Western conference teams hope to enter NBA finals


Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 15, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) celebrates after scoring as Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler (23) loos on during the first quarter against the in game one of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The National Basketball Association (NBA) began its playoffs on Saturday, April 14. The NBA playoffs feature the league’s top 16 teams, all with one goal: to win the NBA championship.

The last three NBA finals have featured the Golden State Warriors representing the Western Conference, which has put a damper on the morale of numerous teams. However, this year, the NBA playoffs features teams who are more than capable of dethroning the three time conference champion. This being the case, the Warriors have no plans of getting eliminated early.

Each series of the NBA playoffs is seven games, and as of right now, each first round series is between three and four games in. Here are recaps of all four Western Conference series, as well as outlooks for the rest of the games to come.

The San Antonio Spurs and the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors both began their series against each other without one of their key contributors. The Spurs are playing without forward Kawhi Leonard, who finished third in the Most Valuable Player voting last season. Leonard only played in nine games this season due to an injured right quad and is unlikely to play at all during the playoffs. Golden State is missing its superstar point guard Stephen Curry, who sprained his MCL on March 23. He is reportedly not close to being ready to play, and his injury time table is currently unknown.

The Warriors won the first three games of the series rather easily, beating the Spurs 113-92, 116-101, and 110-97 in the first three games. The Warriors have been able to succeed without Curry thanks to elite performances from all-stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, both of whom are averaging over 25 points per game in the playoffs this year. The Spurs won the fourth game of the series to avoid the sweep, beating Golden State 103-90 with the help of a 22-point performance from all-star LaMarcus Aldridge and a 10-point fourth quarter from 40-year-old veteran Manu Ginobili. The Warriors look to put this series in the books tonight at 10:30 p.m., which would make them one round closer to defending their title.

The Houston Rockets, who dethroned the Warriors as the one-seed in the Western Conference this year, are on a mission to dethrone Golden State once more, this time potentially taking their title as Western Conference champion. Their two stars, MVP candidate James Harden and future hall-of-fame point guard Chris Paul are the main reason why Houston is a real contender this year. Whether the Rockets have what it takes to defeat the Warriors has been a topic of discussion throughout the NBA season among both analysts and fans.

“I think the Warriors are beating the Rockets and winning the NBA finals again,” junior and NBA fan Randall Bohnert said. “They have a much deeper lineup than the Rockets, even without Stephen Curry, and they also have a much better track record in big games.”

The Rockets faced off against the eight-seed Minnesota Timberwolves, who clinched a playoff spot on the last game of the season with a victory over the nine-seed Denver Nuggets. Through the first two games, it looked like the Rockets were going to win the series with ease. They won Game 1 104-101 thanks to a 44-point game from James Harden, then won Game 2 102-82. However, the tides turned rather drastically in Game 3 with a 121-105 Minnesota victory; this showing that the Rockets are not invincible. The Rockets were able to bounce back last night, however, beating the Timberwolves 119-100. Harden had another elite performance, scoring 36 points in 33 minutes. Chris Paul added 25 points and six assists to the blowout victory. The Rockets look to close the series out on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. in Houston.

The four-seed Oklahoma City Thunder faced off against the five-seed Utah Jazz in the first round of the 2018 playoffs. While the Thunder were clear favorites to make the playoffs this year after the offseason acquisitions of all-stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, and the return of 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook, the Jazz were not. They were propelled by their rising young stars, such as Rudy Gobert, the frontrunner for the Defensive Player of the Year Award, and Donovan Mitchell, a top-flight Rookie of the Year candidate.

The Thunder won Game 1 by the score of 116-108, with Paul George scoring 36 and Westbrook adding 29 points of his own. The Jazz then bounced back to win the next two games of the series by the scores of 102-95 and 115-102, with Mitchell scoring 29 in Game 2 and veteran Ricky Rubio scoring a 26-point triple double in Game 3. The Jazz continued this streak in Game 4, defeating the Thunder by the score of 113-96. Mitchell scored 33 points, and Gobert had 16 points and ten rebounds. The Jazz look to clinch the series win on Wednesday at 9:30 pm in Oklahoma City, but despite the Jazz’s 3-1 lead, the Thunder, as well as numerous fans, still have plenty of confidence in their ability to come back.

“I have the Thunder winning this series,” junior NBA fan Connor Clark said. “They’ve faced situations like this before, and they’ve got the experience and the leadership to get it done.”

The biggest upset of the NBA playoffs so far has undoubtedly been the New Orleans Pelicans triumph over the Portland Trail Blazers. The six-seed Pelicans won the first round series in four games, making this the first sweep of the 2018 NBA Playoffs. Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis averaged a gaudy 33 points per game over the four game series, and the Pelicans were also gifted with breakout performances from relative unknowns such as Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic. Holiday scored 33 points in Game 2, and Mirotic scored 30 in Game 3. This level of dominance can also be attributed to the fact that the Blazers’ star point guard Damian Lillard struggled throughout the series, averaging less than 20 points per game during the four games. Who the Pelicans will play in the second round is still unknown, but it is clear that their level of play could give any team a run for their money.

“During the series, the [Trail] Blazers lack of depth showed,” junior NBA fan Anthony Draghi said. “Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum weren’t on their A-games either. Jrue Holiday really stepped up for New Orleans and Rajon Rondo proved he’s still a solid point guard. There’s really nothing to say about Anthony Davis other than he’s a top ten player and he played like it.”

The Western Conference playoff matchups have been very intriguing so far, with its fair share of both expected results and complete surprises. It’s shaping up to be a fight to the finish, all eight teams in the conference thinking they could be the team to go to and win the finals. The big question regarding the Western Conference has been “Can someone take down the Warriors?” since opening night in October, and in a few weeks, that question will be answered.

“It all depends on Stephen [Curry],” sophomore NBA fan Harry Cantor said. “If he comes back, and he’s good, I think they’ll win. If not, I have trouble seeing them winning the West again.”