After 82 games and more than five months of regular-season action, the NBA playoffs are finally upon us. While the regular season certainly provided more than its fair share of notable headlines, postseason basketball is when the true action begins.
With 16 teams in contention for the NBA title, upsets will occur, memorable performances will be etched in our minds, and history will be made when a team hoists the trophy in about 10 weeks. In the Western Conference, the fight for the right to play in the NBA Finals will likely come down to the top two teams in the league — those, of course, being the Spurs and the Warriors.
However, while those two are certainly the favorites in the conference, the six other clubs playing in the postseason are ready to prove that they belong in the conversation as well. With the playoffs kicking off on Saturday, we have our previews and predictions for each of the Western Conference first-round playoff series right here.
(8) Houston Rockets vs. (1) Golden State Warriors
In a rematch of last season’s Western Conference Finals, the top two scorers in the league will get together as James Harden’s Rockets will try to stun Stephen Curry’s Warriors, who are fresh off a record-setting regular season. During the regular season, like every other team, the Rockets struggled to find wins against the Warriors, losing all three of the meetings between the two sides.
Overall, the 2015-16 campaign for Houston has been disappointing, as they barely made the playoffs a season after being just three wins away from the finals. For the Warriors, anything but a sweep would be surprising in this series. Instead of resting players at the end of the season after locking up first place in the West, they let everyone play and chase the wins record.
This created a stream of momentum that should allow them to roll to the conference semifinals with relative ease. The only hope for Houston is if Golden State gets “bored” (as seen in losses to Minnesota and other lowly teams) or if Dwight Howard truly turns into Superman, which likely still wouldn’t be enough to overcome this super-team in the Warriors.
Prediction: Golden State in four games
(5) Portland Trailblazers vs. (4) Los Angeles Clippers
This could be the most entertaining series of the entire first-round of the playoffs, but it’s almost guaranteed to be the best series out West. The Clippers have been living in the shadows of the Thunder, Spurs, and Warriors all season long, but they still managed their fourth straight season with at least 53 wins and finished within a couple games of the Thunder in the conference standings.
With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and a solid supporting cast, LA feels like the one dark-horse contender that could make things interesting this postseason. However, their first-round opponent is no slouch by any means. Portland surprised many with a fifth-place finish in the West, but with the dynamic duo of C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, they can hang with the best teams in the league on any given night.
While they only went 1-3 against the Clippers in the regular season and had nine fewer victories than LA, the Blazers play with a major chip on their shoulder and have the scoring capability to scare anyone. Given the Clippers’ reputation of choking in the postseason (see last season’s conference semifinals), you have to put them on somewhat of an upset alert in this series.
With several of the best players in the game taking the floor in Paul, Lillard, McCollum, and Griffin, we could be in for a seven-game slug-fest. Still, on paper, the Clips should prevail.
Prediction: Los Angeles in six games
(6) Dallas Mavericks vs. (3) Oklahoma City Thunder
Both the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder are consistent fixtures in the Western Conference playoffs, as only twice since 2010 has the postseason not included both teams. Over that time, the two sides have matched up two teams in the postseason, with the Thunder winning in the first-round of 2012 and the Mavs taking the 2011 conference finals en route to an NBA title.
This season, the separation between the teams is fairly significant, as OKC won 55 games compared to Dallas’s 42. When you consider the fact that the Thunder have a real chance at the title with Russell Westbrook and an impending free agent in Kevin Durant on hand, the Mavs should have a difficult time in this series. The Thunder also managed a 4-0 record against their first-round opponent, giving them an even more significant edge.
For the Mavericks, you have to respect Dirk Nowitzki, who averaged better than 18 points per game in this his 18th season in Dallas. A lineup that includes Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons, and Zaza Pachulia simply isn’t that imposing, however.
This is one of the worst possible matchups that Dallas could’ve received. Durant is an even more lethal scorer in the postseason and Westbrook would be league MVP during any season except one where Curry is destroying the record books. A sweep is likely, but to respect Dirk, we’ll give the Mavs a game.
Prediction: Oklahoma City in five games
(7) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (2) San Antonio Spurs
No playoff team is more injured and playing as poorly entering the postseason as the Memphis Grizzlies. The team enters their first-round series against a terrific Spurs’ squad having lost 10 of their last 11 overall. A big reason for those alarming struggles is because the top two Grizzlies, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, are out for the season with injuries. Going up against a club that won 67 games this season will likely make the Grizzlies’ sixth straight postseason appearance short-lived.
Despite their 67-win campaign, the Spurs come in as slight underdogs to the Warriors this postseason. Expecting a battle for the right to play in the NBA Finals against those Warriors could cause San Antonio to drop a few games during the first two rounds. But knowing the experience of this team and the coaching style of Gregg Popovich, it’s unlikely that they will overlook anyone.
Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge give the Spurs the firepower to beat any team on any night while vets like Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are accustomed to the postseason pressure. With that, they won’t be fazed by any challenge thrown their way. These two sides do have a decent amount of postseason history against one another.
Memphis actually knocked off a top-seeded Spurs team back in 2011. And then, they met up two seasons later in the conference finals, with San Antonio winning easily. Their matchup this season shouldn’t be all that memorable, as a Spurs’ sweep is the expectation.
Prediction: San Antonio in four games