This preview concentrates on the Western Conference playoff series and this year there is a new #1 at the top of the bracket.
Meet the Houston Rockets, who have always been a good team, but this year transcended into something great. For the first time since the Golden State Warriors began their dynasty a few years back, Stephen Curry’s team did not win the Western Conference. In fact, the Warriors, who finished with the NBA’s third-best record, didn’t even win 60 games. Some have said Golden State has been complacent but now that its playoff season and the championship is up for grabs, the league’s best team of the last five years should be primed and poised for another run.
In all, the West continued to be the class of the NBA, will all eight of their teams boasting at least 47 wins. There is a big drop off from the top-two as 9 wins separate the Warriors from the third-seed Portland Trailblazers. Unlike the more-balanced East (and you can read our Eastern Conference preview here), the West is a little more top-heavy meaning it would be no surprise to see Houston vs Golden State in the conference finals. Before we get there, here is how the first round matches up in the West with our predictions and picks.
#1 Rockets vs #8 Timberwolves
Houston has been on fire this year, clinching the NBA’s best record several weeks ago. James Harden has shone as the NBA’s likely MVP and top-scorer of the year, but the Rockets success has not just come from him but up and down the entire lineup. Houston’s dominance has been well-documented which is a different story from that of their first-round opponents.
The Timberwolves needed some magic and help, to reach the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. A young, up-and-coming team, Minnesota rallied behind Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, two guys who will need to be at their absolute best if the Timberwolves stand a chance.
The Rockets swept the Timberwolves in the regular season and there isn’t much of a reason to expect a different outcome here. Our pick is Houston in four, as right now, the Rockets (-2100) are playing like a team ready to capture an NBA championship. At those understandably prohibitive odds from the betting firms, just watch the series rather than betting on it.
#2 Warriors vs #7 Spurs
When the 2017-18 season first began, many thought that a matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors would be a Western Conference rematch. That being said, it is certainly unexpected to see these two teams, who have been the best in the West for some time, meeting in the first round.
We touched on the Warriors season above, but what hasn’t yet been mentioned is that Curry will be absent throughout the entire first round. Golden State doesn’t necessarily need him as the Spurs will be missing Kawhi Leonard as well. Star power will still be prevalent for both teams as the Warriors will look to build off a 3-1 season series against San Antonio.
This isn’t the most dominant Warriors team we are used to, but it is also one of the least threatening Spurs teams. Under other circumstances, it would seem San Antonio could pull this one out, but this is not the Spurs of old. They would basically need to play perfectly in order to have a chance. These are not odds you want to bet on but expect the Warriors (-1000) to win in five.
#3 Trailblazers vs #6 Pelicans
Damian Lillard played some of the best basketball of his career in order to help the Portland Trailbalzers lock up the third seed in the West. The New Orleans Pelicans meanwhile, looked to MVP candidate Anthony Davis to reach this point, sneaking into the postseason despite some key injuries down the stretch.
Davis put the team on his back and if the Pelicans hope to advance to the second round, they will need him to continue his top-level play this season. Davis aside, the matchups do favor the Trailblazers but one can’t just put Davis aside. That being said, Lillard is absolutely on fire. The last time these two teams met he scored 41 points. If Lillard can continue to excel, the Trailblazers should reach the second round, but it won’t be easy. The betting prediction and pick is to take Portland (-200) to go the distance, winning in seven.
#4 Thunder vs #5 Jazz
There are not that many differences between the fourth seeded Oklahoma City Thunder and fifth seeded Utah Jazz. Both teams surprised this season, reaching the top of the playoff bracket with strong regular season campaigns. The Thunder especially turned things around to look like a definite presence and a team with a chance to turn some heads this April.
OKC won the season series 3-1, doing so thanks to Paul George and Russell Westbrook, the team’s top stars. If they hope for a playoff repeat, they will need those two to play at the highest level. The Thunder have a tough matchup issue outside of that with Rudy Gobert an absolutely punishing defender. He is complemented on the other end of the court by Donovan Mitchell, who has proven to be a top scorer in his own right. This should be another close series, but for this preview’s predictions and betting pick, look for the Thunder (-135) to come out on top in six.