NBA playoff preview: Watch out, Warriors — Rockets look like team to beat


Golden State is the gold standard in the NBA, yet Houston won seven more games than the Warriors this season.

That’s not as impressive as winning a seven-game series, but there’s this, too: Against Western Conference playoff teams, the Rockets fared eight games better than the Warriors: 21-5 vs. 13-12.

Timing is everything for a Rockets championship quest. Adding Chris Paul and defensive improvements just as the Warriors became hobbled and bored during an 82-game season improved Houston by 10 wins over last year’s team and created a legit threat to Golden State’s dynastic destiny.


“It’s Houston’s year,” said TNT and Turner Sports analyst Kevin McHale, who coached the Rockets from 2011 to 2015. “They’ve played the same way all year. No drama.”

This might be the Rockets’ best shot, considering they have the NBA’s oldest roster.

In coach Mike D’Antoni’s second season in Houston, the system became second nature as Paul quickly fit alongside James Harden, who likely will be the NBA’s MVP after averaging 30.4 points and 8.8 assists a game.

“Houston have put themselves in prime position with their length, versatility, their speed, their aggressiveness,” said Kobe Bryant, whose “Detail” show launched Thursday on ESPN’s new streaming service. “They’re a very aggressive team. It’s a more aggressive team than D’Antoni has had. [His former] Phoenix [teams], they play with a lot of speed, but none of those guys are naturally physical. Houston has some real physical players, man. I like where they’re at.”

Teams know the high screen-and-roll plays, isolations and spread-out, high-tempo offense are coming with 42 three-point shots a game. Yet, Houston seldom could be denied. The Rockets had winning streaks of 14, 17 and 11 games while they posted the sixth-best road record (31-10) in league history.

“They play the same way every night,” McHale said. “Golden State has not. They’ve had a lot of injuries. Their ball movement is not what it was. Their body movement isn’t as crisp. Their reads are not as distinct in their speed and everything. And they’ve been hurt. You can will yourself to go get a rebound. You can will yourself to be better on the defensive end. You can you will yourself on loose balls. You can’t will yourself to health.

“Their defense isn’t what it is [reputed to be]. I just think they’re all a little bit older.”

The West offered incredible depth and balance with the other six playoff teams separated by just two wins. But Golden State was the seemingly insurmountable favorite that showed the cracks of apathy and injury even as it again ranked first for offensive rating and ninth for defensive rating. The Warriors will play the first round without Stephen Curry, who’s nursing a sprained knee ligament, but have three other All-Stars to face defensive stalwart San Antonio.

Oklahoma City has the star cache and Russell Westbrook’s ferocity but is inconsistent and took a hit defensively with a season-ending injury to defensive stopper Andre Roberson; also his replacement, Corey Brewer, is questionable for Game 1. McHale sees the Thunder’s potential but believes it is not reliable enough for four series wins.

Utah might be more dangerous with a scoring star in rookie Donovan Mitchell and an elite defense once Rudy Gobert returned after missing 26 games with injuries.

Winning 31 of their last 39 games “means something to me,” McHale said of the Jazz. “They have as much confidence (as any team). I’m not sure anybody has played better than them.”

A series-by-series look at the Western Conference playoff matchups:


Records: Houston 65-17 (Home 34-7; Road 31-10); Minnesota 47-35 (Home 30-11; Road 17-24)

Season series: Rockets, 4-0.

Key stats: Houston went 42-3 when James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela played. Minnesota ended the NBA’s longest playoff drought (14 years) by beating Denver in overtime on Wednesday.

Outlook: The Timberwolves’ breakthrough is quelled by this matchup, pitting its middling defense, which allows opponents to shoot the second-highest field goal percentage (.475) in the NBA, against Houston’s juggernaut offense. Jimmy Butler is back and that is essential because Minnesota was 10-13 without its two-way star. It has been a franchise record offensive season, but the Timberwolves do not have the three-point shooting to hang with Houston, especially with Eric Gordon getting hot after the All-Star break. Losing forward Luc Mbah a Moute to a shoulder dislocation for at least the first round is a defensive blow to Houston, but its starting lineup has fared well with stopper P.J. Tucker. Harden won the NBA scoring title with 30.4 points a game while averaging 8.8 assists to meld with Paul’s 18.6 points and 7.9 assists.

Prediction: Rockets in five.

Game 1: Sunday at Houston, 6 p.m., TNT

Game 2: Wednesday at Houston, 6:30 p.m., TNT

Game 3: Saturday at Minnesota, 4:30 p.m., ESPN

Game 4: April 23 at Minnesota, 5 p.m., TNT

Game 5: April 25 at Houston, TBD*

Game 6: April 27 at Minnesota, TBD*

Game 7: April 29 at Houston, TBD*

*if necessary; Times PDT



Records: Golden State 58-24 (Home 29-12; Road 29-12); San Antonio 47-35 (Home 33-8; Road 14-27)

Season series: Warriors, 3-1.

Key stats: The Warriors average 14.4 fewer points per 100 possessions without Stephen Curry. The Spurs are the first playoff team with only one player (with a minimum of 10 games) averaging 12 or more points since George Mikan’s 1953-54 Lakers.

Outlook: It is a rematch of last year’s conference finals, when the series shifted once Spurs star Kawhi Leonard was hurt in Game 1. Leonard never regained his health and remains out, leaving LaMarcus Aldridge to lead San Antonio after he shot only 41% in last year’s series against Golden State. The Warriors likely will be without Curry (sprained knee) for the series and went 17-14 without him this season. They stumbled to a 7-10 finish with G League call-up Quinn Cook starting in place of Curry but remain positioned to vie for a third title in four years. The Spurs rank fourth in defensive rating but Leonard was the best matchup against Kevin Durant, who averaged 26.4 points this season. San Antonio has an 11-game home winning streak and an eight-game road losing streak, part of an unusually poor 14-27 road record.

Prediction: Warriors in six.

Game 1: Saturday at Golden State, noon, Ch. 7

Game 2: Monday at Golden State, 7:30 p.m., TNT

Game 3: Thursday at San Antonio, 6:30 p.m., TNT

Game 4: April 22 at San Antonio, 12:30 p.m., Ch. 7

Game 5: April 24 at Golden State, TBD*

Game 6: April 26 at San Antonio, TBD*

Game 7: April 28 at Golden State, TBD*, TNT



Records: Portland 49-33 (Home 28-13; Road 21-20); New Orleans 48-34 (Home 24-17; Road 24-17)

Season series: Tied, 2-2.

Key stats: The Trail Blazers won 21 of their final 24 home games. The Pelicans averaged 121.2 points in their final five games, winning them by an average of 18 points.

Outlook: New Orleans changed into the NBA’s fastest-paced team after losing center DeMarcus Cousins in January. Anthony Davis, now at center, and Jrue Holiday, now at shooting guard, got help from forward Nikola Mirotic, who came from Chicago in a trade and is even better since shaving his beard (21.8 points per game in seven games). Davis averaged 28.1 points (second in the NBA), 11.1 rebounds (fifth) and 2.6 blocks (first) this season. The Pelicans go from a No. 5 defensive rating with Holiday on the court to No. 30 without him. Portland surged to the third seed with a 13-game winning streak but had a 5-7 finish. The Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum backcourt averaged 48.3 points. Center Jusuf Nurkic, injured at this time last year, helped improve the defense and had four consecutive double-doubles in his last five games. Only Phoenix has a younger roster than Portland.

Prediction: Trail Blazers in seven.

Game 1: Saturday at Portland, 7:30 p.m., ESPN

Game 2: Tuesday at Portland, 7:30 p.m., TNT

Game 3: Thursday at New Orleans, 6 p.m., NBA TV

Game 4: April 21 at New Orleans, 2 p.m., TNT

Game 5: April 24 at Portland, TBD*

Game 6: April 26 at New Orleans, TBD*

Game 7: April 28 at Portland, TBD*, TNT

*if necessary; Times PDT



Records: Oklahoma City 48-34 (Home 27-14; Road 21-20); Utah 48-34 (Home 28-13; Road 20-21)

Season series: Thunder, 3-1.

Key stats: The Thunder had the NBA’s best record (6-3) against the league’s top three teams — Houston, Golden State and Toronto. The Jazz led the NBA in average scoring margin (plus 9.3) for the second half of the season.

Outlook: The playoffs’ best first-round matchup has the intrigue of Oklahoma City’s star-studded potential against Utah’s young phenoms. The Thunder teamed Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony for this and it needs to work to keep George. Team buy-in is there. Westbrook went from NBA scoring leader to NBA assists leader. The Thunder hustles like crazy to be league leaders in deflections, 50/50 balls, offensive rebounds and created turnovers. Utah counters with a defense that ranked first in the 56 games that center Rudy Gobert played. Donovan Mitchell is the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring (20.5 points a game) since Anthony and the first rookie scoring leader on a 45-win team since David Robinson. Utah’s usual starting lineup is 28-12.

Prediction: Jazz in six.

Game 1: Sunday at Oklahoma City, 3:30 p.m., TNT

Game 2: Wednesday at Oklahoma City, 5 p.m., NBA TV

Game 3: April 21 at Utah, 7 p.m., ESPN

Game 4: April 23 at Utah, 7:30 p.m., TNT

Game 5: April 25 at Oklahoma City, TBD*

Game 6: April 27 at Utah, TBD*

Game 7: April 29 at Oklahoma City, TBD*

*if necessary; Times PDT