NBA Playoffs: Western Conference Picks and Predictions
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No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 1 Houston Rockets
18, 18, 18, and 9 — those numbers represent how much points Houston beat Minnesota in four regular-season matchups. Expect another easy sweep, right?
Not so fast. No doubt the Rockets are the far superior team, but the gap between one and eight seed in this series isn’t nearly as big as we’ve become accustomed to. With a healthy Jimmy Butler, the Timberwolves are no slouches.
Butler, along with Karl Anthony Towns, are top-20 NBA players. Then again, so is the dynamic duo of Chris Paul and MVP shoe-in James Harden. This series is indeed a star-studded affair.
While Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for stingy defense, this year’s Timberwolves have failed to live up to it. Minnesota’s defensive rating ranked 23th in the NBA. Along with the Cavs, the Timberwolves are the only playoff team with a bottom-16 defensive unit.
That’s a bad recipe against an all-time prolific offense like Houston’s. We don’t expect the Rockets’ wins to be nearly as lopsided in the postseason, but they’ll advance without a serious worry.
No. 7 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 2 Golden State Warriors
A Western Conference Finals rematch — once again without Kawhi Leonard.
Only this time Golden State will be without their own franchise cornerstone in Steph Curry. The two-time MVP likely won’t return from an MCL injury until the second round. Luckily for the Dubs, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson can pick up the slack. San Antonio doesn’t have the same luxury.
More than anything, this is a litmus test for the Warriors. They sleepwalked through most of the season, losing six of their last nine. One would think a playoff series against the NBA gold standard — making its 21st consecutive playoff appearance — would revitalize them.
But something seems off about the Warriors this year, and it’s not just Curry’s absence. Complacency is running rampant — evident by a 40-point loss to Utah to end the season. Their defensive effort all-year long has been a hit and miss. Bench production has been largely nonexistent. It takes more than a flip of the switch to correct those issues overnight.
Plus, there’s no coach that can exploit those issues better than Gregg Popovich. Expect the Spurs to give the reigning champions every ounce of fight they have this series.
No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 3 Utah Jazz
No playoff series is a bigger tossup than this one. Despite its higher seeding, Utah enters as the underdogs with +120 odds to advance. Oklahoma City’s chances of moving on are pinned at -150.
While the Thunder took three of four games in the regular season, you can practically toss those results out the window. All four meetings came before Christmas Day — long before the Jazz finished the regular season on a 29-6 tear.
That resurgence was largely fueled by rookie Donovan Mitchell. After averaging 20.5 points per game, Mitchell became the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Carmelo Anthony, his series adversary, did it back in 2004.
This series will be a measuring-stick for Mitchell facing off against two of the NBA’s premier guards — Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Yet again, Westbrook averaged a triple-double on the season, to the delight of his critics who label him a “me-first stat-padder.” George, meanwhile, might already be eyeing free agency and a Los Angeles homecoming.
In the end, don’t let the Thunder’s star power influence you. Utah is the more complete team, and with a healthy Rudy Gobert, have the best defense in the league to slow down Oklahoma City’s three-headed monster.
Pick: Jazz (+120)
No. 5 New Orleans vs. No. 4 Portland Trail Blazers
Another coin-flip matchup with New Orleans slotted at +170 to win and Portland at -220.
This series feels like a contest of which superstar can wear the bigger superhero cape — Anthony Davis or Damian Lillard.
Davis became a one-man wrecking crew as soon as DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season. In 33 games without Boogie, Davis’ stat line was the stuff of legends — 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game. Whereas Lillard is first-team All-NBA worthy (at the stacked guard position no less) after uncorking 26.9 points and 6.6 assists per game this year.
We’re taking the Trail Blazers by a hair. They play better on both ends of the floor and feature a deeper bench.
Pick: Portland (-220)
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