKC Paul George, an uncomfortable second fiddle?

New Orleans: Outside of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, what is the rest of this roster in a 2018 NBA playoff series?

Anthony Davis should do his thing and be an absolute problem in his second playoffs appearance. He seems eager to arrive on the big stage of the league. Same goes for Jrue Holiday, who quietly had an unbelievable season and earned that ridiculous contract of his. Yet, the rest of the roster has to step up and support them. Can E’twuan Moore continue his ridiculously hot shooting? Can Mirotic defend? Can Rajon Rondo maintain his career renaissance?

Minnesota: Can this talented roster exceed the sum of its parts?

All year long, Minnesota has struggled to achieve a peak greater than the sum of what you’d expect from a team led by a Butler-Towns-Wiggins core. Now, they’re in the playoffs, brimming with talent yet hampered by expectations and a difficult fit between three stars. Can they turn the fact of Butler and Towns being perhaps the two best players in any series into an advantage? Or will their lack of depth and inability to “put the pieces together” continue to inhibit their team success?

View from Vegas

Houston (-105 to win the conference): 65-17, 41-40-1 ATS. 33-47-2 O/U.

Houston at -105 overall is relatively good value, but I think if “the series” does happen, you’ll be able to get a better price than this. Vegas is no stranger to just how good this team is.

Golden State (-105): 58-24, 33-48-1 ATS. 39-43 O/U.

If you believe in the light-switch, then -105 to win the West is an absolute steal. Starting off the year, I think they were around -400. I personally don’t like it, but that’s not to say there is no value. Spreads have been less respectful of Golden State as the year has gone along as they were, for instance, an 8-point underdog with three of their big four healthy against Utah the other night. Their road does look pretty clear, however, shockingly avoiding Utah, Minnesota, and OKC

Portland (+2500): 49-33, 45-32-5 ATS, 35-47 O/U.

Portland will struggle to defend Anthony Davis, but their guards should have no trouble scoring. I think Portland in four or five games against the Pelicans is a pretty good move.

Utah (+3000): 48-34, 42-40 ATS. 38-43-1 O/U.

I like this price a lot for Utah, even though their road is super difficult. I really want to see them against Houston, where they will be an auto-play for me in game 1 and then again at home. 

OKC (+3000): 48-34, 34-47-1 ATS. 36-46 O/U.

Again, this is great value if you just want to get behind Westbrook. That being said, I think they will be pretty public against Utah in a matchup which I don’t like at all. Rudy Gobert can stay on the floor against Steven Adams, which is a massive plus for the Jazz.

New Orleans (+10000): 48-34, 45-36-1 ATS. 47-34-1 O/U.

I don’t see New Orleans making any noise this year, and think Portland is a bad matchup for them. 

San Antonio (+10000): 47-35, 41-38-3 ATS. 37-45 O/U.

I like San Antonio a lot in Game 1 against Golden State. Beyond that, I don’t see much reason to stay on this team in the futures market.

Minnesota (+10000): 47-35, 37-42-3 ATS. 45-36-1 O/U.

Minnesota is very talented but got screwed into the #8 seed where they’ll now have to face Houston’s juggernaut. They were 0-4 against the Rockets this year. Stay away.

The Favorite

Despite what Vegas says, I think Houston has to be the favorite here. Golden State just hasn’t accessed that light-switch in so long that I’m genuinely worried as to whether or not it is still there. It’s mentally exhausting, likewise, to continually attempt to turn it on and fail over and over again. How many timeouts can you call before the “here we go” turns entirely hollow?

The Houston Rockets just ripped off the 8th-greatest offensive season in the history of the NBA, posting an unbelievable 115 offensive rating. The system has been maligned by basketball purists, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t an absolute juggernaut. Starting with a high Pick & Roll that, when set at the Rockets’ specifically intentional angle and distance from the basket forces the opposing team’s worst perimeter defender to switch onto either Chris Paul or James Harden as the ball-handler, this team picks you apart in space with isolation and drive-and-kick. They kill you from the three-point line, they kill you at the rim, they kill you with lobs, they kill you with drives. They just kill you. It’s exhausting and frustrating to defend and at times exhausting and frustrating to watch. Houston doesn’t care… they just score.

What makes this iteration of “D’antoni-ball” different, however, is that this Rockets team actually defends at a high level. Posting the 6th-best defense in the NBA this regular season, this team has succeeded on the defensive end while also getting valuable repetitions in a switch-heavy scheme that is designed specifically to face the Warriors. The Rockets’ defense is governed by one rule, and it is pretty simple: switch everything. When presented with any screen, the Rockets choose not to battle through two-man action and leave people open, instead opting to battle in mismatches.

They have chosen to be more comfortable with, for instance, Harden inside guarding a big man, than they are with Harden chasing a shooter around the perimeter and losing ground with each and every screen. In a league that is increasingly poorly equipped to take advantage of mismatches inside, this defense makes perfect sense in the skill-ball era. Only increasing their defensive potential is the cohesion of this roster that communicates well and doesn’t lapse in the way it always did in the maligned Dwight-Harden era.

Still, however, Houston knows that all their regular season success will mean nothing if they fail in the playoffs again. And no one knows this more than the team’s two superstars, Chris Paul and James Harden. Paul has appeared in 76 playoff games without a Conference Finals appearance, the most in NBA history, and Harden has choked time and time again in big games. D’antoni, too, has playoff skeletons in his closet.

Houston demonstrated an ability to hang with Golden State in all of their matchups this year and the added variable of Curry’s injury makes it so much more difficult for the Warriors to defend the Rockets in space. Steph can’t stay in front of CP3 or Harden in space, let alone on a bum knee and a bum ankle. Houston should have no problem scoring on Golden State, and defensively I think their switching scheme will give them just enough cushion to win games in the 110s and 120s.

To me, Houston is better than Golden State right now, especially without a healthy Stephen Curry. No one in the league can stay in front of Harden or Paul for four quarters, and all this team needs is an ounce of dribble penetration to score. They also have the added benefit of not being jaded to the moment and will treat these playoffs with the utmost respect and humility. They’ve proved nothing, and are here to prove everything. It’s simultaneously a fun and terrifying place to be.

The Team Nobody Wants To Play

The Utah Jazz have just pulled off one of the great turnarounds in NBA history. On January 22nd, this team was 19-28 and had just lost by 14 points to the Atlanta Hawks. It was trying times for a team that was, to say the least, hurting after the loss of Gordon Hayward. The franchise looked destined for a rebuild. No one expected the team to go 28 and fucking 5 since, climbing towards the top of the Western Conference, and becoming the team that absolutely nobody wants to see in a playoff series. Since the all-star break, the team has had the best defense in the league which, when combined with a fantastic home atmosphere and the benefit of altitude, feeds directly into their ability to grind out low-scoring wins with a shocking level of grace.

Utah has been overlooked by everyone and respected by no one. Now, it’s quite the opposite, as the emergence of Donovan Mitchell in the NBA’s national conscience has corresponded the emergence of this team into legitimate contender status. This team plays hungry and they play together, anchored by Gobert defensively, guided by democracy and movement offensively, and led by Mitchell in the clutch.

In a tremendous coaching job by Quin Snyder, this team has all the makings of a tough playoff out, built in a similar way to the Memphis teams that were so good in the playoffs throughout this decade. They clear the glass, collecting 80% of missed shots on the defensive end, better than any playoff team outside of Houston. They slow the game down, playing at the slowest pace of any playoff team outside of San Antonio. And, most importantly, they are the best defensive team in the playoffs. They will keep you in the 90s and relish the game being there, where Mitchell’s outstanding clutch performance can carry them to wins in close games. Mitchell uses a ridiculous 51% of Utah’s possessions in the clutch, and the rookie looks astonishingly ready for the big stage.

I love Utah because they have a very low-variance formula. They know exactly what they want to do to you and can not be rattled by a bad-shooting night in the same way that even a Houston or Golden State can. They are comfortable in close games, have a great home crowd, and the added variable of altitude to boot. Look out for Utah.

The Pick

I’m worried about Golden State, as I think the light-switch will be a lot more difficult to locate than they (and the basketball universe) expect. I think Houston is just the better team without a fully healthy Steph Curry, and this is finally the year that Harden, D’antoni, and Paul get over the hump.

Houston -105 to win the West.

Sprinkle on Utah +3000 to win the West.

 

 

Zach is currently a college senior on the East Coast, and loves to write about sports as well as record his NBA podcast. An avid fan and notable consumer of sports content, the descent into the application of the handicapping lens to sports analysis was only inevitable.

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