For the first time since Steve Kerr took the job in the Bay Area the Golden State Warriors appear vulnerable. Limping to the finish line with injuries while trailing the Houston Rockets for home-court, first-round matchups could be more important than ever for the two elite teams that look to run through the Western Conference. Each team has a defined identity and certain opponents that would be matchup nightmares if they saw them in the first round.
Today we dive into some of the best and worst matchups for the top two teams in the West, examining just what situations they should be rooting for and against. The playoff race out West is fluid, with five teams more than two games apart, and another two that are within striking distance of a postseason berth but on the outside looking in. From the perspective of the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, we look at just how these juggernauts might fare if they draw certain matchups.
Due to the overall uncertainty surrounding Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs, their team has been omitted from this list. Either the Rockets or Warriors would dread a matchup with San Antonio and a healthy Kawhi, but that possibility cannot be counted on.
Best Matchup: Denver Nuggets
The Rockets were the NBA’s first to reach the 60-win plateau, and they feature the best offense in basketball. Chris Paul and James Harden are offensive juggernauts, and the spacing the Rockets provide around them make for an incredibly difficult defensive matchup for whoever sneaks into the playoffs at the 8 seed.
Frankly, the Rockets won’t be scared of any team they draw, but the Nuggets would be an ideal choice for the organization. Houston has averaged nearly 125 points per game against Denver this season, sweeping the season series 3-0 with an average margin of victory over 20. The Nuggets are in the bottom-third of the NBA in defensive rating, an area they’ve struggled all season long. Denver big man Nikola Jokic has seen his effort and conditioning fall short late in the season; if Houston can push the pace and attack the Nuggets’ lack of rim protection, they should be able to get plenty of easy buckets.
Denver is currently on the outside looking in for a playoff berth, but are limping towards the finish line. The Nuggets’ final eight games are against teams currently slated to make the postseason, so there will be no easy wins on their schedule. It would be an uphill climb for Denver to make the playoffs, but that would be a welcome ascent from Houston’s perspective.
Worst Matchup: Utah Jazz
If pace is what’s most important to the Rockets, the defensive juggernaut that’s taken shape in Utah is a matchup nightmare for Houston. The Jazz are one of three teams to hold the Rockets below 100 points per game, and the only team in the Western Conference playoff picture to do so. While Houston swept the Jazz in their regular season meetings, the two teams have only met once in 2018 since the ascent of Donovan Mitchell and the healthy return of Rudy Gobert. That game was a 96-85 win for the Rockets in which they trailed at the half and only had 15 assists.
Utah, on the other hand, got one of their worst performances from Donovan Mitchell on the night: the rookie was 1-of-9 from three and had eight turnovers. With a more regular performance from Mitchell, the Jazz become a formidable foe for the Houston. The frontcourt pairings that Utah can throw on the floor could change the speed that the Rockets like to play with. Jazz coach Quin Snyder could force the Rockets to match their size with a Rudy Gobert-Derrick Favors frontcourt tandem. Those two have been a force over the Jazz’ ascent into the playoff picture.
Utah also has a great deal of multi-positional defenders on the wings that can match Houston’s wing-heavy lineups. Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Royce O’Neale and Jonas Jerebko are all plus defenders that can not only win their individual matchups, but could survive for smaller stretches if they must switch onto Harden or Paul. Because of Utah’s defensive potential and ability to force the Rockets to play at a slower pace, the Jazz are a team Mike D’Antoni and company should hope to avoid in the opening round.
Golden State Warriors
Best Matchup: New Orleans Pelicans
While the Warriors are likely without superstar Steph Curry for the first round of the postseason, a series against the New Orleans Pelicans could lighten that blow. New Orleans is without All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, a potent inside-outside threat that combined with Anthony Davis to form the scariest frontcourt in the league. Now Davis is on his own, and while flanked by the sharpshooting Nikola Mirotic up front, the Pelicans are simply missing enough offensive balance to contend with the defensive greatness that the Warriors are capable of.
Golden State has several players they can throw at Davis, ranging from Kevin Durant to Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala to Jordan Bell. With length, athleticism and strong individual defenders at all frontcourt spots, the Warriors can devote a lot of attention to Davis, sagging off others on the perimeter and forcing The Brow to become a jump shooter. Because New Orleans plays two point guards and several non-shooters, Golden State’s switching could be a great attribute against an offense that isn’t known as highly dynamic.
Of course, the Warriors need their starting lineup to get health, as all four All-Stars are currently banged up. If all but Curry are healthy for the playoffs, as expected, then the Warriors should have a comfortable series against New Orleans.
Worst Matchup: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have plenty of issues in their own right. Carmelo Anthony has been struggling of late and isn’t fitting into a complimentary role, their best defender Andre Roberson is done for the year and they’re relying on late-season acquisition Corey Brewer to fill his absence in the starting lineup. But Oklahoma City has taken two of their first three games against Golden State this year, and the Warriors may struggle to find an answer for Steven Adams on the glass.
Simply the raw emotion of a postseason series between these two rivals would be enough to wear down Golden State as they seek a fourth-straight NBA Finals appearance. Think about it: many of the Warriors’ players have logged heavy minutes in over 100 games for three years running, have battled a long and injury-filled regular season this year and would face a potential juggernaut in the Western Conference Finals in the Houston Rockets. The mental anguish of facing a motivated Russell Westbrook and hostile Thunder team would wear on this group.
If Curry is out for the series, his absence compounds those issues. Now the Warriors are down one of their elite spacing and shooting options, while Klay Thompson draws the unenviable assignment of checking Russell Westbrook for most of the series. Paul George is as good of an individual defender on the wing as Durant could face in this wing, while the poor shooting of Draymond Green gives Carmelo Anthony a comfortable defensive matchup. No team that a top-seed could face in the first round has as much star power as Oklahoma City, and if that’s something to be feared in April, the Warriors would hope to avoid a potential series with the Thunder.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).