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Every search for the Golden State Warriors’ maker must begin the same way: by laughing out loud.
The reigning champs are heavy favorites to win a third straight title for a reason. They remain head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league. The idea of a team beating them four times in seven tries is laughable.
Focusing on the Warriors’ regular-season drama and defensive concerns is genuinely pointless. They have a playoff switch, and they will flip it. Don’t believe they’re vulnerable until they actually fall.
In the meantime, the hunt for an author of their demise carries on, halfheartedly and without assurance. The Warriors’ biggest threats vary by mind and by the week. It seems pretty clear that the Eastern Conference houses the best rivals this season, but that’s subject to change if the Houston Rockets stay frisky.
Ranking the most serious challengers rests on two questions: How likely is Team X to reach the NBA Finals or remain in play until they meet the Warriors? And how well do they match up with them upon getting there?
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8. Utah Jazz
Utah is 5-5 against Golden State in the regular season during the Kevin Durant era, the significance of which cannot be overstated. The Boston Celtics (3-3), Houston Rockets (6-5) and San Antonio Spurs (5-5) are the only other teams with .500 or better records versus the dynastic favorites over this period.
This matters. The Jazz defense has held up well when facing the Warriors. Inevitably, though, upsetting Golden State won’t come down to the less glamorous end. Offensive firepower is more important. Utah needs another player with an elite floor game before cracking the main card—well, that, or Durant simply leaving this summer should suffice.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have a stronger defensive claim than a good portion of the field, but their offensive argument doesn’t exist. After a brief break from inconsistency, Oklahoma City’s attack has retreated back into relative disrepair.
Paul George‘s offensive malaise is whatever. He’ll be fine. Everyone else in Oklahoma City is a different story—that includes Russell Westbrook and his recent dalliance with respectable long-range marksmanship.
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Hardly anyone is giving the Nuggets love in this discussion.
The Warriors have torched the Denver defense through three head-to-heads, posting an offensive rating north of 122. The Nuggets are pretty good at guarding cuts and off screens, but the matchup gets hyper-prickly when looking at their transition defense.
Facing the Warriors is not Nikola Jokic’s jam. His defensive warts are overblown; he gets good position. But he doesn’t have the reactive instincts or mobility of Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert, and the vast majority of the Nuggets’ lineups won’t make his life any easier by preventing downhill penetration. Denver has allowed 129 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor against Golden State this season.
Faith in the Nuggets offense gets them this high—warranted faith, mind you.
Like the Rockets, they don’t lean on transition or speed, but they can hang in a shootout. For them, it’s not so much about three-point volume as working defenses into surrender with cuts, hand-offs and high-IQ passing.
Whether the Nuggets employ the necessary safety valves to navigate less-fluid offensive stretches is a fair question. They don’t really have anyone aside from Jamal Murray and Will Barton with the capacity to go and grab a bucket off the dribble when things bog down. And Jokic post-ups, while never a bad option, can get them only so far as a scoring mechanism.
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Bluntly honest admission: The Philadelphia 76ers might not be here at all if not for their path to the NBA Finals. They have earned the benefit of the doubt over the Celtics in Eastern Conference terms, but Golden State is an especially problematic matchup for them.
In some ways, the Sixers provide a break for the Warriors defense.
Draymond Green can flitter around the half-court when guarding Ben Simmons, almost free from consequence. Philly’s super sophomore is shooting 48.1 percent for his career when defended by Green, but the overall offense averages 0.91 points per possession in these situations.
Joel Embiid, meanwhile, has struggled hard in his three meetups with the Warriors. They can scheme him into a liability.
Three- and four-game sample sizes are nothing. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris warp whatever precedent is already set. They diversify Philly’s offense, making it easier to punish Golden State in the half-court. And the Sixers, for their part, have played the Warriors well this season without getting to run out their Fab Four.
Something still feels off about this matchup.
Klay Thompson didn’t play in either of the two games this season, and even if the Sixers offense holds up (it might!), they have to worry about Embiid surviving Green-at-the-5 lineups.
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It is entirely possible the Rockets belong higher. They’re not as appealing as last year when taking stock of Chris Paul‘s performance and their decline in defensive switchability. But they’ve gradually built themselves back up over the past couple of months.
Houston is sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions since Feb. 1 and third this side of the All-Star break, according to Cleaning the Glass. Rival offenses are hitting a preposterously low percentage of their wide-open threes during this span, but the improvement feels somewhat sustainable with a healthy Paul, Clint Capela, Danuel House Jr. and PJ Tucker on the case.
Playing even league-average defense forces the Rockets to be taken seriously. Their offense is that close to Warriors-proof.
James Harden is playing stat nerds into a coma. Eric Gordon is knocking down threes again (40.9 percent since the All-Star break). Paul is laboring through a cold spell, but he looks closer to himself. He’s hitting an acceptable 34.1 percent of his pull-up threes and shooting 64.7 percent from inside the restricted area since his return from a hamstring injury.
General three-point volume helps the Rockets get by in a potential series opposite the Warriors. They’re nailing almost 16 treys per 100 possessions compared to Golden State’s 12.7. That differential matters when trying to weather a talent deficit.
So does Harden’s shot-making. He defaults to contested step-back threes so the Warriors can fully engage themselves on defense and still not derail his go-to move. That’s huge—assuming he’s not gassed once the postseason tips off.
“I have decided that if I am Houston, I actually want to play Golden State in Round 2,” Uproxx’s Mike Zavagno wrote. “Less time for the Warriors to figure things out (probably doesn’t matter), but also less time for Harden to get worn down as he has in basically every playoffs.”
This makes an uncomfortable amount of sense. But the Rockets won’t meet the Warriors until the Western Conference Finals if they don’t cede ground in the standings. Their timing ultimately doesn’t matter. A healthy Harden and Paul is still Golden State’s biggest roadblock out west.
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Feel that? It’s the pull to push the Celtics higher.
Boston has a plus-4.4 net rating and 3-3 record against Golden State during the Kevin Durant era. Utah is the only other team with a positive differential (plus-3.0) versus the Dubs over the past two-plus regular seasons.
Go back even further, to the start of the Warriors’ dynasty, and the Celtics remain in the green. They’re a plus-1.6 points per 100 possessions against Golden State since 2014-15, albeit with a 4-6 record.
Past one-off tussles don’t inform the future. Utah would otherwise be more favorably placed within this pecking order. Boston just feels like a team equipped to give Golden State hell.
Kyrie Irving versus Stephen Curry is as close to a dead-even offensive matchup the Warriors can face at the point guard position. Al Horford is the rare center who won’t be so easily rattled by their lineup structures. Their traditional bigs are slower than him, and Draymond Green cannot cover him without devoting full attention. It will be harder to mismatch Horford off the floor on defense.
What the Celtics lack in a conventional wing-stopper they make up for with capable variety. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward all render the chore of tracking Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson ever so slightly less daunting.
This says nothing of Marcus Smart, who can pester nearly four positions, and whose wonky defensive splits are proof of on-off shortcomings.
He is critical to how the Celtics battle the Warriors. He has defended Curry, Durant, Green or Thompson for a total of 157 possessions across three games over the past two seasons. They are shooting a combined 38.5 percent against him (10-of-26). Golden State’s offense has barely averaged 1.0 points per possession in these situations.
Every hunch feels flimsy when stacked up against the gigantic shadow cast by the Warriors. But the Celtics’ case droops in the face of their path to the Finals. They will probably have to go through two of the Bucks, Sixers and Raptors to win the East and haven’t exactly been a billboard for consistency this season. They are 4-12 on the road against teams above .500, and the offense is 20th in efficiency since the All-Star break.
Neither Brown nor Hayward nor Tatum is as much of a wild card as they were months ago, but for all the baby steps the Celtics have taken on an individual level, they are in want of the unity incumbent of a conference favorite.
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Injuries have hit the Milwaukee Bucks hard down the stretch. Malcolm Brogdon (right foot), Pau Gasol (left ankle), Nikola Mirotic (left thumb), Tony Snell (left ankle) and Donte DiVincenzo (left foot) are all on the shelf, with most expected to missed extended time.
Even though DiVincenzo is the only one ruled out for the season, Brogdon’s absence is the most severe. The timetable for the guard’s return from a plantar fascia tear could cost him playoff games. Though he should be back well before Milwaukee has to worry about clashing with Golden State, the Bucks cannot be sure he’ll resume his career-best performance.
This does little to compromise their “Beat the Warriors!” stock in the grand scheme. It costs them the No. 1 spot, but they might have forfeited pole position anyway.
Fortunately, bad luck has spared the Bucks’ three most important players: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton.
Bledsoe has the physical tools to put pressure on Stephen Curry. Antetokounmpo and Middleton can shimmy between Draymond Green, who missed both matchups with Milwaukee this year, and Kevin Durant. This far from settles anything, but most teams would kill for a similar head-to-head profile.
Losing Brogdon bilks the Bucks of a primary Klay Thompson defender. They have alternatives—namely a healthy Snell or Pat Connaughton. They can also use Middleton, stick Antetokounmpo on Durant and dare Green to beat them as a scorer. Using Antetokounmpo and either Mirotic or Ersan Ilyasova up front is intriguing for when the Warriors run small.
Milwaukee’s offense should stand the test of Golden State’s defense. Antetokounmpo could be the best player in a prospective series. One, maybe two, other teams on this list have that luxury. Milwaukee has the secondary shot creators, in Bledsoe and Middleton, to trudge through stickier stretches.
Surrounding Antetokounmpo with four shooters puts every team on tilt. Brook Lopez‘s parking-lot haymakers aren’t as disarming against the Warriors, but the Bucks have smaller arrangements in their back pocket. They’re outscoring opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions when running Antetokounmpo and Ilyasova at the 4 and 5, respectively, according to Cleaning the Glass.
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Putting the Raptors in front of the Bucks is not a decision that was taken lightly. Milwaukee is having the better season, whereas Toronto continues to figure things out.
Kawhi Leonard still exists, largely, outside the team offense. The bench is 26th in point differential per 100 possessions since the trade deadline. Kyle Lowry said he “could sit out until the playoffs with the type of” right ankle injury he’s trying to play through.
Still, this is the Finals matchup that strikes the right balance of likely and, for the Warriors, troubling.
Toronto won both regular-season meetings in convincing fashion. Leonard and Kevin Durant went at each other in a late-November classic, for which the Warriors did not have Stephen Curry. The Raptors then obliterated the Warriors in December, at Oracle Arena, without Leonard. (Andre Iguodala didn’t play, either.)
Leonard is not a Durant stopper, but he can go it alone, and he might have a different gear to reach on defense in the postseason. Lowry and Danny Green can take turns stalking Curry and Klay Thompson. OG Anunoby has the chops to be a swing defender on Durant and Thompson—and definitely Iguodala.
Gasol is playable when the Warriors use DeMarcus Cousins. If Serge Ibaka cannot hang when Draymond Green is in the middle, Pascal Siakam can. The Raptors don’t roll him out at center often but are a plus-19 points per 100 possessions in the time he has played the 5, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Predicting the East’s NBA Finals representative is little more scientific than a coin toss. Milwaukee is right there, and Boston oozes untapped potential. Both could put up a fight against Golden State.
Insofar as the Warriors can actually be dethroned, though, the Raptors have the profile of a stronger spoiler.
They’re already a contender, like those before them, but injuries and turnover from last year suggest they’ve yet to hit their stride. They may not peak until the playoffs. And more than that, they have the roster makeup to match the Warriors rotation, in all its many forms.