- The Golden State Warriors are once again heavy favourites to win the NBA championship.
- With a deep Western Conference and a top-heavy Eastern Conference, we ranked seven teams we think could give the Warriors a real test in the playoffs and Finals.
The NBA playoffs are almost here.
The NBA’s 82-game regular season is a grind, but next weekend, the real games begin, and 16 teams will begin their bids for the NBA Finals.
Once again, the Golden State Warriors are the heavy favourites, with Vegas Insiders listing them as 1-2 favourites to win the title. This regular season, their fifth in the Steve Kerr era, has been uninspiring, but the Warriors have made it no secret that they have been biding their time until the postseason.
The question becomes if anyone can stop the Warriors in their pursuit of a third straight championship and fourth in five years.
Including teams in the East that could meet them in the Finals, we ranked the seven teams we feel could give the Warriors a real fight in the playoffs.
7. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 45-34, 8th in West
Record vs. Warriors this season: 2-1
Why they can win: Not much can be taken from the Spurs-Warriors regular-season matchups, as neither team played with its full roster in any of the games.
The Spurs have had an up-and-down season with arguably its least-impressive roster since Gregg Popovich took over. However, they have a few things working on their side:
1. Institutional knowledge. The teams have played each other in the postseason the last two years, with the Warriors beating the Spurs in five games both times. The Warriors won’t be able to throw much at the Spurs that they haven’t seen.
2. Isolation scorers. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are like stars moulded from the 1990s in today’s maths-heavy NBA. Still, both players are perfectly capable of getting a basket when the game slows down. Their iso-heavy style could be necessary for slowing down the Warriors.
3. Gregg Popovich. Leave it to Pop and Co. to devise some plan to make Golden State uncomfortable. There’s no one in the NBA you’d rather have on your side for that matchup.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 45-33, 7th in West
Record vs. Warriors this season: 1-2
Why they can win: The Thunder are slumping at the wrong time of year, with major questions about Paul George’s health.
Still, at one point, the Thunder looked like the biggest threats to the Warriors. They have star power in George and Russell Westbrook. They have an identity: rough, physical, grind-it-out basketball that can take the Warriors out of their preferred system.
There are two big concerns: the Warriors won’t respect the Thunder’s shooting. They will crowd the paint to make life difficult on George and Westbrook and ignore the Thunder’s perimeter players.
Westbrook has also struggled mightily against the Warriors since Kevin Durant left in 2016. In 10 games, he’s 3-7 against Golden State, with six games where he shot below 40% from the field and seven games where he turned the ball over five or more times.
In an ideal world, the Thunder beat up the Warriors, make them play slow, half-court basketball, while George bothers Durant and Curry on defence, and the Thunder get the best, do-it-all version of Westbrook.
5. Boston Celtics
Record: 47-32, 4th in East
Record vs. Warriors: 1-1
Why they can win: The Celtics rank as one of this season’s most disappointing teams. But their collection of talent and tendency to show up in big games makes them impossible to quit as they head into the playoffs. Some in the league remain high on Boston. The Warriors, early in the season, even mentioned the Celtics as a team they fear most.
This matchup, of course, couldn’t happen until the Finals. Boston has a lot to prove until they get to that point. But the things that make Boston a good matchup against the Warriors are the same things that make them a threat to win the East: shot-making, defence, versatility.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 49-29, 3rd in East
Record vs. Warriors: 1-1
Why they can win: The Sixers remain a tough team to figure out, in part, because they added two star players mid-season in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. With a legitimate Big 4 in hand, they haven’t blown away the NBA, but they are intriguing because of all of their talent.
Almost all of the things that make the Sixers a threat to the Warriors could also go the opposite way, too. Joel Embiid could become a giant mismatch down low that the Warriors can’t solve, or maybe they could run him off the floor with smaller lineups. Ben Simmons could become a five-position defender who attacks the rim, or the Warriors could play him off the floor by ignoring him without the ball. Jimmy Butler could be the iso scorer and wing defender the Sixers need, or the Warriors could use any of their long-armed, strong defenders to make life difficult for him.
Of the East contenders, the 76ers have the most talent, and no team will want to play them, including the Warriors in a prospective Finals matchup.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 58-20, 1st in East
Record vs. Warriors: 1-1
Why they can win: The Bucks have been the best team in the league this year. They have the third-best offence, second-best defence, and best net rating. They have the MVP front-runner in Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Coach of the Year candidate in Mike Budenholzer, a second All-Star in Khris Middleton, and a wealth of talented third and fourth options and role players.
On paper, the Bucks should be able to hang with the Warriors.
A big concern, however, is with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Warriors can match up with him and will force him to shoot jump shots. The Warriors are historically great at defending the rim, using their long-armed defenders to muck things up in there, where Antetokounmpo thrives. He’ll get his, but it won’t be easy. If Antetokounmpo is bottled up, do the Bucks have the shot-makers to support him?
2. Toronto Raptors
Record: 56-23, 2nd in East
Record vs. Warriors: 2-0
Why they can win: The Raptors have been just a step behind the Bucks for the best team in the league, and it’s come under unusual circumstances. Their best player, Kawhi Leonard, has missed 22 games, giving the Raptors almost two versions of their team: the Kawhi version and the non-Kawhi version.
Both have been excellent. Leonard is a top-10 player and perhaps the best perimeter defender in the league. He’s a better shooter than Antetokounmpo (though far inferior in scoring at the rim and shot-creation), meaning the Warriors would have to guard him everywhere. When he’s been absent, breakout forward Pascal Siakam has carried the load, and Kyle Lowry remains capable of getting hot and taking over games.
The Raptors are almost built to play the Warriors. They have three excellent perimeter defenders in Leonard, Siakam, and Danny Green. They can mix and match between size, shooting, and athleticism with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol up front. They have a deep bench, with shot-makers and creators in Fred Van Vleet, Jeremy Lin, and Norman Powell.
As with all Eastern teams, the Raptors have to get to the Finals to even worry about the Warriors. But on paper, they present a great matchup.
1. Houston Rockets
Record: 51-28, 3rd in West
Record vs. Warriors: 3-1
Why they can win: Houston nearly dethroned the Warriors last year if not for some bad luck: Chris Paul’s Game 5 injury and 27 straight missed threes in Game 7, a historic cold streak.
Almost all year, the Rockets have looked like a lesser version of that team – until now.
Since the All-Star break, the Rockets have the NBA’s best record, second-best offence, and second-best defence. They have the single best scorer and shot-creator in the NBA in James Harden – oh, and a pretty good point guard in Paul.
The Rockets seem to bait the Warriors successfully into playing slow, iso-heavy basketball. The Warriors have the talent to match them, and they make life difficult on Harden, but it’s not the way they want to play.
Any prospective series will depend on Harden scoring lots and doing it efficiently, Paul providing relief, and the Rockets’ shooters hitting threes. The defence, of course, will need to hold up, too, but if Houston baits the Warriors into playing slow and one-on-one, they have won half the battle. That may seem obvious, but if the Rockets play a perfect series, they once again have a chance to beat the Warriors.
Now, take a look at some NBA legends who never took home the most prestigious award in basketball…
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