None of the four Western Conference's playoff matchups were decided until Wednesday night, the official end of the regular season. Every hour there has been a crazy scramble for the involved coaching and video staff – a cruel turn from focus on their own team to a specific opponent.
The race gives the best basketball because of how tailored each challenge is for the team concerned. Teams no longer run a base break or defense, but one adapted to their opponents limits. It's a deep personal way of competing. If a player can not shoot, the defense defends the defense and sends its respect to a national television audience. If a player can not guard, they will be picked relentlessly until they are completely removed from the game.
What makes Rockets and Warriors so frustrating is how few weaknesses they present and how effective they cover for them. The Timberwolves and Spurs, respectively, will have their work cut out for them. But in the middle matchups we find two series mature for tactical experiments. Blazers, Thunder, Jazz, and Pelicans carry all their limitations on their sleeves; each one is so dependent on its top players that they are placed on an uncertain balance. The coming weeks will see all four drives from all angles, test their balance and their ability to react. And the winning winners will have the privilege of keeping the same control once again ̵
Most inspiring storyline: Can the skier beat his highest gear?
No team in the West has used variance quite like the thunder, which has managed to dominate and implode in almost equal measure. The best of OKC something we did not see consistently or often enough this season – would scare opposing coach staff. Gam Planning against Russell Westbrook is always a trial. The driving speed of their driving game is such a unique test for defense, and when perfectly calibrated it can be overwhelming. Factor in Paul George, Steven Adams, Carmelo Anthony and a constant casting of reserves, and Thunder has the staff necessary to mount a challenge to any team on the field.
The circumstances are to make that challenge a reality. Oklahoma City's defense has been spotty since Andre Roberson went down for the season with a ruptured patellar sena. Its disgrace – but effective overall – is prone to the types of matches and starts that can track a playoff run. Thunder is not a team waiting to turn the switch as much as a twist desperately to find its track. If they do, it can change the outlook for the entire Western Conference bracket.
Biggest X Factor: Rajon Rondo, Pelicans
It has never been a clean fit for the New Orleans Mercurial Point Guard, making his most effective stints are ever more noticeable. His game is fundamentally unchanged; Rondo we have come to know from years of exaggerating and dubious photography is still a sharp presence in the modern NBA. But when his game works – as it often happens with a team that depends on his mid-play ease – it lifts the Pelican beyond their standing. New Orleans needs the version of Rondo that slowed Isaiah Thomas in the final game last year to do the same with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. They need a creator who can relieve some of the pressure on Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, although he does not often hit the shot himself. Rondo comes up big can change the skin of the Pelican's range, in part because the option would leave an already ground layer short of another vigorous rotary piece.
What to watch
(1) Houston vs (8) Minnesota: Can Wolves get some stops at all?
The Wolves are not exactly the image of defensive discipline, which is pretty much the only way to keep competition in a series against the rockets. Each layer of your coverage must be in order. Which defenders are assigned to cover James Harden and Chris Paul-or replaced to cover them in the middle of the game face, the most challenging isolation matches in the league. The pick-and-roll defense must be so impeccably timed that they bother Clint Capela rhythms, but without favoring him as much as giving up to Harden or Paul. Help must come fast, but the second level of help helps even more; If you are a kind of team that can only make a rotation in a reliable way (as is often the case with Wolves), you have no shot to stop Houston's first actions and keep his arsenal of three-point shooters under wraps. That is why the rockets literally doubled in Wolves for three years in the season, which made a strength to an overwhelming mathematical edge. Whether Minnesota can retain any of these specific features, it will dictate how long they survive in this series. Great as it is to see Wolves in the afterseason again, it's hard to imagine they'll be longing for it.
Rockets in Four
(2) Golden State vs (7) San Antonio: How Vulnerable are Warriors?
There is an incredible amount of respect for Spursna around the league, and especially the Bay Area. Players and coaches with Warriors have spoken candid over the years about the problems that Spurs have caused them – a glowing job of one of the greatest teams all the time. But let's get something clear from the front: These are not the Spurs, in the sense that they do not present the fullness of Warrior's real threat.
The injured, short-haired Warriorsna, on the other hand, have shown that they can fall out of their tracks to pretty much anyone. And that's what the rest of the league will look at – not for a potential first round, but as a stress test of a defense champion that has not been healthy for months. Stephen Curry is likely to miss the entire series. Other Iguodala and Shaun Livingston work through some nice problems. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are just a few weeks away from missing time themselves. A defense like San Antonio will make the Golden State earn everything, and it may especially match Dejounte Murray and Danny Green at the attack. This is a low-risk series for Warriors, but the type that should lead to how they can play – both with and without the Curry-rest of the road.
Warriors in five
(3) Portland vs (6) New Orleans: What support does it play?
Both Blazers and Pelicans have high level defenders to throw in the other stars, but it says that Davis and Lillard had 77 points between them in their last regular season meeting. You do not hold down players so well for a whole series. You just hope to make your life difficult so you can overcome them by the committee. Appropriate, every defense will put the thought of the test. If you are New Orleans, your goal is to get the ball in the hands of anyone who is not Lillard or McCollum as often as possible (even Jusuf Nurkic is preferred).
If you are Portland, your goal is to deny Davis touch at every turn, thus forcing possessions in the hands of Solomon Hill, Emeka Okafor or Darius Miller. Such contributors will have to shut down shots, so as not to break the integrity of the crime under them. The review of a seven-game series will quickly determine who needs to be watched and who does not. Outstanding like Davis, Lillard and McCollum may be, nobody wants to turn the corner to find more defenders and a crowded lane waiting for them. The winner of this series will be the team that best relieves that pressure – regardless of whether roleplayers intensify themselves as contributors or stars, through some creative appearance, completely circumvent the premise.
Trail Blazers in six
(4) Oklahoma City vs (5) Utah: Who dictates the matchup game?
What makes both Thunder and Jazz so interesting couples is that both teams have their options. There is flexibility to play big and small, to cross match between positions and to allow skilled players to use in unconventional ways. In the broadest sense, their series will be determined by the intersection of what both teams do best: OKC's explosive breach of the work with one of the best defenses in the league. Yet, the terms of commitment are all and begins with how each team chooses to match. Who will protect Russell Westbrook between Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio, and who should be chaos from the ball? How much will Paul George look at Mitchell, the engine in Utah's entire crime, after barely guarding him during the regular season? How can Derrick Favors look to attack Carmelo Anthony and vice versa?
This promises to be a fun and competitive series, making the strategic choices on the margins much more meaningful – and also quite challenging to predict. Jazz has the more reliable baseline, but the thunder has more dangerous potential. My skinny is against security after seeing OKC waffle throughout the season, especially because no matchup game on the board can easily get Rudy Gobert out of Westbrook.
Jazz in Sex