There will be a lot made about whether the Warriors can fight off the San Antonio Spurs for the No. 1 seed. And rightfully so. What looked like a sure thing a couple of weeks ago is now in doubt. The Kevin Durant injury, poor shooting and a tough schedule have conspired to make the Warriors losers of 5 of their past 7.
With the Spurs’ victory over Atlanta on Monday, San Antonio tied the Warriors for best record in the NBA at 52-14. But the Spurs already hold the tie-breaker because they won the season series over Golden State.
Regardless of whether the Warriors end up with the top seed or No. 2 seed, one thing seems certain: This year’s run to an NBA title is going to be more difficult than any of the previous two.
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Even if they get the top seed, things are setting up to be more challenging, certainly because Durant figures to be coming back from injury, and also because you could make the case that the quality of potential opponent is superior this year.
In 2015, the Warriors’ run to the title went like this: New Orleans, Memphis, Houston, Cleveland. Looking back, there was virtually no way that either the Pelicans or the Rockets were going to beat the Warriors in seven-game series that year. Golden State has owned those teams. Including their 4-0 sweep over the Pelicans in ’15, the Warriors are 14-1 against them in the past three years. And getting to meet Houston in the Western Conference finals two years ago was a flat-out gift by the basketball gods. The Warriors had swept the season against Houston, 4-0, then promptly brushed them aside in five games in the postseason.
Memphis and Cleveland, obviously, were the toughest series for Golden State, with the Warriors falling behind 2-1 in each. But the Grizzlies started their series without point guard Mike Conley and the Cavaliers would end up being without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. All in all, not a cakewalk but not a gauntlet, either.
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In 2016 the Warriors had a trickier road, but it still wasn’t what it’s setting up to be this year. The Warriors opened up with series against the Rockets and Portland — again, two teams they’ve owned in the recent past. Houston was a casual five-game series and Portland was an entertaining five-game series. For as fun as the series was against the Blazers was there really any doubt Golden State would win it? Even with Stephen Curry a bit hobbled? Maybe I’m selling Portland short last year, but the bottom line is over the past three regular seasons the Warriors are 10-1 against the Blazers. So I just didn’t think they had much of a shot.
Clearly everything changed in the Western Conference finals and NBA Finals with Oklahoma City and Cleveland, respectively. Both of these series were hard-fought, seven-game series an both were demanding. Nobody is saying those two were easy. But this year’s road could be harder, for longer.
If the Warriors can get the No. 1 seed, they’ll open with a Denver or a Portland, maybe a sleeper like the Mavericks or T-Wolves. All the same … It’s a series that the Warriors should control with little adversity. But after that, it gets dicey.
In the second round, it could be Utah or the Clippers or maybe Memphis. But regardless, that series would figure to be a tough, physical one. I realize the Warriors have owned the Clippers the past few years, but LA is still a formidable opponent and would certainly exact a pound of flesh in that one. Those are challenging second-round series — any one of them.
Then, the Warriors are looking at either San Antonio or Houston, and then likely the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Spurs are 4-3 against the Warriors over the past three years, and the Rockets are clearly more equipped to defeat the Warriors this year than in any of the previous two years. They came into Oracle and beat the Warriors earlier this year. Cleveland is Cleveland. The Cavs speak from themselves.
As a No. 2 seed, it gets even more troubling for the Warriors. Good chance they’d open with Oklahoma City, which would be a nightmare first-round matchup. Not necessarily because the Thunder could upset the Warriors, but because it would be guaranteed to be an emotional and draining series. If Durant is back and playing well, the Warriors will win it, but it’s still going to be a pain one way or the other. If Durant isn’t back by then, all bets are off with what could happen.
And if it’s not OKC, then it’s Memphis, another challenging first-round matchup. After that, it could go Houston, San Antonio, Cleveland. So think about that: OKC/Memphis, Houston, San Antonio and Cleveland. That is as difficult a run as it gets for any team. If the Warriors have to navigate this path to win an NBA title, they will have absolutely, positively deserved it — having possibly beaten the three best teams in the league besides themselves.
The Warriors won the NBA title two years ago. Last year they were a game away from winning it. If they win the championship this year, it should be particularly gratifying — because they will have survived their most difficult run.