By Brandon Easler
(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota barely snuck into the playoffs, as they outlasted the Nuggets in overtime in essentially a play-in game. They have had a big fall off since Jimmy Butler’s injury, but now that he is back and presumably healthy they will look to make a playoff run. However, they get the task of doing that against the best team in the NBA. The Rockets not only have the best record in the NBA, but they also boast the best offense and 6th ranked defense in the NBA. Minnesota is a young team loaded with potential, but they really need one more piece before they are ready to become a real contender in the West.
Prediction: Rockets in 4
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs
The Western Conference Finals matchup from a year ago is now a first-round matchup. Both of these teams have battled injuries all year, and neither of these teams will be at full health during this series. Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard are both not expected to play in this series, which takes a little bit of the fun out of the matchup. The Spurs have a great defense (3rd in the league) and will be going up against the 3rd ranked Golden State offense. The Spurs were able to extend their insane streak of getting into the playoffs to 20 seasons, but do not anticipate them making a deep run this year.
Prediction: Warriors in 5
(3) Portland Trailblazers vs. (6) New Orleans Pelicans
This will be a very fun series to watch, as these teams seem to be pretty evenly matched. Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard both made their respective pushes to try and get into the MVP conversation, and watching these two go at it will make for an exciting matchup. The Blazers are better on defense, while the Pelicans are better on offense. The deciding factor in this series could be the Pelicans lack of depth, as outside of Rondo, Holiday, Moore, and AD they really have little in terms of consistent players. With that being said, this series should go at least six games and might even go seven.
Prediction: Trailblazers in 7
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz
This is probably the most even matchup in the first round. Utah relies very highly on its defense, as they have the 2nd best defensive rating in the league, while the Thunder boast a more balanced attack with the 7th rated offense and 9th rated defense. Utah is led by potential rookie of the year Donovan Mitchell and defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert. The Thunder have their Big 3 of Westbrook, PG13, and Melo, but outside of those three and Steven Adams they do not get a lot of production elsewhere. Corey Brewer has proven to be a very valuable pickup after the loss of Andre Roberson for the season. This matchup has the making of a seven-game series and will be interesting to see how this one turns out, as I believe either of these teams could put a scare into the Rockets in the second round.
Prediction: Jazz in 7
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.
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