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While the first round of the NBA Playoffs was fun, the second round is usually where the real grind begins. It’s where we start to truly separate the contenders from the pretenders. Separating the contenders from the pretenders is exactly what we are going to do here, going team by team, series by series evaluating whether or not each team has a real shot to win the NBA title. This analysis is split into two articles, with this one covering the Western Conference and the other covering the Eastern Conference.
Conference Semi-final matchups:
- Phoenix Suns vs. 4. Dallas Mavericks
- Memphis Grizzlies vs. 3. Golden State Warriors
The defending Western Conference champions were the league’s best team for most of the regular season. On offense they are led by one of the most dynamic backcourts in recent memory, with the legendary Chris Paul running the team and the electric Devin Booker providing the scoring punch. They’re also a great defensive team, led by DeAndre Ayton in the middle and Mikal Bridges, who is one of the best wing defenders in the league. Monty Williams is one of the league’s best coaches, and that was reflected as Phoenix was one of the best crunch time teams all season.
Before the playoffs started, many experts were penciling Phoenix into the Finals, but a lot has changed in the past two weeks. First, the Golden State Warriors have re-emerged from a slew of injuries as a real challenger, and second, Booker suffered a knee sprain in the first round. Paul is very capable of leading the team on his own, but similar to Miami, neither he nor Booker are a top 10 NBA player. Without both Booker and Paul, Phoenix is very mortal. The Warriors also gave them quite a bit of trouble when they played in the regular season, and they didn’t play the full strength version of Golden State once. However, this team is still favored by many to make the Finals, and they very well still may. To do so, however, they need Booker at or near 100%. He’s back from injury as of now, but there’s always the worry that he could re-injure himself or that he won’t be 100%.
Verdict: Contender, pending Booker’s health
Dallas is not a contender. While it feels like there is at least a semi-realistic path for each team remaining in the East to make the Finals, that is not the case in the West this year. Luke Doncic is a top ten player in the NBA, but the rest of the Dallas roster is fairly underwhelming when compared to many of the other remaining teams in the NBA. Yes, Jalen Brunson made an incredible emergence against the Utah Jazz in the first round, but Utah was one of the worst perimeter defenses in recent memory. In their matchup with Phoenix, they can certainly make it a series because of how special Doncic is, but their only real path to winning that series is if Booker isn’t fully healthy and if Doncic turns in an all-time series.
Memphis has been a great story all season. They are young, fun, exciting, and will talk shit to anyone. They’re led by an emerging star at point guard in the form of Ja Morant, who was (controversially) named the league’s Most Improved Player this season. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a strong second option who is an elite defender with mouthwatering potential on offense, and they have one of the deepest roster’s in the league, headlined by wings like Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks. Taylor Jenkins is one of the leading Coach of the Year candidates.
Despite all of the feel-good energy around Memphis, they have several clear achilles heels. They’re very young and inexperienced, and it showed in their first round matchup against Minnesota. They also struggle to create offense in the half-court, which is where most of the offense in the NBA Playoffs takes place. Morant in particular struggles to create anything outside of the paint for himself against playoff-level defense due to his inconsistent jump-shot. They will certainly put up a good fight against Golden State. It helps that they have home court advantage and their superior size should lead to an advantage on the glass against the Warriors, but Golden State’s combination of experience and star power will likely prove too much. Even if they do get past the Warriors, the same would probably come true in a potential matchup with Phoenix.
Verdict: Very fun story all season, but pretender.
Golden State Warriors:
After a three year hiatus, the Warriors are back. This team has more experience deep in the playoffs than any team left. The future hall of fame trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green has never (NEVER!) lost a playoff series in which all three started every game (that’s fourteen playoff series). That trio is back. Curry is still the best point guard in the league and a top five player. When he’s engaged at a playoff intensity, Green is still the best defender in the NBA. Thompson might not have quite achieved his pre-injury form, but he’s still an elite shooter and scorer and a solid defender. The biggest storyline of their first round win over the Denver Nuggets was the emergence of Jordan Poole as a bonafide star. The young combo guard has been the breath of fresh air that Golden State has needed, taking the offensive load off of Curry and Thompson as he is a third elite shooter and shot creator. Steve Kerr remains one of the league’s best and most experienced coaches, and the Warriors have a plethora of solid role players who play their roles perfectly, whether it be Andrew Wiggins, Gary Payton II, Kevon Looney, Andre Iguodalaor the electric rookie wild card that is Jonathan Kuminga.
The only two concerns with Golden State are health and size. This is the first time all season all of the core players have been healthy, but there’s no guarantee it stays that way. As for size, the Warriors famed small ball lineups with Green at center tormented the NBA from 2014-2019. They’re back with Poole, Wiggins, and/or Payton II filling the roles that used to be occupied by Kevin Durant, Harrison Barnes and a younger version of Iguodala. Rebounding will always be an issue, especially against a team with collective size like Memphis or a team with an elite big man like Phoenix with DeAndre Ayton, but it hasn’t bitten them yet. The bigger concern is that they don’t have much other depth at center behind Green other than Looney, who is solid but nothing special. It’s possible that the Warriors’ refusal to add another big man this season could be their ultimate downfall, but for now they look like they’re back and as good as ever.
Predictions for the Western Conference:
Phoenix beats Dallas in six games.
Golden State beats Memphis in six games.
Western Conference Finals:
Golden State beats Phoenix in six games.
NBA Finals Prediction:
Golden State Warriors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Golden State beats Milwaukee in seven games.
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