With the postseason looming around the corner, let’s look at some first-round matchups and determine the likeliness of the San Antonio Spurs pulling off an upset in the playoffs.
Just six games remain in the regular season slate for the San Antonio Spurs, meaning playoff seeding becomes clearer by the day. Barring some unforeseen circumstances, we have a generally firm understanding of this team’s identity and the way they’ll carry themselves into the postseason.
Under the expert leadership of All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs have shown the ability to execute strategy and play an unselfish brand of basketball. By sharing the rock and empowering shooters to space the floor, head coach Gregg Popovich has revised his classic system to fit his two star players.
For as important as their execution is to the team’s success, playoff matchups will be equally as vital in deciding the fate of this year’s squad. Unless the Utah Jazz somehow surge to a top four seed in the conference, the four teams with homecourt advantage are set for the playoffs. Golden State, Denver, Houston and Portland are in position to carry homecourt advantage in any series against San Antonio.
In order from worst case scenario to best, here are the series that would most favor the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs.
4. Golden State Warriors
Ugh, these guys again? Sure, the Spurs have done an excellent job containing Golden State in the regular season. They won the season series 2-1 and stole a game from the Dubs in last year’s first round, but we know how this old story goes. No matter what kind of woes the Warriors battle through in the early stages of the season, they always seem to bring the fury once the playoffs roll around.
With the ball in his hands more regularly during the playoffs, Curry will be taking a whole bunch of shots from deep and it’s inevitable that Steve Kerr will force a switch onto Bryn Forbes or DeMar DeRozan when possible.
This would leave Kevin Durant in some favorable matchups that the Spurs may not be able to handle. This shouldn’t need much explanation – for as confident fans are after the excellent regular season showing against Golden State this season, no one wants to take on the defending champions in the first round of the playoffs. It feels like inevitable elimination.
Next: 3. Houston Rockets
3. Houston Rockets
This is a tricky situation because historically, Gregg Popovich has done an excellent job of containing and straining teams that run under Houston coach Mike D’Antoni’s perimeter-centric style of play. Unless your name is Chris Paul, you’ll likely be forced to take either three-pointers or dunks/layups as a Houston Rocket and the Spurs haven’t been a reliable defensive group against teams with this strategy.
We also have to give credit where credit is due – James Harden has been phenomenal this year and I don’t see any reason for him to slow down in the postseason. Similarly to Curry, we’ve seen Derrick White put the MVP-favorite in some tough positions during the regular season, but we’ve also seen him get annihilated by the Beard on occasion.
San Antonio stole the first game of the season series and proceeded to lose the following three to Houston. We already know what Paul can do against the Spurs in the postseason, as seen in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. No one wants to relive that terror, especially now that he plays for a true rival in the Rockets.
In the most recent matchup against the Rockets, a 111-105 meeting that saw James Harden score a whopping 61 points, rising talent Clint Capela manhandled LaMarcus Aldridge. The Swiss sensation held Aldridge to just 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting and outrebounded him 16-to-4.
This isn’t likely to be repeated, Aldridge is a composed player who learns from previous matchups. With that said, it’s not a favorable matchup as Capela is adept at wearing down his opponent and giving them hell under the rim.
Let’s make this abundantly clear: there’s a path for the Spurs to make light work of the Houston Rockets in the first round. San Antonio’s strategy of playing hard and unrelenting defense while minimizing fouls is perfect against a team of Houston’s stature, but Harden’s ability to draw fouls is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s almost guaranteed that he’ll get to the line upward of 10 times in a game.
This is definitely a team to avoid in the first round, but they’d still pose less of an issue that the Warriors could.
Next: 2. Denver Nuggets
2. Denver Nuggets
Similarly to San Antonio, this year’s iteration of the Denver Nuggets thrives off of homecourt advantage. With a record of 31-6 at the Pepsi Center, the Nuggets make use of the heightened altitude and wear down any team that dares contest them at home. In a seven-game series, just one win in Denver could swing momentum in favor of a determined Spurs core.
This isn’t meant to undermine what Denver has achieved this season, especially after last year’s tragic defeat in their regular season finale at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Led by a sound basketball mind and fearless leader in head coach Mike Malone, the Nuggets are a well-oiled machine that utilizes ball movement and a diverse group of players to control pace and create open shots.
They’ve also home-grown a lot of talent that’s thriving for them this season. Players like Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez have developed into serviceable role players who have developed under the specific playstyle instilled by Denver’s coaching staff.
With that said, playoff experience is key to success and most of their roster has little-to-none of it. The only player who can confidently say he’s taken part in playoff battle at the highest level is veteran power forward Paul Millsap, whose on-court production has dwindled as he’s become more of a locker room presence and facilitator. Once the bright lights of the postseason come into play, he’ll surely bounce back to form and wreak havoc in the first round.
Denver doesn’t have anyone who can truly contain DeMar DeRozan one-on-one and Aldridge should be able to bully Jokic in the paint. The Spurs hold a 2-1 lead in the season series with the home team winning in each game.
These two ballclubs meet once more in Colorado to finish off the year, that should provide more clarity regarding the future prospects of these teams in the playoffs.
Next: 1. Portland Trail Blazers
1. Portland Trail Blazers
It feels like I’m shooting myself in the foot with this one because I don’t think anyone wants to deal with All-NBA point guard Damian Lillard in the first round of the playoffs – especially when he’s got a chip on his shoulder. The recent injury to center Jusuf Nurkic in a career-year was tragic, especially because of the severity and gruesome nature of the incident.
Unfortunately, this makes the Blazers a more favorable matchup in the playoffs. Nurkic has been groomed into a fine defensive player with quick hands and a keen eye for blocking shots. His defense against LaMarcus Aldridge would prove highly useful for coach Terry Stotts, but instead the All-NBA power forward will face a rotation of Enes Kanter, Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins in the post. This is significantly less intimidating.
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Combined with the fact that shooting guard C.J. McCollum will be coming off of an injury and lacks the size necessary to defend DeMar DeRozan, this seems like the best-case scenario for Gregg Popovich and his squad. The Blazers don’t tend to win games with defense, but instead with a flurry of three-pointers that run up the score. They haven’t lost a game since visiting San Antonio on March 16 in spite of some serious injuries, but still lack the depth to intimidate prospective first-round opponents.
Popovich will surely throw a combination of defenders and double-teams at Lillard, forcing the rest of the Blazers to pick up the slack. This could definitely shift the pendulum in favor of the Spurs, especially if they can steal some wins at the Moda Center and get in their heads.
If the Spurs can’t win games on the road then there’s no hope in the playoffs, regardless of who they’re matched up against. The Blazers have the worst road record of any team in the top four of the West, albeit at a respectable 19-18.
San Antonio’s window of opportunity unfortunately widened with the Nurkic injury. After last year’s first-round collapse at the hands of a team that missed the postseason entirely this year, Portland is probably the team with the highest chance of exiting in the first round despite homecourt advantage.