(1)Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
For most of the 2017-18 season the NBA has been trying to catch up with Chris Paul, James Harden and the Houston Rockets. The duo which critics said would crash and burn ignited a fire that set the league ablaze almost from the start. Now the Minnesota Timberwolves have the unenviable task of trying to slow down the league’s best offense.
The Timberwolves, for their part, were believed to be one of the best teams in the Western Conference, but injuries and an extremely competitive West led to the team needing a win over Denver on the last night of the season to sneak into the playoffs. In fact, they needed overtime and a heroic performance from Jimmy Butler to get it done. It remains to be seen if Butler’s return is enough to make Minnesota interesting once the playoffs start.
The mismatches are clear. Minnesota has a vastly better front court with one of the league’s premier big men in Karl Anthony-Towns. The Rockets have a clear advantage in the back court behind Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon. Houston is deeper and much more lethal on the offensive end. If Houston’s three-point attack falters, the Timberwolves might grab a game or two in this series. If it doesn’t, it’s not a stretch to say the Rockets are likely to sweep their way right into the second round.
(2)Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs
One of the most bizarre seasons in Spurs history nearly ended with the team’s record number of consecutive postseason appearances coming to an end. The Kawhi Leonard saga has many wondering what his future in San Antonio might be, and his absence makes it unlikely that the Spurs – no matter how brilliantly LaMarcus Aldridge plays – can overcome the defending champion Warriors.
Of course, the Warriors won’t be at full steam, either, as franchise cornerstone Steph Curry will be out nursing a knee injury. Fortunately for Golden State, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all ready for action. Nonetheless, the Warriors ended the season winning just four of their last ten games, and that should give their faithful reason to have some anxiety entering postseason play.
Aldridge is likely to have a big series for the Spurs, and you can bet Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol will all blow the dust off of their aging games to help here and there. The Spurs are deeper, to be sure, but they are also significantly older, and that may well spell the key difference in this series. Don’t expect the Spurs to be swept, but beating the Warriors – even sans Curry – is more than they can pull off without Leonard.
(3)Portland Trailblazers vs. (6) New Orleans Pelicans
The most unlikely success stories in the Western Conference are the Portland Trailblazers and the New Orleans Pelicans, so it seems only appropriate that they should meet in the first round. The Blazers were struggling under the weight of big contracts for underperforming players at mid-season, right about the time that New Orleans lost DeMarcus Cousins for the season. Nonetheless, two teams that might have justifiably missing the playoffs are ready for the NBA’s big dance.
Simply put, the Blazers rode their tremendous back court into the postseason, with Damian Lillard putting up MVP numbers and CJ McCollum making a lethal complement to him. That’s a significant accomplishment, but will their buffet of mediocre forwards be able to hold down Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic, who ended the season by dominating LaMarcus Aldridge and the San Antonio Spurs?
The Pelicans didn’t waste time mourning over the loss of Cousins, instead landing Mirotic via trade and working him right in as an outstanding complement to Davis. Mirotic had one of the best months of his career in April, averaging 22.2 points per game and shooting over 53% from the field. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday probably can’t stop Lillard, but they may be able to contain him enough to get an upset for the Pelicans in this match-up.
(4)Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz
Generally speaking, the four-five matchup is expected to be the most interesting in the first round of the playoffs, and that certainly promises to be the case with the West’s middle match-up. The Utah Jazz were one of the hottest teams in the NBA over the second half of the season, with rookie Donovan Mitchell playing like a seasoned veteran and Rudy Gobert showing why he’s one of the most underrated players in the NBA. They helped the Jazz win 22 of 25 games over a stretch from January to March, which also was the key to Utah’s return to postseason play.
The Thunder, too, took a while to hit their stride. The trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony looked rough at times, ugly at others, but ultimately came together for the stretch run. Westbrook is coming off his second straight season of averaging a triple-double (the first player to ever do that twice), and he will certainly give Mitchell a test like no others. George was scorching hot over the Thunder’s last two games and Anthony appears content to fill in the slack between his two superstar teammates.
On the surface, the Thunder look like more than a match for the Jazz, with three established stars ready to overwhelm the rookie and his dominant front court mate. Then again, the Jazz have overcome all expectations this season. OKC had best come ready to a fight.
Bill Ingram has 17 years of experience covering the NBA and is now a contributing writer for nbAradioshow.com. You can find him on Twitter: @TheRocketGuy.
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