Welcome to my preview of the first round of the postseason in the Western Conference. Below are full previews of each series and picks for how I believe those will play out. Throughout the postseason you can find all the NBA coverage you need here and on The Edge (1 p.m. PT / 4 p.m. ET) daily.
#2 Memphis Grizzlies (-330) vs #7 Minnesota Timberwolves (+ 260)
On paper, this is the most exciting series in the first round. Two young teams who love to run with young stars in Ja Morant and Anthony Davis playing in a best-of-seven that should be very competitive. However, a glance at the market is telling us that Memphis is going to have little trouble dispatching Minnesota despite the two teams splitting a four-game regular season series and the Timberwolves coming away with a + 8.1 net rating. This current price carries an implied probability of 76.7% which is somewhat high given how tight the four games were this season. Is the gap between Memphis and Minnesota larger than that of Utah and Dallas that could be without Luka Doncic? Personally, I would say that is not the case. That is not to say I believe the Timberwolves will win this series, but I do believe these two teams are much closer to one another than the betting market says.
Where Memphis seems to have the biggest edge is on offense. Minnesota finished the season 13th in defensive efficiency in non-garbage time minutes, allowing 111.6 points per 100 possessions. The Timberwolves play an extremely aggressive style on that end of the floor, blitzing off ball screens and jumping passing lanes to force turnovers and subsequently get out in transition for easy baskets. It’s why they finished second in defensive turnover rate (16.2%) and ninth in points added per 100 possessions in transition offense off steals (+ 1.8). However, that style has its weaknesses. Teams that can navigate the pressure tend to get open 3-point looks, specifically from the corners. Opponents took the second-highest rate of corner 3-point attempts against the Timberwolves (12.3%) and 38.9% of their shots from beyond the arc overall.
The Grizzlies could certainly take advantage of such an opportunity but working from beyond the perimeter has not been Memphis’ style. They only take 31.6% of their attempts overall from 3-point range, which is the second-lowest rate in the regular season, and 8.0% from the corners. It has not been in the Grizzlies DNA to take a high volume of 3-point attempts, but this team will likely have a higher volume of attempts than usual given the opportunity. And with Morant running the show the turnovers likely won’t come which means the Timberwolves will be at a disadvantage here.
Having said that, Minnesota has its own wrinkles to exploit in this matchup. In the regular season series Memphis employed quite a bit of drop coverage against their opponents. As a result, the Grizzlies ranked 27th in frequency of opponent 3-point attempts coming from above the break (29.3%). Minnesota just so happened to rank third in frequency of non-corner 3-pointers (32.0%) this season, and they have a player who thrives in working against drop coverage in D’Angelo Russell. In four games against Memphis this Russell picked that coverage apart, averaging 31.0 points on 55.8% shooting from the floor. If the Grizzlies are going to employ that drop coverage against the Timberwolves again they are perfectly equipped to handle it and take advantage. They will also regularly pick on Morant in halfcourt settings, forcing him into almost every action to take advantage of his subpar on-ball defense. The MVP candidate might improve his team’s offense, but with him on the floor they allow 5.4 points more per 100 possessions and it’s going to be something this teams goes after regularly.
Memphis is the better team and deserves to be favored in this series, but the betting market is getting somewhat overzealous in their rating of this team. In two home games against the Timberwolves the Grizzlies laid no more than 4.5 points and yet the line for Game 1 opened -7 at most shops. I took + 7 and will look to play against Memphis in this fashion as opposed to taking a piece of what I still believe to be an inflated series price.
Series Pick: Grizzlies in 7
#3 Golden State Warriors (-220) vs #6 Denver Nuggets (+ 170)
Had both teams been at full strength this series would be one of the best in the first round, but with Nikola Jokic still flying solo and Stephen Curry seemingly ready to go this one could have little drama. The betting market seems to agree, with the Warriors as high as -280 to win this series at Circa as Friday and 6.5-point favorites in Game 1 on Saturday. Given the makeup of these rosters Jokic figures to be a massive problem for Golden State to figure out which should lead to a well-fought, but short, series for the Warriors.
The Nuggets’ biggest issue in this series is going to be their defense. Over the course of the last 18 games of the regular season Denver allowed 119.2 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes which was the sixth-highest defensive rating in the league over that stretch. Opponents killed the Nuggets in both facets, averaging 102.5 points per 100 plays in halfcourt settings and adding 4.1 points per 100 possessions through transition offense, both marks ranking lower than 24th in the league in that span. In what universe is that defense going to contain Golden State with Curry on the floor? In those possessions the Warriors have a 115.2 offensive rating, dominating opponents with an elite perimeter game that takes 43.8% of its attempts from deep and shoots 37.6% on those attempts. Curry has played only 11 minutes with both Draymond Green and Klay Thompson this season, but he and Jordan Poole have built quite the rapport and Golden State is + 15.4 in those possessions this season. Anyway you cut it this Nuggets defense is at a large disadvantage in this series. Then you factor in the minutes in which Jokic hits the bench and Denver allows 117.8 points per 100 possessions and there is little reason to believe this defense will be close to effective in this series.
On the other end of the floor the Nuggets should be capable with Jokic on the floor. In four games against the Warriors the MVP favorite averaged 28.0 points, 15.8 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game on 51.9% shooting, but Denver averaged only 111.4 points per 100 possessions. Golden State does not have many options for Jokic on their roster so he should have some monster games in this series, but the same cannot be said for the other players for the Nuggets. Aaron Gordon averaged just 9.1 points on 31.0% shooting in three games and Will Barton put up 11.5 per game on 38.1% shooting. The Warriors are a brilliant defensive team that finished the season second in defensive efficiency (107.6) and can clearly contain the other options around Jokic. Their defensive prowess gets better with bench on the floor and against a Nuggets bench that only averaged 107.2 points per 100 possessions those minutes are going to be a challenge.
When I factor in all the advantages that Golden State has with Curry in the fold from the jump this series price of -250 comes out as cheap. Denver has a -10.6 net rating without Jokic on the floor, and unless he is playing 45 minutes a game Golden State is going to thrive in those possessions. Klay Thompson has started to look like the player we once knew, averaging 29.6 points on 42.2% 3-point shooting in his final five games, and Draymond Green is back to his Defensive Player of the Year form. Curry might have missed the final 12 games of the season, but he will be able to slide seamlessly back into his role and this team should dispatch Denver with relative ease.
Series Pick: Warriors in 6
#4 Dallas Mavericks (-105) vs #5 Utah Jazz (-115)
Obviously, this series rests on the calf of Luka Doncic and his availability for the series. We know that he is going to miss the first game of the series and that the team is comfortable taking the necessary precautions to ensure he does not exacerbate the problem. That could very well mean that the Mavericks will be without Doncic for a majority, if not all, of this series which is music to the ears of Utah which was falling apart coming into the postseason. Had Doncic been fully available I was ready to lay a price with Dallas in what I projected to be a quick series. This now turns on its head and it is the Jazz with a massive advantage despite not having homecourt in the series. Having said that, I am not in the camp that Doncic being unavailable means the Mavericks have no shot at advancing. There is plenty to point to for Dallas that says this team can be very competitive without Doncic on the floor.
In the possessions without Doncic on the floor the Mavericks offense is worse, but not by as much as one would believe. With Doncic on the floor Dallas puts up 115.4 points per 100 possessions with a + 3.4 net rating. Without him that offensive rating is 112.1 which is worse but only 3.3 points per 100 possessions worse, and even then their net rating actually improves because their defensive rating is 4.2 points better. Dallas is still a capable team without Doncic and with guards like Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie there is still a path for the Mavericks to take that would make them a tough out. In the series loss to Los Angeles last season Utah was killed when the Clippers played five out and consistently abused their perimeter defender with dribble penetration. Brunson and Dinwiddie are more than capable of replicating that gameplan, but the doubt creeps in when it comes to those two doing it for multiple games against the same opponents. Brunson is small at 6-foot-3 and his lack of stature will be exposed more in a playoff series where teams hunt mismatches consistently. Dinwiddie has been fantastic in 23 games for Dallas, but we have a larger sample size that tells us his 3-point shot is inconsistent, as is his defense. It is why I keep coming back to the Mavericks being competitive on a game-to-game basis potentially, but ultimately needing Doncic to win this series.
Despite all of the issues that Utah had to end the season there are still plenty of things that will allow them end the season for Dallas if Doncic cannot play. Their starting lineup is still + 8.2 per 100 possessions according to Cleaning The Glass and that group has an elite 119.7 offensive rating when on the floor. Donovan Mitchell is still an incredible player that has averaged 28.8 points on 39.4% shooting from deep in the postseason, and Rudy Gobert is an elite defender and rim protector. All of this should add up to a series win over a short-handed Dallas team.
There really is no edge here in my mind. Should Doncic come back in Game 2 and be nearly healthy the Mavericks will be in fantastic position to win this series and move on. If he never returns than Dallas should be eliminated in six games or so, but in either scenario information we do not have is key. It’s somewhat easy to scratch this series off the board personally.
Series Pick: Jazz in 6