The Golden State Warriors are now past the halfway line of the regular season, yet the playoff picture is still rather unclear in the Western Conference. Wherever the Warriors may land in the standings in April, they have established enough respect around the league to be a feared matchup. Most teams don't appreciate chasing Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson around screens while having to face the the interior presence of Andrew Bogut and the stellar perimeter defense of Andre Iguodala on the other end of the floor.
In 2007 the Dallas Mavericks went into the postseason with a league-high 67 regular-season wins and the No. 1 seed. The No. 8-seeded Golden State, led by Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson, provided a tricky challenge and stunned Dirk Nowitzki's Mavs in the very first round of the playoffs.
The playoffs are all about matching up well against your opponent, as some rosters are simply modeled to counteract a certain style of play and no favorite is immune to upsets. So which teams would Mark Jackson's side want to avoid meeting in a series and who would be a favorable matchup?
Nightmare Matchup: Houston Rockets
Both Golden State and Houston improved in the offseason, with each team landing their coveted free agent in Iguodala and Dwight Howard. The Warriors lost three out of their four meetings against Houston last season and have lost both games this year. Obviously, regular-season records should be taken with a grain of salt, especially since Iguodala missed both games this year, but the Rockets do have the tools to bother Golden State.
James Harden is one of the most dynamic scorers in the league and can break down just about any defense. Perhaps the toughest thing for the Warriors to deal with in a potential series would be the Harden and Howard pick-and-rolls. Take a look at the screen shot below.
In this play, the Rockets run a high pick-and-roll. Harden is No. 3 in the league in free-throw attempts and attacks any open space that he sees. Nene has to respect that. As a result, Harden simply fakes the drive and steps back for an open three-pointer. If a slow big man over-commits on Harden, he will get beaten off the dribble. If he doesn't, Harden will take the three as soon as he has an inch of room.
Last season Harden shot almost 40 percent from beyond the arc as the pick-and-roll ball-handler (via Synergy; subscription required). That figure has taken a pretty severe dip this year (25 percent) but so has Harden's three-point shooting in general. Some of this can certainly be attributed to the fact that he has played through some nagging injuries, but if he is healthy he generally takes and makes that shot.
Just like Nene in the play above, Andrew Bogut is not particularly fast. He is a natural rim protector and doesn't like to compromise himself by going out all the way to the perimeter to guard ball-handlers. If Harden drives he could easily get Bogut into foul trouble, and if he doesn't he will often have a clean look from three.
Due to the fact that Bogut is often a non-factor on offense, the Rockets could also benefit from cross-matches, by allowing Howard to guard David Lee in the post and having Terrence Jones on a lesser threat in Bogut. Both teams can go small by adding a stretch-four to their lineups and a potential series would likely feature a lot of tactical adjustments on both sides.
Although the Warriors' defense has improved a lot this year, they still have a tendency to get into shootouts with their opponents, and Houston is one team against which you don't want to do that.
When the Western Conference is as competitive as it currently is, there are no easy opponents. However, if the Warriors avoid being matched up against the Rockets, most of the other playoff teams would probably be more unnerved playing Golden State than the other way around. Here are a couple of teams the Warriors wouldn't mind taking on.
The Mavericks have a lethal two-man game with Monta Ellis and Nowitzki, which can drive pretty much every defense in the league nuts. However, the Warriors simply have a whole lot more talent. While Nowitzki and Ellis can be a handful to deal with, it's not a coincidence that Stephen Curry dropped 29 and 33 points in his two games against the Mavericks this season.
Dallas ranks No. 21 in the league in defensive efficiency, and it has gaping holes defensively across the roster. Neither Ellis nor Jose Calderon can do anything to prevent Curry from scoring and the lack of a legitimate rim protector would just compound the issue for the Mavericks.
It's probably weird to say that the Warriors would like to take on the reigning Western Conference champions. Then again, remember the 2013 NBA playoffs? Even though Curry had a bad ankle and Lee was out, the Warriors gave the Spurs a scare. We're talking about the same Spurs team that swept the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Memphis Grizzlies and were as close to winning a championship as you could possibly be.
San Antonio's core is one year older and Golden State now has Iguodala to throw at Tony Parker. A healthy Warriors team would definitely provide the Spurs with a tough matchup, and if Golden State wants to make the finals they will likely have to go through Gregg Popovich and Co.
In a lot of ways, the Suns have been the most interesting story of the season. They traded away Marcin Gortat, equipped themselves with an abundance of draft picks and conceded that the year would be dedicated to developing their young players. Instead, head coach Jeff Hornacek has done a magnificent job with the little he has at his disposal, and Phoenix is very much in the playoff race.
Even with Eric Bledsoe sidelined, the Suns are staying competitive, are rarely out of any game and play a surprisingly mature brand of basketball. They are looking to make moves to improve their roster, but it still feels like a potential matchup with the Warriors would be a tough and somewhat overwhelming challenge, as this is still a young roster with limited experience. Unless the Suns somehow swing a deal for a superstar and Bledsoe returns from his injury in time, they would face an uphill battle against Golden State.
Regardless of who the Warriors take on in the postseason, there is no doubt they are better-equipped for a lengthy run in the playoffs this season than they were during last year's campaign. Zach Lowe recently wrote a piece labeling Golden State as a shadow contender, and that's what this team is. You don't really feel comfortable picking the Warriors to come out of the West against the field, but at the same time, very few teams are infatuated with the prospect of taking on Golden State in a best-of-seven series.
You can follow me on Twitter: @VytisLasaitis
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