Where Warriors stand after beating Nuggets


Where Warriors stand among title contenders after beating Nuggets originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The first round of the NBA playoffs is just about in the books, so naturally, it’s time to re-evaluate what we thought we knew about the championship race.

Before the playoffs started two weeks ago, I was one of the lost sheep believing that the Brooklyn Nets, a contender in theory only, could march through the Eastern Conference and get to the NBA Finals.

Whiff.

The title picture seemed simple at the start. The Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks sat head and shoulders above the rest. But things have changed.

Here are the re-raced NBA title contender power rankings after most of the first round.

1. Boston Celtics

The Celtics were far and away the most impressive team in Round 1. Boston wasn’t afraid to face the “title-favorite” Nets.

After winning Game 1 on a Jayson Tatum buzzer-beating layup, the Celtics suffocated the Nets over the next three games, sweeping them aside with relative ease. Boston has one of the best defense’s the NBA has seen in years. The switchability of Tatum, Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Grant Williams makes the Celtics a team with no weakness on defense. There’s simply no one to hunt.

Tatum has gone from ascending start to two-way superstar and the Celtics are the favorites after pantsing the Nets.

2. Warriors

No longer an unknown playoff, the Warriors took care of the Denver Nuggets in five games and proved they still are a team to be feared.

The new Death Lineup disemboweled the Nuggets in Games 1 and 2 before coming back down to Earth in Games 3, 4, and 5.

Jordan Poole got off to a blistering start, scoring 30, 29, and 27 in the first three games, respectively. When Poole is cooking, the Warriors are tough to beat.

Clay Thompson’s scorching end to the regular season continued. He scored 32 points on four dribbles in Game 4 and his elite scoring has been a massive development for the Warriors.

Oh, and Steph Curry is healthy. The Warriors are your Western Conference favorites.

3. Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker’s hamstring injury is concerning. The star guard could possibly return for Game 6 or Game 7 against the New Orleans Pelicans, but hamstrings are tricky injuries that can flare up at any time.

With Booker out, the Pelicans have swarmed 37-year-old Chris Paul, making life tough on the Suns. Mikal Bridge’s sizzling Game 5 was a good sign, but he’s unlikely to repeat that performance consistently.

If Booker returns healthy, the Suns and Warriors are on the same plane. But as for right now, the Suns haven’t been as dominant as a title favorite should be against a Pelicans team that has several flaws.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

As expected, the Bucks trashed the Chicago Bulls without really breaking a sweat.

But Khris Middleton’s MCL sprain looms as the most significant injury to occur so far in these playoffs. The Athletic’s Sham Charania reported Middleton will miss the Bucks’ second-round series vs. the Celtics.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is capable of winning the series on his own, but it’ll take a superhuman effort to beat Boston by himself. I expect Jrue Holiday to have a tough series, meaning Giannis will need help from Bobby Portis, Grayson Allen, Brook Lopez, and Wes Mathews to advance.

Best of luck.

5. Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks should have already ended the Jazz’s season, but a late collapse in Game 4 gave Utah a bit of life. But the Jazz are begging to roll over and I expect their season will end Thursday in Salt Lake City.

With Luka Doncic back and Jalen Brunson on microwave mode, the Mavericks can win any series. Spencer Dinwiddie has given Dallas a solid primary ball-handler and scorer off the bench and Dorian Finney-Smith continued improvement makes him an ideal complimentary piece to put alongside Doncic.

If the Mavericks do get past the Jazz, I suspect they’ll give the Suns (sorry, Pelicans) all they can handle and I won’t be surprised if we look up and Dallas is in the Western Conference finals.

6. Miami Heat

The way the Heat put Trae Young in the torture chamber was a thing of beauty, but beating the Hawks is nothing to throw a parade over.

Kyle Lowry has a hamstring issue. Jimmy Butler has knee inflammation. Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Victor Oladipo (!) can eliminate the Hawks without their veteran guards. But Miami needs both Butler and Lowry to be healthy and productive to get to the NBA Finals.

RELATED: Warriors pass playoff test by finding championship heart vs. Nuggets

The Heat should still have enough to beat whoever escapes the suddenly-interesting Raptors-76ers series. But I can’t see Miami winning a seven-game slugfest against either the Celtics or Bucks.

Culture only gets you so far.

7. Memphis Grizzlies

In all honesty, the Grizzlies are lucky to be still playing. Memphis is a 21-0 run in Game 3 and whatever the hell happened in Game 5 away from being bounced by the Minnesota Timberwolves in five games.

Despite ending Malik Beasly and hitting the game-winner in Game 5, Ja Morant hasn’t finished at the cup at his regular rate. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a walking foul. Desmond Bane has been the Grizzlies’ best player in Round 1.

I like Bane, but he can’t be Memphis’ best player against the Warriors or Suns. Perhaps Morant’s Game 5 heroics will get him going again. But the Grizzlies, as initially expected, still seem to be at least a year away from legitimate contention.

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