Tim Kawakami: Ranking biggest threats to the Warriors in this year’s playoffs
They’re the heavy favorites and should be the heavy favorites, though this was the exact spot the Warriors were in a year ago… and that didn’t work out so well for the 2016 favorites at the end of the long playoff slog.
Now we know: The Warriors’ postseason starts on Sunday at Oracle vs. Portland – the Warriors’ first time as the featured team in the prime opening Sunday slot, FYI.
Here was a key point by Stephen Curry after the Warriors’ regular-season finale: “We’re chasing something. We’re not protecting anything this year.”
Very interesting. The Warriors won it two years ago when they were the hungry upstarts and then lost in seven games last season when they were the record-breaking super-favorites.
Anything can happen under playoff pressure and often does, but I thought this could be a good time just to lay out where the trouble spots – and trouble teams – might lie and which teams probably aren’t quite lined up to give the Warriors much of a battle.
Short-hand theme: Athletic, ball-hawking teams with unpredictable dribble-penetrators, offensive-glass crashers and solid 3-point shooters have given the Warriors some extra difficulties in the Steve Kerr era, and there are a few of those kinds of teams out there.
Also, the more patterned, throw-the-ball-in-low kind of offenses that don’t have versatile playmakers… just don’t tend to give the Warriors a lot of issues.
And if you don’t play top-level defense that puts pressure on Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant to make tough shots, you’re probably not winning more than 1 game against the Warriors in any series.
That’s how I’m looking at these playoffs, starting now.
It’s a uniquely tunnel-vision way to look at the playoffs, but the Warriors have earned this because their strengths are so obvious and their weaknesses are… well, they’re not really weaknesses, they’re more like indistinct suppositions and potential leverage points.
So I’ve ranked each playoff team specific to the threat I believe it poses to the Warriors in a playoff series, not at all just by win-totals but by playing style, personnel and recent history…
–Note: This is not a ranking of each team’s likelihood to win the title. That’s separate.
This is strictly an evaluation of the relative challenges to the Warriors and only the Warriors should they meet in the playoffs.
And one thing you noticed when you look at the big picture … is that this playoff bracket sets up quite, quite nicely for the Warriors.
–They can’t play my Nos. 1, 3, 4 or 5 most threatening teams until the NBA Finals, and can’t play Nos. 2 or 7 until the NBA Finals.
–Of the top 7 teams on this list, the only one who could play the Warriors before the conference finals … is Utah, which I’ve ranked 6th and has to get through the Clippers to make it to the second round.
Though this is no guarantee of a smooth playoff run for the Warriors – you never know when big trouble can strike – this bracket is about as clean as they could’ve asked for, in just pure match-up potential.
Here’s how I rank them and why …
1. Cleveland, East No. 2 seed. For as long as LeBron James is capable of summoning sustained periods of incomparable greatness – and maybe even into the near-future when it’s down to a sputter here or there – his team is the No. 1 threat to anybody, especially the Warriors at the end of the postseason.
As much as the Warriors sometimes seem like they’re in his head, LeBron is obviously in theirs, too, as largely evidenced by Draymond Green’s flagrant-tap in Game 4 last Finals … and LeBron’s epic performances in the three closing games.
Also: He’s a once-in-a-generation player who can get into the lane at will and who has won multiple titles. That helps.
LeBron’s the only guy who is – when he is at his best – better than anything the Warriors have.
Also, also: Though I’ve egregiously declared that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were not players who worry the Warriors – and heard plenty about that from Cavaliers fans, and I deserve it – those two guys were very good at the end of last year’s Finals and could be very good again.
Yes, LeBron’s Cavaliers have had major struggles recently (22nd in defensive efficiency) and look like a much shabbier defensive team than previous incarnations, and I still am not convinced that the Warriors should or would have much trouble against Kyrie or Love in a third Finals series…
But the Cavaliers have to be No. 1 because they’re the only team that has eliminated the Warriors in the Steve Kerr era and they’re the only team that has LeBron and those are the same thing, essentially.
2. San Antonio, West No. 2. Kawhi Leonard plus Gregg Popovich always gives the Spurs a chance against anybody, and the Spurs’ ranking as the No. 1 defensive team in the league is just another indicator.
However … they’re marked down on this list because LaMarcus Aldridge has never been a thorny issue for the Warriors – they know exactly where he wants the ball and they know what to do when he gets it – and because Tony Parker used to be but isn’t now.
And Manu Ginobili? Danny Green? Patty Mills? Pau Gasol? Dwayne Dedmon? They’re all mostly wild cards in any Warriors series, all potentially very credible playoff performers, but no Spur other than Leonard feels like somebody who could turn an entire series.
The Warriors, meanwhile, have four or five of those guys. And Kawhi can only guard one of them at a time.
If you remember Spurs-Warriors matchups from the recent past, the one Spur other than Kawhi who really used to give the Warriors trouble was Boris Diaw … not so much the recently retired Tim Duncan … and neither plays for the Spurs these days.
3. Boston, East No. 1. I thought about putting the Celtics at the top of this list because we know Boston has played the Warriors just about as tough as anybody in the last two seasons, but I had to give Cleveland and San Antonio extra credit for their playoff experience and we just don’t know how this Boston team will hold up under the brightest lights.
First, I’m not sure Boston even gets as far as the East conference finals because there are some issues, namely defense when Isaiah Thomas is playing.
But the Celtics are built to be particularly tricky for the Warriors and it has played out that way in many of their regular-season meetings the last two seasons.
Some of the reasons why: Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown, coach Brad Stevens …
The point is, the Celtics play great perimeter defense – they had the second-best 3-point percent defense behind only the Warriors … and Bradley zeroes in on Curry as well as or better than any defender in the league.
Thomas is a star capable of putting up 20 or so in any fourth quarter if you lose defensive focus for just a bit, but he’s also an extreme liability on defense and Curry and Thompson can shoot over him at any time, so there’s a mix of factors here.
I’ll slot the Celtics as an interesting No. 3 and see if they can get through No. 1.
4. Washington, East No. 4. Explosive, attacking athletic talent disrupts the Warriors’ flow more than anything else and the Wizards have more of that than anybody in the playoffs.
Of course, the Warriors would almost certainly figure it out vs. Washington over a long series, but if there’s a group of athletes who can spin the Warriors around for a game or two, it’s John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Markieff Morris and the rest.
Wall and Beal, in particular, are very, very tough guards for the Warriors to contain … and they’re not disasters on defense, so this is a great two-way match-up, which occurs with no other team vs. Curry and Thompson.
The Wizards also are adept at jumping the passing lanes (tied for second-most steals per game) and that’s the kind of thing that can screw around with the Warriors’ pass-and-cut offense.
5. Milwaukee, East No. 6. Yes, I have four East teams in the top 5. Seems weird, but it’s the styles and dynamic play that put them up here, especially the Bucks.
No doubt, this is a very high placement for a team that hovered near or below the .500 mark for much of the season and had a losing road record, but this listing is a total match-up thing.
The Warriors won both games vs. the Bucks this season, but we know they’ve had some issues with the Bucks’ length and crazy athleticism – Giannis Antetokuonmpo, Khris Middleton, Thon Maker – in the recent past.
And if Jabari Parker was healthy, I’d have the Bucks even higher.
6. Utah, West No. 5. The Jazz play at the slowest pace in the league and have Rudy Gobert waiting to spike down all shots on the other side, which is one recipe for a grinding game that the Warriors usually like to avoid.
Utah is a possible second-round match-up that could be relatively similar to the Warriors-Memphis second-round series two years ago – and that one tested a lot about the Warriors.
I don’t think the Jazz have the firepower to stay with the Warriors for more than five or six games, but with Gobert, George Hill, Gordon Hayward and Joe Ingles (who has that awkward, stop-go lefty game that always seems to throw the Warriors’ defense a little off-stride), this would be an interesting series for however long it lasts.
7. Houston, West No. 3. I don’t know that anybody can beat the Warriors just going full-tilt on offense and kind of faking it on defense, but if anybody can give it a decent try, it’s James Harden & Friends this season.
This is a much more dangerous edition of the Rockets – just looking at the match-up vs. the Warriors – than Houston teams the Warriors eliminated in the conference finals two years ago and the first round last year.
I’ll tell you one big-name player the Warriors never worried about … that would be Dwight Howard, and it’s no shock that he’s gone and Houston is doing just fine.
A problem for the Rockets: They don’t have an easy draw as the West’s third seed – they get Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook in the first round, then potentially San Antonio and then potentially the Warriors in the Western Conference finals.
8. Memphis, West No. 7. The Grizzlies’ time as true Warriors challengers seems to have come and gone, but any team with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley Jr. is worth respect.
And any city with the Blues City Cafe is OK by me.
9. Oklahoma City, West No. 6. OKC is in the same bracket as Houston and San Antonio, so the only way the Thunder could play the Warriors is if it’s a West final rematch.
I don’t see that happening, but if it did, we know it’ll be loud at Chesapeake Energy Arena and we know Russell Westbrook will do major things …
I still can’t see the Thunder winning more than one game in a potential series vs. the Warriors and the regular-season meetings this season showed why.
Last season, when OKC had Durant and also had the Warriors on life support in the WCF, the Thunder was a top-five FG percent defense.
This season? They rank 19th. If you don’t play top-notch defense, you can’t hang with the Warriors, and if you’re one-dimensional on offense, you are asking for Draymond Green to demolish everything you’re trying to do.
10. Toronto, East No. 3. I respect what the Raptors have done to get to 50 wins and the third seed in the East, but this is just not a team that matches up well vs. the Warriors.
Basically, the Warriors have several guys who can guard DeMar DeRozan and I’m not sure who DeRozan will guard.
11. Atlanta, East No. 5. Top-five defense, Paul Millsap, an unpredictable whirlwind like Dennis Schroeder can give the Warriors problems.
But there’s just not enough firepower to stick with the Warriors.
12. Chicago, East No. 8. I kept them above a few other teams almost solely because of Jimmy Butler, who is very good. But if you watched the Bulls much this season, you know that I’m being charitable here.
13. LA Clippers, West No. 4. All due respect to Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin … and we know the Clippers beat an earlier iteration of this Warriors team back in 2014 … but … that 10-game Warriors winning streak over the Clippers cannot be ignored.
If you depend on Jamal Crawford to carry you in the fourth quarter and you put J.J. Redick on Thompson, you’re not going to beat the Warriors very much. Or ever.
14. Portland, West No. 8. Hey, Game 1 is Sunday at Oracle, so be ready because this series should be quick.
The Warriors went 4-0 vs. the Blazers this season, beat them 4-1 in the second round of last year’s playoffs even with Curry hurt for several of the games, and even when Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum go on scoring binges, the Warriors never seem overly put-off by anything the Trail Blazers do.
OK, if Jusuf Nurkic was fully healthy entering this series, maybe Portland could fight its way to a win or two.
But he’s not 100 percent – questionable to make it back by Game 3 or 4 at the earliest – and even with Nurkic playing full-speed, the Warriors wouldn’t be sweating this matchup.
Just think of it this way: What really large low-post center has really hurt the Warriors in this era? Their entire style is to punish slow post players, to make them defend the pick-and-roll and run the floor and then pretty soon the big center is out of the game.
15. Indiana, East No. 7. Monta Ellis’ revenge? Nope.