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How every Western Conference underdog can win their first round series (and why they probably won’t)

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Ben Mertens makes the case for David over Goliath in every first round series.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Playoffs are finally, mercifully here! But maybe you’re not as excited as you wish. A lot of these first round matchups look like foregone conclusions. Could the second round get here already?

Worry not. To get you excited and in prime so you’re telling me there’s a chance mode, I’ve made the case for how the underdog can win each series- and then, for the sake of balance, explained why the favorite will probably still pull it out in the end, before offering a prediction for each series. I’ve also ranked the chances of an upset on the following highly scientific scale:

1- No Chance in Hell

2- You’re probably better off just buying a powerball ticket than predicting this

3- So you’re telling me there’s a chance

4- The spirits of Joe Namath & Baron Davis smile on you, noble underdog

5- This wouldn’t even be an upset. The wrong team is favored


In the Western Conference, three of the four series rank high on the upset scale (as for the Clippers, you had a great season guys).

1. San Antonio Spurs (7) vs Denver Nuggets (2)

Why the Spurs Can Win

For a 54 win team, the Nuggets do feel ripe for an upset. Their superstar player Nikola Jokic is a pass-first big man with serious defensive limitations and a physique that is less impressive than at least a few of the guys you play against at the Y every weekend. There is a massive drop off in talent to their second best player, Jamal Murray, a 3rd year shooting guard who is not particularly efficient. The only player in their playoff rotation with meaningful playoff experience is Paul Millsap, who is 33 years old and not who he once was. They don’t really have a small forward on roster- their starter at that position Will Barton is more of a shooting guard, and has just wrapped up his worst season in years scoring the ball, which seems problematic since he’s mainly known as a scorer. They missed the playoffs last year and plenty of people, justifiably, want to see them prove it in the playoffs.

The Nuggets may be vulnerable, but are the Spurs the right team to pull off the upset? San Antonio, somehow, finished as a top 5 offense in the NBA by net rating despite a shot distribution that looks like Coach Triceraptos designed it in the Cretaceous Period. The Spurs took the least amount of shots at the rim and the least amount of shots from 3 point land, despite those shots being the most valuable shots in basketball. They made it work by treating those high value shots as a matter of quality rather than quantity; they buried their 3’s (first in the league in 3p FG%) and shots at the rim (5th best in the league finishing there), and also hit 44% of the many, many, many mdirangers they did take. Take THAT, analytics.

That style has a chance to succeed against Denver. The Nuggets do not cede the mdiranger in pick and roll the way they did in previous years when they had Jokic drop in the pick and roll. They now bring Jokic up to the level of the screen to make sure the ballahndler sees a body, and rorate over to bump the screener if he dives to the rim behind Jokic. That means you won’t see much of DeRozan dribbling into open mid-rangers, but it does mean the Spurs, always a great passing team, will be able to swing the ball around and find open shooters.

Indeed, the Nuggets allowed the most corner 3’s in the NBA this season, which didn’t sink their defense only because their opponents also shot the worst percentage on corner 3’s of any team in the league. At least part of that discrepancy is luck, and not the kind of luck the Nuggets can count on to continue, particularly against the Spurs, who knocked down 38% of their corner 3’s this year (second best in the league). The Nuggets also have other problems defensively; none of their wings are as physically strong as DeMar DeRozan, who had success bullying them and getting to the rim during the team’s regular season matchups. LaMarcus Aldridge can give Nikola Jokic a lot of problems in the post and from midrange- Aldridge shot 55% from the field in the Spurs 4 games against Denver, well above his season average.

The Spurs succeeded in containing Denver’s offense in 3 of their 4 regular season match-ups (the most recent game between the teams was a start to finish disaster for the Spurs), holding them well below their average offensive rating. If they can contain the Nuggets defensively and continue to execute at a high level offensively, the Spurs could win multiple shoot-outs and take this series.

Why They May Not

These teams split the regular season series at 2 game apiece. The Spurs’ two wins were by 1 point and 8 points, while the Nuggets were by 3 and 28. A lot went right for San Antonio in their two wins. The Nuggets, the very best offensive rebounding team in the league, rebounded poorly in both losses. The Nuggets coughed up the ball like they had a bad cold in one of the losses and took just 4 free throws. The Spurs never force turnovers, and while the Nuggets are not among the league leaders in drawing fouls, they still average 21 free throw attempts per game. They had four. And despite that, and despite the Nuggets turning the ball over at a crazy rate and failing to haul in their typical volume of offensive rebounds, the Spurs won by 1 point.

Now, you could argue a lot of the Nuggets struggles against San Antonio in those games were because of specific things about the Spurs team and specific decisions Gregg Popovich made, which make the results replicable. There’s some truth to that. The Spurs were excellent at keeping the Nuggets away from the rim, a place where the Nuggets normally produce well. Nikola Jokic was held to well below his season averages in points and assists against the Spurs, partly because they made a concerted effort to get the ball out of his hands without ceding open shots (they did, however, give up a ton of 3 pointers, in terms of volume and conversion, even in the games they won). There’s a blueprint for success for the Spurs.

But their margin for error is just a lot smaller than Denver’s. When everything was going right for San Antonio, they won by 1 and by 8. When everything was going right for Denver, they won by 30. If the Nuggets continue to bomb from 3 like they did in the regular season, while also limiting turnovers and rebounding at merely their average rate, they’ll be able to win this series, even if San Antonio is more of a hurdle than the typical 7 seed.

Upset Rating: 3 - So you’re telling me there’s a chance.

Most Likely Outcome: Nuggets in 6

Utah Jazz (5) vs Houston Rockets (4)

Why The Jazz Can Win

By net rating, the Jazz should be the favorites in this series. The Jazz finished the season with a +6.7 net rating, behind only the Warriors and Bucks. That net rating results in an expected win total of 57 wins- a total the Jazz missed drastically by finishing with “only” 50 wins. No one was less lucky than the Jazz,. Houston’s net rating of +4.3, meanwhile, matched up just about perfectly with their actual win total of 53 wins. “But wait!” cries the Rockets fan, “the Rockets have been a totally different team since starting the year 11-14, at which point James Harden went thermonuclear, carried the team in the absence of Chris Paul and Clint Capela, and made himself the “undisputed, no-brainer MVP” (take it easy there, imaginary Houston fan).

Fair enough. Since December 11th, when the Rockets began playing like a contender again, they’ve posted a net rating of +7.6, the 4th best rating in the league. Impressive. But who’s that sitting at the top of the rankings with a net rating of +9.7, the best in the league? That would be...the Utah Jazz.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think to the Jazz as favorites in this series based on regular season performance, and once you start diving into how the two teams match up, their case stays strong. There are basically two ways you can attempt to defend James Harden. The first is to switch everything but otherwise defend him straight up. If you have a bunch of similar sized, defensively capable personnel, Harden won’t gain space off the pick and roll and won’t have a mismatch to attack. The problem now is that Harden has so perfected the stepback 3 that, even without a mismatch, he can generate a high quality look out of thin air.

The second way is to have your defender stay on Harden’s hip, taking away his airspace for 3 pointers, but also giving him an easy driving lane into the paint. Then have your center plant himself in the lane, and defend the rim without fouling but still force Harden into a relatively tough finish. Oh, and don’t forget to be ready to quickly slide over if Harden goes for the lob to Clint Capela.

That strategy is the one that has succeeded (to the point any scheme has truly succeeded against Harden), and no center is better able to pull it off than Rudy Gobert, the probable Defensive Player of the Year, and the main reason the Jazz finished the season as the best defense in the NBA.

Harden will still get his of course, but the Jazz are well suited to make that as difficult as possible. This strategy actually worked well against Harden in last year’s playofff series between these two teams- he shot just 40% form the field and under 30% from deep, and while he made some of it up with his usual parade to the foul line, he was held relatively in check. It was Chris Paul who really beat Utah, and CP3, even when healthy, has just not looked like the same guy this year, averaging just 15 points per game on the worst true shooting percentage since his sophomore year. That gives Utah a real opening.

If the battle of strengths (Utah’s 1st ranked defense vs Houston’s 2nd ranked offense) plays to a draw, which is what Utah should hope for, the battle of weaknesses will swing the series- Utah’s 14th ranked offense vs Houston’s 17th ranked defense. To succeed on that end, Utah probably needs a healthy dose of Jae Crowder. Utah’s starting lineup has been masterful on defense, allowing less than 1 point per possession, but they’ve been dreadful on offense. Inserting Crowder in place of Favors cost the team some defense, but juice their offense by a much higher degree; their net rating of +4.0 blossoms to +14.2 with Crowder in Favors’ place. In this series especially, what Crowder brings is more important than Favors.

The Jazz rebound better on offense and defense with the Gobert-Favors twin towers duo, but the Rockets stink at rebounding- they rank 29th in offensive rebounds. Utah can dominate the glass without Favors. P.J. Tucker will spend a lot of the game waiting in the corner no matter who’s guarding him. If the Rockets do involve him as a screener, Crowder and Favors could both be vulnerable in different ways, and if the Rockets do make Crowder a problem that way, the Jazz can revert back to Favors if need be. But offensively, adding another 3 point shooter alongside Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell works wonders for Utah’s spacing no matter who’s handling the ball, extending Houston’s already smallish defense even further. If Utah can contain Harden to the degree they did last year with Crowder playing big minutes, they should be in good shape to win.

Why They May Not

Harden has taken his already ridiculous offensive game to another planet this year. It’s true that he has not performed as well in the playoffs as the regular season, and it’s true that Jazz have a roster well built to give harden problems. It still may not matter, and if Harden is able to score and playmake at the level he did in the regular season, Utah will have to try and win a shootout, which they won’t be able to.

Upset Rating: 4- The spirits of Joe Namath & Baron Davis smiles on you, noble underdog

Most Likely Outcome: Rockets in 7.

Oklahoma City Thunder (6) vs Portland Trail Blazers (3)

Why the Thunder can win

Despite going just 12-13 since the All-Star break (7-13 before a 5 game winning streak to close the season steadied the ship somewhat) and falling from the 3 seed down to the 6 seed, the Thunder find themselves in a first round matchup against an opponent they swept in the regular season and is now missing its second most important player. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Regular season matchups are not necessarily predictive of how playoff matchups will go, and it’s worth noting that all four regular season contests between the Thunder and the Blazers were close, with one going into overtime. With that said, the Thunder do have legitimate advantages over the Blazers that manifested in the regular season and will manifest again in the playoffs.

The first advantage: last year the Trail blazers were completely stymied by the Pelicans running an aggressive blitzing defense where they trapped Damian Lillard on every pick and roll. The Blazers never successfully countered- none of their screeners were capable of making plays in space, Lillard was unable to beat the doubles by himself, and the Pelicans swept the Blazers. The Thunder often run a similar scheme- they bring the man guarding the screener all the way up to aggressively double the ballhandler, forcing him to get rid of the ball, and rely on their long and rangy wing defenders to fill up the holes this creates. The Thunder have not always gone to this strategy quite as aggressively as they did last season, but I would expect them to go to it in this series until the Blazers prove they are better at beating this scheme than they were last year.

Here the loss of Jusuf Nurkic really stings for Portland. Nurkic made major strides as a playmaker this season, giving the Blazers a strong counter to the trapping gambit (although, given the Thunder’s excellent help defenders, I think they would’ve used this strategy even if Nurkic was playing and forced Portland to prove they could execute against the strategy at a high level). With Nurkic out for the year, the Blazers will instead start Enes Kanter, who has not shown the same ability to run the 4-on-3 situation created by the trapping scheme.

Speaking of Kanter, the Thunder must be licking their lips just thinking about getting to play against their defensively challenged former teammate, whose struggles caused Billy Donovan to declare “Can’t Play Kanter” in the midst of the Thunder series against the Rockets two seasons ago (which proved to be Kanter’s last games in Oklahoma City). I have heard some smart basketball writers say that this series is a good one, or at least not a bad one for Kanter, since the Thunder don’t have a playmaker who can stretch the Blazers to the degree Steph Curry or James Harden can, due to their ability to hit off the bounce 3 pointers. I don’t really agree. Kanter isn’t good at defending the 3 point line, it’s true. He’s also not good at defending the rim. He stinks on defense in general. If Steven Adams sets a screen that connects and Russell Westbrook gets a head of steam heading into the lane, Kanter will have the same odds of stopping him as he does of stopping a train. If the Thunder do prefer to stretch Kanter out to the 3 point line, great- they can have Paul George run the pick and roll instead. If Kanter doesn’t meet him at the line, he rises up for 3. If Kanter does, George can either blow by him or hit Adams on the roll, where he will rampage to the rim if Kanter isn’t back to stop him.

In the past, opponents could aggressively help off of the Thunder’s many non shooters. Jerami Grant has partially solved this problem by shooting 39% of his 3’s this season. Grant only takes about 4 attempts per game from deep, and no one is confusing him for Kevin Love, but when opposing defense help off him too aggressively, he has proven he can make them pay (he has also gotten craftier at driving against close-outs as teams have started to worry more about his shooting). The Blazers should be more willing to send help off of Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder, who are both less consistent than Grant. If the Blazers bench Kanter in the hopes of better defending the pick and roll, Steven Adams will eat whichever replacement big man they send in alive on the offensive and defensive glass.

The Thunder have clear edges on both sides of the ball. What’s not to love?

Why They May Not

Lillard and Head Coach Terry Stotts have had a year to brood over last year’s loss and figure out how to counter trapping defense. Nurkic was one of their main options, and losing him hurts, but they will have other methods. The trap will still be an effective tool that will make Portland uncomfortable and force them out of their preferred actions, but I would expect Lillard to manage better than the 35% he put up in last year’s playoffs. For as clear as the Thunder’s gameplan should be, there are problems.

Paul George’s health is dubious. He’s looked mostly like his old self over the Thunder’s last 10 games or so, averaging 27 points and shooting 36% from 3 on a high volume of shots, but his shoulder is clearly still an area of concern, as he sat out the last game of the regular season. George is the key to the Thunder’s chances in any series- The Thunder can sic him on Lillard or McCollum on defense or have him defend off the ball and look to get steals and deflections, and offensively they’ll look to run a ton of the offense through him, as the Blazers don’t really have any great options for guarding him on the perimeter.

If George is limited, Russell Westbrook may be tempted to embrace his worst instincts and try to win the series by beating Dame one-on-one, just as he did against Ricky Rubio last year. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. If PG is fully healthy, the Blazers will send help off of everyone else when he tries to run pick and roll or drive the lane, and be comfortable selling out to run him off the 3 point line and force him to drive and kick. If Grant and Ferguson can make shots and Westbrook and Schroder can attack the scrambled defense successfully in those scenarios, the Thunder will be in good shape. If they can’t and Lillard gets cooking on the other end, it could be another first round exit for OKC.

Upset Rating: 5- This wouldn’t really be an upset. The wrong team is favored

Most Likely Outcome: Thunder in 6.

Los Angeles Clippers (8) vs Golden State Warriors (1)

Why the Clippers Could Win

They won’t.

Upset Rating: 1- No Chance in Hell.

Most Likely Outcome: Warriors in 4


Stay tuned for my look at the Eastern Conference.