NBA: Western Conference Opening Round Pt. 2

After 82 games of intensity and drama, the NBA Playoffs are finally here. A whole new season begins this Saturday, as 16 teams from the East and West will fight it out for basketball supremacy.

Although the Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win their third straight title, nothing is given. We’ve seen great teams lose to underdogs before (i.e. the 2004 and 2011 NBA Finals).

For this article, we’ll be examining two very intriguing Western Conference opening round series. The Denver Nuggets are the new face on the block and will be facing the veteran San Antonio Spurs. Also, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder will square off, both seeking to avenge their postseason demons.

Let’s take a look at how each team got here and examine these exciting first-round matchups:

How They Got Here

Denver Nuggets

After missing the playoffs last year on the last day of the season, the Nuggets came into this year with their heads high. With a young core featuring the likes of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, the future looked bright for Denver. There was hope that this would be the season that everything finally came together for them.

And their talented nucleus delivered just that, as the Nuggets won 54 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Jokic led the way for the Nuggets, averaging 20 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists. Those type of numbers may just give Jokic a First-Team All-NBA spot. The Joker’s amazing season paved the way for the rest of the team to shine alongside him.

The Nuggets finished the season in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. That is a good combination for a team come playoff time. They also have one of the best home-court advantages in the NBA, going 34-7 at home in the regular season.

Meanwhile, Murray has emerged as a legitimate second option for coach Mike Malone. His 18.2 points per game helps Jokic, who is the primary distributor at center, to space the floor. Murray is a capable off-the-ball scorer and is a great finisher at the rim. He, along with a rotating backcourt of Harris, Will Barton and Malik Beasley, provide the scoring bulk for the Nuggets.

Denver will be looking to lean on the playoff experience of Paul Millsap to help guide the team during the postseason. He, as well as Isaiah Thomas, are the only two players on this team with any playoff exposure. We’ll see if their inexperience will be a factor as the playoffs go on.

Portland Trail Blazers

For the second consecutive season, the Trail Blazers will be the third seed in the West. Last year, they were unceremoniously swept by the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round. They’ll certainly be carrying a chip on their shoulder after their early dismissal.

Led by the dynamic backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Trail Blazers are a formidable threat. Both C.J. and Dame averaged over 20 points, making the Blazers one of the most potent offenses in the league. These two helped guide Portland to a 53-29 record, a four game improvement from last year.

The Blazers were one of the best three-point shooting teams in the NBA this year. Behind Seth Curry‘s amazing 45 percent three-point percentage, Portland had a prolific offense. They finished third in offensive rating and sixth in points per game with over 114 points per game. They have plenty of knock-down shooters on their squad, which will be

However, they will be going into the playoffs shorthanded after starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a season-ending injury. While backup Enes Kanter has been solid in filling the void left by Nurkic, their defense will definitely suffer.

The hope is that coach Terry Stotts will use a center rotaion of Kanter, Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard to keep teams off-balance. Even Al-Farouq Aminu might see time as a small-ball five. Whatever the case is, the Blazers will have to find a way to make up for Nurkic’s loss in the paint.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Just like the Trail Blazers, the Thunder had a disappointing early end to their postseason last year. Against the Utah Jazz, the star tandem of Russell Westbrook and Paul George struggled mightily in a six-game first-round loss.

However, with a full year of playing together, the thinking is that Westbrook and George are ready to take it to the next level. George had a career year, averaging 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals, all career-highs. Meanwhile, Westbrook managed to average a triple-double, again, for the third consecutive year. He also led the league in assists, with 10.7 a game.

While the Thunder were pretty good offensively, it’s their defense that has stood out. They had a 107 defensive rating, good for fourth in the league. George, who led the NBA in steals, is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. They also have three great rim protectors in Steven Adams, Jerami Grant and Nerlens Noel–all three averaged at least one block a game. With an overall strong defensive unit, the Thunder will give teams a tough time in the playoffs.

Coach Billy Donovan has a seasoned squad will plenty of experience. Adding point guard Dennis Schroder as a backup to Westbrook will prove invaluable to the team and Russell. Westbrook and George don’t have to play hero-ball to win; they just have to play their best and rely on the players around them.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs and the playoffs go together like peanut butter and jelly. Coach Gregg Popovich will lead San Antonio to their 22nd straight playoff appearance, which is tied for the longest streak in NBA history. Even though they traded their franchise player in Kawhi Leonard, and lost Tony Parker to free agency, they still managed to retool.

They were able to get Demar DeRozan from the Toronto Raptors in the Kawhi deal. Although he was initially saddened and shocked, DeRozan has fit in very well after the trade. He averaged 21.2 points and a career-high 6 rebounds and 6.2 assists. As the primary playmaker, he and Lamarcus Aldrige paced the Spurs to yet another playoff berth.

Aldridge had an All-Star year himself, averaging 21.3 points and 9.2 rebounds. Veteran Rudy Gay turned into a reliable third-option that can also guard the opponent’s best forward. Moreover, Bryn Forbes had his best year to date, becoming the team’s starting point guard. This team is built different than the one that lost last year in first round to the Warriors.

With a mix of veterans like Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills, and young rising players like Derrick White, Davis Bertans and Jakob Poeltl, the Spurs may have the right mix for the playoffs. Like all other Coach Pop teams, they’ll be able to compete with ball movement and great defense. Yet, they may just not have enough talent on this squad to make it far.

The Matchups

(2) Nuggets v. (7) Spurs

This matchup will certainly be one of talent verse experience. The top three players for the Nuggets have no playoff experience. As previously mentioned, Millsap is the only starter with any postseason minutes. The Spurs will have to take advantage of their amateur status in the playoffs.

The two teams split the regular season series 2 games a piece, showing that they are very close. Jokic should have the advantage in the paint against Aldridge, while DeRozan will be very tough for the Harris to handle on the perimeter. This means that Murray will be the wild card. If he can provide scoring like he did during the season, then the Nuggets will be very hard to beat.

Game 1 will be this Saturday, April 13, at 10:30 ET. Three days later, they’ll meet again in Denver before heading back to San Antonio for Games 3 and 4.

(3) Trail Blazers v. (6) Thunder

This series will be one of attrition and determination. On paper, these two teams play different brands of basketball. They both have loaded backcourts that play different styles. Lillard against Westbrook should be a point guard matchup for the ages.

The Thunder swept the regular season series, which is a good sign for them. Westbrook, George and Adams should have a major advantage attacking the paint, as Kanter and the other Portland centers aren’t equipped to handle the interior pressure. McCollum and Lillard will also have a hard time handling the perimeter defense of Terrance Ferguson and George.

Game 1 will be this Sunday, April 14, at 3:30 ET in Portland Game 2 will take place two days later, before the series shifts to Oklahoma City for the next two games.

Predictions

Nuggets In 7

In a hard-fought series, I see the Nuggets getting the better of the Spurs in seven games. Although San Antonio has way more experience, Denver’s talent will simply outplay them over the course of the series. There is nobody on the Spurs that can guard Jokic, which will prove to be difficult as the series moves on. Home-court is a huge advantage for the Nuggets, and I think they’ll win a potential Game 7 because of it.

Thunder In 6

In a back-and-forth affair, I have the Thunder making it past the Trail Blazers in six. Although Portland has home-court, the loss of Nurkic will be felt in this series. The Thunder have enough balance on offense and defense to carry them into the second round. I expect George and Westbrook to shed some of their playoff demons as they set the tone for Oklahoma City and win it in front of their raucous home crowd.

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