Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Thursday, April 13, 2017 at 11:17 AM
The NBA playoff matchups are set and what follows are the key factors I’m looking in handicapping the four first-round series in the Western Conference...
Houston-Oklahoma City: It’s too bad the MVP votes will already be cast (though not publicly announced) when James Harden and Russell Westbrook go head-to-head. But NBA bettors can’t get hung up in the media circus that will surround this most entertaining of first-round matchups. Because it’s issues away from the stars that will likely determine who covers pointspreads and wins basketball games.
For all of Westbrook’s electricity and his astonishing 32 points/11 rebounds/10 assists per-game average, Oklahoma City is not a very good offensive team. They rank just 17th in offensive efficiency. Some of that is due to excessive reliance on Westbrook, but some of it also due to the fact that Westbrook is...well, he’s inefficient, shooting just 42 percent. By contrast, Houston ranks 2nd in efficiency on the offensive end.
Before you run out to bet the Rockets though, keep in mind the Thunder hold significant edges in team defense and rebounding. Houston is below-average on the defensive end, not unusual for Mike D’Antoni-coached team with Harden as its star. And Oklahoma City is the best rebounding team in the NBA. Westbrook, Enes Kanter and Steven Adams are the prime rebounders and the Thunder bring good depth to this area.
So is it about offense or defense? Will one star or the other make a playoff statement to an attentive public? I’ll be prepared with the answer to those questions when the series tips off from Houston on Sunday night (9 PM ET, TNT).
LA Clippers-Utah: Not far behind Houston-OKC in the entertainment category is this battle between the 4-5 seeds that starts at the Staples Center on Saturday night (10:30 PM ET, ESPN). There’s a similar dynamic to the Rockets-Thunder series in that if you want offense, you’ll bet the Clippers (fourth in the NBA in efficiency) and if you believe in defense, you’ll be attracted to the Jazz and their #3 ranking league-wide in defensive efficiency.
The other contrast is that of stars going against consistent rebounding. Los Angeles has the marquee names—Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan all make their share of commercial appearances and all are producing on the court. Surprisingly though, a team with Griffin and Jordan is just 16th in the NBA in rebound rate (percentage of available rebounds secured). Utah, led by Rudy Gobert is third. It’s imperative that successful teams in the NBA playoffs rebound the basketball.
It’s also imperative, at this time of year in this league, that you have marquee players you can count on. Unfortunately for handicappers, we’ll have to decide between the two. And I’ll be ready.
Golden State-Portland: The Warriors are the top-heavy favorite to win the NBA championship, at 5-11 odds and even heavier to come out of the West at (-400). Portland is more than just the 8-seed—they’re significantly behind the rest of the playoff field in this conference.
The only question here is just how many points Golden State can afford to give on a game-in, game-out basis. That’s no small question and one I’m confident my season-long preparation leaves me qualified to answer.
San Antonio-Memphis: Are the echoes of 2011 going to be reawakened? That’s when Memphis upset San Antonio as a #8 seed in the first round. Or is it the echoes of 2013? That’s when these same teams met in a more anticipated conference finals and it turned into a Spurs wipeout. Get with me for the answers each night during the NBA playoffs.