The Western Conference is stacked with talent and that means plenty of mouthwatering first round showdowns. Here’s Part 1 of our look at the West.
Minnesota Timberwolves @ Houston Rockets
The Rockets, while heavy favourites, have every reason to feel a little aggrieved here. After securing the number one seed and the NBA’s best record, they face a Timberwolves team that might have been the number three seed but for Jimmy Butler’s untimely knee injury.
Still, Houston are likely not even thinking about that. James Harden and Chris Paul have been terrific all year and their group of three-point shooters will get plenty of opportunities here.
Minnesota have some pieces to match up with the Rockets’ strengths. We may see Butler guarding Harden for long stretches, while Andrew Wiggins could also take on that task. Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns are among the more athletic big men when switching onto guards.
While having Butler at 100% is vital, Minnesota’s best shot at an upset is if Towns goes to another level. The Rockets have a thin frontline. Towns has a physicality edge on Clint Capela and a speed advantage over Nene. The Timberwolves need to seek out those matchups early and often, rather than having Butler and Wiggins settling for long jump shots.
But the numbers game is not in Minnesota’s favour. They are not a prolific three-point shooting team, whereas the Rockets will be firing from deep at every opportunity. Eventually, that should turn games in Houston’s favour.
Mike D’Antoni can turn to a more defensive line-up with Trevor Ariza and PJ Tucker or swing for the fences with Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Gerald Green. Houston will score points (probably 120 points per game), and it is hard to see the Timberwolves keeping up.
San Antonio Spurs @ Golden State Warriors
For neutrals, this may be the least exciting first round matchup. The shadow of Kawhi Leonard looms over this series. With him, the Spurs would have a real chance against a Steph Curry-less Warriors team.
Gregg Popovich’s game-planning and tinkering are legendary but even that has its limits. While you can be sure that San Antonio will show up ready to play, the talent gap just seems too large.
Even if Danny Green and Dejounte Murray can do a solid job against Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant is a matchup nightmare (as he is for almost all teams) without Leonard to put on him. Durant has been a frustrated figure for much of the season – look for him to bust out with a few huge scoring nights. It would be no surprise to see him score 40 points in one of the first two games.
LaMarcus Aldridge has carried the Spurs admirably all season but a motivated Golden State defense will be zoned in on him. He has struggled to score in the post at times against Draymond Green and there are not a lot of shooters available to Popovich to space the floor.
Barring a breakout series from Murray, another Warriors injury or a miraculous Leonard return, this series is unlikely to be close.