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Warriors vs. Rockets
The best on-paper series of the postseason is…slated for the conference semifinals? Blame Paul George, who started Houston’s slide to the No. 4 seed with his game-winning triple Tuesday night.
But the Rockets knew their season would run through the Warriors—they admit to obsessing over this series—so maybe it doesn’t make a difference when it happens.
Houston took the season series 3-1, and it might have the league’s only offensive weapon capable of answering Golden State’s typical game-breaking runs. James Harden cooked up an unprecedented combination of offensive volume and efficiency, and in early January, he had 44 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds, 10 triples and one how-did-he-hit-that contested game-winner from deep against the Warriors.
“We’re seeing the very best of James Harden doing what he does,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said earlier this season, per Logan Murdock of Bay Area News Group. “Shooting his step-back three, getting fouled … it’s been amazing.”
But as dominant as Harden has been, he’s outmanned in this series. Houston’s summer sacrifices of long-limbed defenders Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute might hurt most in this matchup—the Rockets slipped from seventh to 18th in defensive efficiency—and Chris Paul hasn’t been himself all season.
Houston doesn’t have a comfortable option for defending Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry has owned his matchup with Paul for a while now. If Klay Thompson’s legs get taxed defending Harden, the Dubs can replace some of his scoring with DeMarcus Cousins’.
Last season’s Rockets came as close to dethroning the Dubs as any Western Conference club has, but this team isn’t that one.
Prediction: Warriors in six
Nuggets vs. Thunder
In the regular season, the Nuggets swept the Thunder 4-0 with a 9.25-point average margin of victory. Tack on the question marks with Paul George’s shoulder, and Denver seems like the obvious pick.
So, why are we leaning a different direction?
It’s partly because this young Nuggets core has yet to take the playoff lumps that often come with developing into a contender. This is Denver’s first postseason trip since 2013. No current Nuggets were a part of that team; most weren’t even in the league yet.
OKC might not have a ton of shared playoff experience, but its key players are all seasoned. Russell Westbrook has played in four conference finals and a championship round. George and Steven Adams have traveled three rounds deep twice. Dennis Schroder already has 34 playoff games under his belt, and Jerami Grant has 11 of his own.
Experience isn’t the only thing that matters, but it can separate two similar squads. And despite what the seeds might suggest, there wasn’t much difference between OKC and Denver this season. The Nuggets and Thunder finished eighth and ninth, respectively, in net rating, with only 0.6 points per 100 possessions between them.
Adams can at least make Nikola Jokic uncomfortable, Westbrook has too much athleticism for Jamal Murray, and George might run circles around Denver’s wings. Between the top-level talent and increased urgency, OKC has just enough leaning its direction to survive this series.
Prediction: Thunder in seven