Warriors should cruise to third straight Western Conference Finals
April 18, 2017 3:00 AM
by Jim Feist
Start your engines! The NBA playoffs have started, time for endless full court action every night as the league crowns another champion. Let’s take a look at the best of the West, the conference that has won 12 of the last 18 NBA titles – and they would be working on two in a row if Golden State hadn’t let a 3-1 NBA Finals series lead slip away.
Golden State added Kevin Durant to a star-studded roster, then lost him for a spell down the stretch. It didn’t matter much, as they went back to their deadly one-two punch of 27-year-old Klay Thompson (22 ppg) and 29-year-old Stephen Curry (25 ppg). That was more than enough to win late season showdowns at San Antonio and against Houston (twice).
And they’re not all offense, either. They are tops in the NBA in scoring and field goal shooting defense, as well as three-point defense. How’s that for balance? The Warriors have outstanding role players in Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, too. A third straight trip to the Western Conference Finals wouldn’t surprise.
San Antonio won the title three years ago and look just as formidable despite the retirement of longtime star Tim Duncan. Thirty-one-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge (17.5 ppg) and 25-year-old superstar Kawhi Leonard (26 ppg) are forces at both ends of the court. San Antonio is Top 3 in the NBA in points allowed and field goal shooting defense.
Gregg Popovich gets role players to buy into the team-oriented system with veterans Pau Gasol, 34-year-old Tony Parker and Danny Green. The Spurs have won 50 or more games in an astonishing 18 straight seasons, breaking the longest streak in league history behind the Lakers, who won 50 12 times in a row from 1979 to 1991. After ranking 17th in points allowed and 21st in field goal shooting percentage defense, the Spurs have improved to 9th, 8th, 13th, 2nd and 3rd in field goal defense the last five seasons.
A young Utah team focuses on defense and slowing the pace down. They top in the NBA in points allowed and are second in field goal shooting defense. 27-year-old 6-foot-8 Gordon Hayward (21.8 ppg) is a former first-round pick from Butler, and teams with 24-year-old 7-1 center Rudy Gobert in the low post.
George Hill (17 ppg) and Derrick Favors run the backcourt on this balanced team. By the way, Hill was the guy Indiana traded for on draft night, giving up Kawhi Leonard to the Spurs! Utah was able to slow down the Rockets in a win at Houston as a +8 dog (115-108). They’ve also won at San Antonio, 106-91, as a +10 dog.
Houston attacks opponents offensively with a dazzling three-guard attack in 27-year-old James Harden (29 ppg, 8 rpg, 11 apg), Eric Gordon and Lou Williams, its top three scorers. This offense is second in the NBA in scoring behind Golden State. The defense, though, is an afterthought, Bottom 10 in points allowed and field goal shooting defense. That can’t be overlooked come playoff time.
Adding guard Chris Paul (18 ppg) with 28-year-old Blake Griffin (21.6 ppg, 8 rpg) is certainly a nice one-two punch to upgrade any franchise. They are Top 10 in the NBA in scoring, with the defense 13th in points allowed.
The depth is strong for fourth-year Coach Doc Rivers, with Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, JJ Redick and DeAndre Jordan (13.6 boards and 1.6 blocks per game). They will be fun to watch in the playoffs but here’s one warning: The Clippers rank 25th in free throw shooting, a problem for several years now. That could hurt in close playoff games.
Losing Durant hurt, of course, but that means more shots for 28-year-old do-it-all guard Russell Westbrook (31.8 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 10.4 apg), who is having a season for the ages. They utilize a pair of centers in the low post in Enes Kanter and Steve Adams, but are in the middle of the pack defensively.
OKC was a great free throw shooting team when Durant was here, but are now one of the worst. Oklahoma City hasn’t been back to the NBA Finals since their brief 2012 appearance, but they don’t look as formidable without Durant and Ibaka.