2018 NBA Playoffs Preview: Western Conference
Welcome to the LazyBets 2018 NBA Playoffs preview! We’ll be going series-by-series, giving you all the information you’ll need to make sharp bets designed to beat the sportsbooks. We’ll be breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of each team, highlighting key matchups and injuries, and letting you know where we’re putting our money with our best bets for each series. First we’ll tackle the Western Conference.
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#1 Houston Rockets (65-17) vs. #8 Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)
We’ll start with the team with the best record in the NBA - the Houston Rockets - who will face a team who just barely squeaked into the playoffs - the Minnesota Timberwolves. Based on those facts alone, this series would seem to be a mismatch, but Minnesota is not a typical 8 seed - it was a very strong Western Conference this season. Let’s break down both sides of the ball to see how this series will play out.
When Houston has the ball
Houston has been a fantastic offensive team for as long as James Harden has been at the helm, but this year was the first time they finished 1st in offensive rating with Harden. Adding future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul certainly didn’t hurt. Paul and Harden have taken turns running isolation plays, pick-and-rolls and using their elite ball handling skills to decimate defenses all season long, and it doesn’t look like that will stop any time soon. Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson provide excellent shooting from the outside, while Clint Capela is a perfect roll-man and finisher for this spread offense.
Despite Tom Thibodeau's reputation as a defensive genius after his days with the Celtics, he still hasn’t managed to get this T’Wolves team to defend at all, finishing 28th in defensive rating this season. Jimmy Butler is a very good defensive player, and he’ll likely be tasked with defending Harden often in this series. Taj Gibson is still a solid defender, as anyone who watched the closing seconds of that Wolves-Nuggets elimination game could tell you. Outside of that though, the Wolves are in trouble - Andrew Wiggins has never lived up to his potential as a stopper, and inside defense still remains Karl-Anthony Towns’ kryptonite. We see the Rockets really running it up on the feeble Wolves D - look for Chris Paul in particular to toy with the Wolves and exploit their weaknesses all series long.
When Minnesota has the ball
For a team that doesn’t shoot the three ball very often - they finished dead last in three-point attempts - the Timberwolves have a remarkably efficient offense, finishing 4th overall in offensive rating. Outside of the three pointer, they do nearly everything else well on offense - they don’t turn the ball over (2nd in turnover rate), they get to the free throw line (3rd in FT rate, just behind Houston), and they get offensive rebounds (4th in OREB rate). Most of this offensive success can be attributed to Karl-Anthony Towns, a blossoming superstar who finished 2nd in individual offensive rating this year. Towns’ ability to score efficiently from all over the floor makes him the T’Wolves best option in this series - Clint Capela may lack the footspeed to slow Towns’ multi-faceted attack. Alongside the brute force of Jimmy Butler and the shot creation of Jeff Teague, this Minnesota offense does have the options to be able to score effectively in this series.
However, for all the noise about Houston’s offense, their defense has been sneaky good, finishing 6th overall in defensive rating. They do two things well in particular that should help offset some of Minnesota’s strengths - they don’t foul (4th in opponent FT rate) and they rebound well (3rd in defensive rebounding). Extra possessions and free throws have been the reason Minnesota’s offense has been so good this year - if Houston can limit both of those, they should reduce the T’Wolves attack to something closer to average.
Best Bet and Series Prediction
Houston should score at will in this series. Harden and Paul have the Western Conference Finals on their minds, and they shouldn’t want to waste too much energy getting there, as both guys have deteriorated in deeper playoff runs in the past. They will want to wrap this one up quickly, and barring spectacular individual performances from Butler and Towns, I don’t see the T’Wolves grabbing more than one game from this electric Houston team. Houston is -2100 to win this series, which won’t return much on your individual bet - I’ll instead be betting the Houston moneyline on each individual game, and will make that my best bet of the series.
#2 Golden State Warriors (58-24) vs. #7 San Antonio Spurs (47-35)
The 2-7 series out West features two of the marquee teams in the NBA - the defending champion Golden State Warriors and the 5-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. This is a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals, where the Warriors swept the Spurs in 4 games. However, with both Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard expected to miss this round (and in Kawhi’s case, the entire playoffs), a very different version of these two teams will be on display.
When Golden State has the ball
The Warriors, despite playing a lackadaisical style of basketball this year (ranking 29th in turnover percentage) and barely ever crashing the offensive boards (23rd in offensive rebounds), still managed to finish third overall in offensive rating and first in effective field goal percentage for the 4th year running. This team can shoot the lights out of the ball, even when they’re barely trying, and even when Curry is out - they still shot very well in the minutes where Curry was off the floor. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson can get buckets with the best of them.
The Spurs are a solid defensive squad, but the Warriors are a bad matchup - as they are for most teams. Second year-pro Dejounte Murray has been a revelation on defense this year; he and Danny Green give the Spurs two solid options to throw at Durant and Thompson. However, with their lack of athleticism on the inside, the Spurs figure to struggle to stop Durant in particular from getting whatever he wants in this series.
When San Antonio has the ball
The San Antonio offense, minus Kawhi Leonard, has been a struggle this season - they ranked 17th in offensive rating, with a terrible .507 effective field goal percentage, good for 26th in the NBA. Their only real bright spot has been LaMarcus Aldridge, who has seen his usage rate spike back to the levels of his Portland days. His ability to create semi-efficient shots without turning the ball over (Aldridge finished 5th in individual turnover rate) has been and will be the basis of the Spurs offense for as long as they last in this postseason.
The Warriors have a lot of talent on the defensive end, as Draymond Green, Durant and Thompson represent a trio of defenders that are about as good as any team has in these playoffs. Their length and intelligence should keep San Antonio from getting good looks from deep - they haven’t shot often or very well from three this season, and it should only be worse in this series. The only chance the Spurs have for efficient offense is an MVP level performance from LaMarcus Aldridge, or by absolutely killing it on the offensive glass - the Warriors rated 26th in defensive rebounding this season. Even if both of those things happen, we don’t see the Spurs offense keeping up with the Warriors’ in this series.
Best Bet and Series Prediction
In such a strong Western conference, the Warriors were lucky to get just about the best possible matchup in the first round as they could hope for without Curry available. A younger, more athletic team could have forced the Warriors into turnovers, which plagued them in the regular season. A better shooting team could have tried to go shot for shot with them, hoping the Warriors would have a cold stretch without Curry. The Spurs are neither of these teams - we just don’t see San Antonio’s offense keeping up with Golden State’s in this series. Look for Kevin Durant to go off and lead the Warriors to a trouncing of the Spurs. If you can find a prop that allows you to bet on a Warriors sweep, I would lean that direction. For now, all I see is Warriors -1000 to win the series, which I’ll comfortably make as my best bet, even if the return isn’t great.
There's two brackets. One is in the West. One is in the East. Our Eastern Conference Playoff Preview can be found here!
#3 Portland Trail Blazers (49-33) vs. #6 New Orleans Pelicans (48-34)
The 3-6 series in the West features two sixth year pros who have made a leap into the MVP discussion this year - Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis. Given how tight the Western Conference was this year, this is a particularly even matchup for a #3 vs. a #6, with only one win separating the two in the regular season standings.
When Portland has the ball
Despite Lillard’s dominance this year, this Portland offense remained somewhat pedestrian, finishing 15th in offensive rating, and 23rd overall in effective field goal percentage. This is partially due to a rather inefficient season from Lillard’s backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, whose attempts were at an all time high this year, despite an effective field goal rate that was his lowest since his rookie season. Supporting cast members Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner have never been particularly efficient, and they weren’t this year either.
Lucky for them, they’re facing a rather pedestrian defensive team in New Orleans, who finished 14th in defensive rating. However, they do still have the defensive presence of Anthony Davis, who finished way out in front in blocks at 2.6 per game. If Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo and the other Pelicans guards can funnel McCollum and Lillard to the inside, we could see an abundance of inefficient mid-range shots from the Blazers offense in this series as Davis protects the paint.
When New Orleans has the ball
The New Orleans offense revolves around Davis, whose ability to calmly hit jumpshots using his extraordinary length is complemented nicely by his ability to finish at the rim with ease. Davis finished first in two point makes, second in free throws made and PER (both to inevitable MVP James Harden) despite only finishing 15th in usage rate. Despite not having an elite surrounding cast, the Pelicans finished 10th in offense, thanks to the shot creation of Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo along with the three point shooting of E'Twaun Moore and Darius Miller.
The Portland defense was surprisingly good this year, despite not starting any well-renowned defensive players outside of Aminu. The Blazers finished 8th in defensive rating, thanks in part to a low-key great defensive year from Jusuf Nurkic - once considered a defensive sieve, Nurkic finished in the top 10 in blocks and in 12th in defensive rebounds. However, Nurkic is not the answer for Anthony Davis, and I’m not sure that Aminu is either. While Portland was 5th in 3 point attempts against in the regular season, that number figures to rise in this series as Davis should have no problem beating his first defender and kicking out to Moore and Miller when an open look is available.
Best Bet and Series Prediction
Anthony Davis re-established himself as an elite all-around talent this year in New Orleans, and with no good answers on the Portland roster, I think he could put up monstrous numbers at both ends. Portland’s offense was already inefficient in the regular season, and with Davis patrolling the paint I don’t see it improving now. Getting New Orleans at +170 to win the series with the best player on the court feels too good to pass up - that will be my best bet.
#4 Oklahoma City Thunder (48-34) vs. #5 Utah Jazz (48-34)
The 4-5 matchup in the West represents a contrast in styles, as the ball-dominant Russell Westbrook and the Thunder face off against the more balanced attack of the Utah Jazz, who sport one of the league’s best defenses. As you can already tell by their records, this should be a close one - let’s take a closer look to see who might have the slight edge.
When Oklahoma City has the ball
As it has been since Kevin Durant left the Thunder, it’s Russell Westbrook’s show on offense. Westbrook led the league in field goal attempts, assists, and turnovers - that should give you a good sense of how often Westbrook has the ball in this offense. It has worked well enough - the Thunder finished 7th in offensive rating this season amongst all NBA teams. However, this was helped tremendously by their ability to crash the offensive glass, where they ranked 1st by a good margin. Steven Adams, a true beast on the offensive boards (and everywhere else on the court) finished 2nd to Andre Drummond in offensive rebounds this season - his role in this offense should not be overlooked. Paul George provides a very solid second option when Westbrook runs out of gas, hitting 40% from three and fitting multiple roles on offense. The Thunder wish they could say the same about former All-Star Carmelo Anthony, but he’s had an extremely rough season shooting the ball - watch for the Jazz to dare Melo to shoot from the midrange in this series.
Speaking of that Jazz defense - it’s very good, sporting the 2nd rated defensive rating in the league, led by likely Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The Jazz will be a bad matchup for Westbrook, who prefers to finish directly at the rim, rather than in the midrange or from deep. Gobert will be there to meet him at the rim, and the Jazz do a good job of team rebounding - they were 4th in defensive rebound rate despite Gobert only finishing 15th individually. Ricky Rubio should be effective at preventing Westbrook from getting space to operate - he’ll have to pass the ball more often than he likes in this series, we’ll see if he does. The real question for the Jazz is who guards Paul George - rookie Donovan Mitchell may not have the experience, and Joe Ingles may not have the footspeed. Look for unheralded rookie Royce O’Neale to get significant minutes on George - O’Neale is a gritty defender who got an all-defense mention from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton.
When Utah has the ball
After the departure of Gordon Hayward, the Jazz offense could have sunk to the bottom of the league, but they were buoyed by the emergence of rookie Donovan Mitchell, the hot shooting of Joe Ingles, and the passing acumen of Ricky Rubio. However, it was still a pretty average group, finishing 16th overall in offensive rating. Their strength resided in Quin Snyder’s offense getting them good looks (9th in eFG%) and getting to the free throw line (8th in free throw rate). However, their biggest weakness on offense - turnovers - could really hurt them in this series.
Utah finished 24th in turnover rate as an offense this season, as both Mitchell and Rubio finished in the top 20 in total turnovers this season. That should be music to the ears of the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose main strength on defense is forcing turnovers - they finished 1st overall in opponent turnover rate, which led them to 9th overall in defensive rating. George and Westbrook both finished in the top 4 in steals - they should be able to pick the pockets of the Jazz ball handlers and get out into transition quite a bit in this series. Gobert is a great defensive player, but he will have zero effect on fast-break opportunities from Westbrook and George.
Best Bet and Series Prediction
The Jazz play an impressive style of team basketball, with excellent defensive principles. However, the playoffs are the domain of the NBA superstar, and the Thunder most likely have the top two players in the series in Westbrook in George. While it should be a close series, I don’t believe the Jazz have the offensive firepower to compete - I’m taking the Thunder -135 to win the series as my best bet.