The NBA postseason began last week and is already off to a thrilling start. Since Saturday, we’ve already seen four lower-seeds pick up a win on the road, shifting home court advantage. One of those upsets: the Los Angeles Clippers coming back from 31 points down to beat the Golden State Warriors in Oracle Arena in Game 2 of their series.
Even with the win on the road, it’s unreasonable to expect the Clippers to pull off the series upset. The Warriors got complacent midway through the 3rd quarter and things started to snowball from there. The win for the Clippers wasn’t indicative of having the talent needed to beat the Warriors, it was one of those rare instances in which sheer will was able to turn the tides.
There are a few teams that do have the talent to take four of seven games from the Warriors, though. As the Warriors move through the rounds, each series is going to pose challenges that could cost them their shot at a third consecutive title, and below are the five teams most likely to give them the most problems.
5. Denver Nuggets
During the regular season, and specifically the last two meetings, the Golden State Warriors looked great against the Denver Nuggets, largely because DeMarcus Cousins was able to neutralize All-Star center Nikola Jokic. With Cousins gone, Jokic could prove to be more effective in a series against the Warriors — a team that hasn’t been as good defensively in previous seasons. The Nuggets had the sixth most efficient offense in the NBA last year, and when Jamal Murray is cooking, this is a team that’s hard to beat, even for the best teams in the league. There’s a reason this team finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference, and it’s the same reason that we saw the Warriors find a way to get up for the games against the Nuggets in a season in which they were largely disinterested with the regular season.
4. Boston Celtics
The Celtics had an awfully strange regular season, and dealt with a lot of the same non-basketball issues that the Warriors did. Kyrie Irving is rumored to be leaving the team for the Knicks with Warriors forward Kevin Durant, and that kind of put a cloud over the Celtics season. However, Gordon Hayward has been playing much better as of late, and the Celtics look like a completely different team when he’s on. Irving loves the spotlight, and loves going at Steph Curry even more. If Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown play up to their potential and Al Horford plays like Al Horford, the Celtics are as good as anyone in the NBA. That’s a lot of variables that need to be met, but the only way these Celtics make it out of a top-heavy Eastern Conference is if these things are already happening.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
In both meetings between the Bucks and the Warriors, the road team won. It’s hard to really get a feel for what this series would be like because Draymond Green didn’t play in either game, but what we do know is that Milwaukee has the NBA’s best defense and offensively, they had five guys reach double figures scoring the ball. If you’re going to beat the Warriors, you have to have a balanced offensive attack, you have to be consistent, and you have to get stops. Even in the loss, the Bucks held the Warriors to 105 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been one of the most unstoppable players in the NBA this season and could take home this year’s MVP award for averaging 27, 12 and 6 this season. These Bucks have a lot to prove in terms of postseason play, but if this team is Finals bound, they’re going to give Golden State everything they have — and they’ll have home court in the Finals.
2. Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors were the only team to sweep the Warriors in the regular season this year. The first game was a thrilling 131-128 overtime win for the Raptors. Kevin Durant had 51 and Klay Thompson had 23, but Kawhi Leonard led a more balanced attack by the Raptors. Leonard finished with 37, but saw four other guys finish in double figures. In the second game the Raptors were able to pull out a 20-point win without Leonard on the floor. Kyle Lowry led the Raptors with 23 points and 12 assists, but again, there were four other guys who finished in double figures. Both Curry and Draymond Green struggled in the only game they played. Lowry is going to have to exorcize some postseason demons, but with Leonard in the fold this year, the Raptors are going to be one of the most dangerous teams this postseason.
1. Houston Rockets
No team knows the Warriors better than the Houston Rockets, and no team wants this Warriors team more. Last season, the Rockets were a half away from moving on to the NBA Finals — twice — and blew double-digit second-half leads in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals. This season, the Rockets went 3-1 against the Warriors, and with the team fully healthy going into the postseason, no team is better equipped and has more reasons to want to knock these Warriors off than the Rockets. James Harden is playing better than his MVP season this year and had the best individual scoring season since Kobe Bryant averaged 35 a game in 2006. Chris Paul is looking good after an early-season injury and Clint Capela should flourish with no DeMarcus Cousins to push him around. This would be a second-round series because the Rockets didn’t finish the regular season as strong as they would have liked, but they’re absolutely going to be ready for a seven-game battle with the Warriors.