Parsing the Warriors first-round playoff possibilities

Golden State will likely face one of the teams from play-in tournament

By John Krolik

Special to The Examiner

Anything can happen down the NBA’s stretch run. There’s still plenty of basketball to be played, and the Grizzlies are just behind the slumping Warriors in the standings. However, it does look like the Warriors will finish the regular season with the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.

That would mean they would face one of the four teams from the highly volatile play-in tournament. It’s nearly impossible to predict which of the teams the Warriors would face in that scenario, so let’s take a look at all of them and how the Warriors match up with them.

Timberwolves

The current No. 7 team in the West is the Minnesota Timberwolves. After years of struggle, there seems to be something positive happening in Minnesota. The No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, Anthony Edwards, is having a breakout season. Former No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, who may be the best three-point shooting big man of all time, seems to be finding his groove. D’Angelo Russell has been steady. (Although it certainly seems like the Warriors got the much better end of the Russell-Andrew Wiggins swap.)

The two teams have met four times this season, with the Warriors taking two games and the Timberwolves taking two. Most recently, the teams met March 1. The Timberwolves won that game 129-114 behind 39 points from Towns. The Warriors would be favored over the Timberwolves, but the combination of Edwards and Towns is a dangerous one.

Clippers

The Clippers are currently sitting in the No. 8 seed. Despite Kawhi Leonard having missed the entire season to this point and Paul George having missed most of the year, head coach Tyronn Lue’s squad has managed to scrape together a solid season. Players like Reggie Jackson, Terrance Mann, Ivica Zubac and Robert Covington are all playing extremely solid basketball. The Warriors won their first two games against the Clippers this season, but lost in the most recent meeting between the two teams. With the Warriors struggling to generate any offense outside of Steph Curry, the Clippers were able to take a 119-104 win at home. Even if neither of their star players are healthy in time for the playoffs, this is a team that makes you work for everything. Also, Lue is one of only two coaches to have defeated Steve Kerr in a full playoff series.

Lakers

The No. 9 seed is currently held by the Lakers, who have been the NBA’s answer to the car crash it’s impossible to look away from this season. LeBron James is somehow still playing at a ludicrously high level. The 37-year old James is in his 19th season. For those of you keeping score at home, that means he’s spent over half his life in the NBA. He’s struggled with nagging injuries. He’s had to play center more than he ever has in his career. Despite all of that, James is averaging 29 points per game on well above 50% shooting from the field. (Somewhat understandably, his prowess as a rim protector has often left something to be desired, but it’s still been an incredible season.)

Essentially everything else has gone wrong for the Lakers. Anthony Davis has been injury-prone throughout his career, and that’s been a real problem for the Lakers this season. He’s been limited to 37 games this season. He’ll miss the next few weeks with a foot sprain. He hasn’t been able to develop chemistry with the Lakers’ new additions. When he has played, he’s struggled with his shot, which is a problem for a team with as little shooting as the Lakers.

And then there’s Russell Westbrook, the biggest nightmare $44 million can buy. Westbrook has played with the ball in his hands throughout his career. The Lakers have obliged him as much as any team that also employs James possibly could. The results have not been positive.

Westbrook has lost a step, and many of his forays to the basket end with the ball hitting the underside of the rim. He constantly takes outside shots, especially long twos, even though he’s one of the worst shooting guards in the league. His defensive effort comes and goes.

Because teams are willing to concede him open three-pointers, he chokes the Lakers’ spacing. He’s averaging four turnovers a game, which is right in line with his career average. (Westbrook has averaged 4.1 turnovers a game over the course of his career, which is an NBA record.)

The Lakers also sacrificed a significant amount of depth to get Westbrook. Alex Caruso, a good spot-up shooter and cutter who is also one of the best defensive guards in the league, is gone. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, another good shooter and defender, is gone. Dennis Schröder, who had a disappointing season offensively but was an absolute pest on defense, is gone. Kyle Kuzma, who was coming along as an all-around option off the bench, is gone. Players like Malik Monk and Carmelo Anthony have done better than expected filling their slots, but the Lakers seem to have simply given up too much quality depth for a player who isn’t performing anywhere near the way the Lakers need him to.

The Warriors have played the Lakers twice this season. They won both games, with the most recent one being a dramatic affair where the Warriors blew a massive lead but managed to hang on by getting a stop on the Lakers’ final possession. They’ll play the Lakers twice more before the regular season comes to a close. It’s hard to write off a team with James and Davis. However, the Lakers are making it very tempting to do just that.

Pelicans

The No. 10 seed is occupied by the Pelicans. They’ve had a disappointing year as well. The 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick and presumptive franchise player Zion Williamson has missed the entire season. What makes things even worse is his weight seems to have ballooned during his absence from the court.

Williamson was already one of the league’s best players. The constant string of injuries that have bothered him throughout his career should raise concerns that his lower body simply can’t handle the massive strain of holding up the frame that allows him to dominate at the rim.

The Warriors and Pelicans have split the first two games they played this season. The Pelicans won their most recent meeting behind 32 points from Brandon Ingram, although it should be noted Curry sat that game out.

John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.

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