By MAX LEMMON
It is February, and Las Vegas has the Golden State Warriors as the heavy favorites for winning the 2019 NBA championship for the third time in a row, and the fourth time in the last five years. With odds of 2/5 and the next best odds being 10/1, it’s pretty obvious that the Warriors have an undeniable edge over absolutely everyone else. A team loaded with six MVP and All-star players at his disposal, GM Bob Myers might as well be clearing a space in the rafters for the Warriors sixth championship banner. With a record of 41-16, good for first seed in a stacked Western Conference, the Warriors do seem truly untouchable.
However, if the sports world has taught us anything, it is that nothing is set in stone. In 2016, the Dubs had 2/3 odds and look where that got them. No matter how small the chances are, there is a possibility that a playoff team upsets the Warriors and proves Vegas wrong. Today we will take a look at the teams that just might be able to pull it off. These are the top three teams, in no particular order, that have a shot at defeating the Warriors in a seven game series.
First, the Houston Rockets. Sure they may have had a rough start to their season, and are somewhat of a one-man show, but that one man happens to be James Harden, one of the most skilled offensive players ever, in his prime. Houston is second only to the Warriors in offensive rating this year, at 114.3 (The Warriors: 116.0.), so in terms of raw points, the scores are pretty even. The Warriors are notorious for playing very quickly; however, the Rockets sit at 28th in pace. This means that the Rockets are capable of taking the Warriors off their game with their slow, energy-draining style. With 19.5 fast break points per game, the Warriors simply can’t afford to conform to the same pace the Rockets play with, or they would lose a sizable amount of offense. Team stats aside, the keys to the hypothetical series will be James Harden and Clint Capela. With no true center to guard the rising star, Capela will grab rebounds to his heart’s content, and score at will. Last time the two teams played, the Rockets won in overtime 135-134. In an amazing comeback win, Harden finished the game with 44 points, 10 rebounds, 15 assists and the game winning three-pointer, while Clint Capela finished with 29 points and 21 rebounds. The Warriors have no answer for Harden or Capela, and thus it will take herculean performances from the two to pull of an upset. The Rockets are also fresh off taking the Warriors to a seven game series last year, and with the MVP caliber season Harden is having, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise if the Rockets pose a challenge to the Warriors in the playoffs (NBA).
Next, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Call it bias, call it ridiculous, the Thunder has a chance. At 36-19, the Thunder sits at third in the West, and has proven to be a very formidable team in this league. Oklahoma has two MVP caliber players in Paul George and Russell Westbrook on its team, both of whom capable of dominating a game at any time, and have each proven themselves to be deadly offensive and defensive threats, both averaging more than 20 points per game, and more than 2.2 steals per game. This has translated into the whole team, who have the third best rated defense in the league, at 105.2, ten spots above Golden State, who sit at 15th, with a rating of 109.2. Oklahoma also is second in the league in rebounds, six spots better than the Warriors. Unlike the Rockets, the Thunder plays an extremely fast-paced style of basketball, so fast in fact, that the OKC have a pace rating good for six spots higher than the Warriors. While the Rockets would seek to slow the Warriors down, the OKC would seek to speed them up, in order to force turnovers. Following this metric, the OKC leads the league in steals per game with 10.2, lead the league in points off of turnovers with 20.7, and are also fourth in the league in fast break points, with 18.6 per game. When the two teams faced off in November, the OKC won by a ridiculous 28 points, with the Warriors missing Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. In this anomaly of a game, Westbrook finished with a triple-double with 11-11-13-2, PG13 finished with 25-9-5-2 and Adams had a 20 point double-double. Although, the player who made it all work for the OKC was none other than Dennis Schroder. The OKC’s sixth man notched 32 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds, shooting 63.3% (12/19) from the field, and 83.3% from three, on ⅚ shooting from deep. Schroder and Adams are undoubtedly the keys to this matchup, for the Warriors have no inside presence to guard Adams, and when Schroder goes off, the OKC is practically unstoppable. Without a reliable offensive game, at least scoring-wise, Oklahoma cannot rely on Russ to supply them with the 30-point triple-doubles of his former MVP season, and therefore must rely on PG and Schroder to pick up the scoring deficit. PG, being far more reliable in that sense than Westbrook will give a good 25-35 points on any given night, but if Schroder can provide such a scoring boost as he did in November, or even half that, the Warriors better watch out for the Thunder, especially if Russell remembers how to score (NBA).
Finally, we have the Milwaukee Bucks. The best team in the league, record-wise (43-14), the Bucks definitely pose a huge threat to the Warriors, if they make it as far as the finals. The Bucks offense is rated fourth at 113.0, and they score only 1.9 points per game less than the Dubs (118.8 vs. 116.9). The Bucks also have the best defensive rating in the league, at 103.5, compared to GSW’s 109.2, good for 15th in the league. Milwaukee has proven exceptional at limiting their opponent’s fast break points; last in the league in fast break points allowed, with 9.8 per game. With fast breaks being such a large part of the Warrior offense, this could be the difference. They also limit points off turnovers to 14.6; second best in the league. Thus, the Bucks have proven to be an offensive and defensive powerhouse. The Bucks also have matchup-nightmare, and MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo at their helm. The first player in NBA history to be top five in the NBA in all five major statistical categories (PTS, ASTS, REBS, STLS, BLKS) during a single season, the Greek Freak is an offensive and defensive machine who is capable of guarding one through five at a high level. When he plays well, there is not a team in the NBA who can provide an offensive or defensive answer to his dominance. In one matchup between the Bucks and the Warriors that the Bucks won (134-111), every Bucks player scored other than Dellavedova, and the Bucks had 43 bench points, a 16 point increase from their season average. Guards Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe also went for 20-3-1 and 26-4-6 respectively while both playing less than 27 minutes. Defensively, the Bucks held Kevin Durant to 17 points on 40% shooting and Steph Curry to 10 points on 35.7% shooting. If the Bucks manage to play with this amount of stifling defense and see offensive productivity from their guards and bench, the Warriors could be toast (NBA).
Now, are the Warriors going to win their fourth title in five years? Most likely. Five All-star caliber starters are hard to go up against for 4-7 games, and for every leg up one team might have on the Warriors, it seems the Dubs have two legs up on everyone else. That said, no team is untouchable, we’ve seen teams blow 3-1 leads in the finals (ahem). Anyway, regardless of who wins it all, the 2019 playoffs will surely be intriguing and full of surprises, and perhaps, by late June, we’ll see a new team on the iron throne.