Houston Rockets vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
What we have here is a good old-fashioned David vs. Goliath situation. Except that even if a higher power gets involved, Minnesota isn’t going to knock out James Harden and the top- seeded Rockets four times. Minnesota’s white-knuckle, overtime win over Denver to clinch the eighth seed was tremendous, with Jimmy Butler showing just what he means to this team. His return from knee surgery gives the team a glimmer of hope, but unless something happens to Harden, simply stealing a single win at home is going to be a tough task for these T-Wolves. I think it’s a big step for Minnesota to get in this year though, and the experience will help give them a road map to navigate the playoffs as they develop their young talent. The Rockets are just on a different level this year, with Harden garnering a lot of MVP attention and Chris Paul straight up clowning big men off the dribble (sorry Zubac. I’m so sorry) like he’s a Globetrotter. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it now. Thank me later.
Prognosis: Not good for Minnesota, not good at all. Brooms at the ready. Rockets in four.
Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs
Well, I said that whatever series the Spurs ended up in would probably be the most exciting of the first round, and I’ll stick with it. Neither of these teams is in great shape, coming in at 4-6 and 5-5 over their last ten respectively, but Golden State figures to get a lot better with the return of Steph Curry if they can move out of the first round. Let’s be clear, though. This series is not a gimme for the defending champs. LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t the guy who folded like origami last year in the playoffs, floundering when Kawhi got injured. This year he’s been a force on both sides of the ball, averaging five points more per game than his career average and coming up with ninety blocks on the defensive end. The Warriors strength is along the perimeter, so I expect Aldridge’s defensive prowess to be minimized by style of play, but he’ll still be the Spurs go-to guy on the offensive end. We’ll see if the Warriors can flip the switch. I’m guessing that they can, but it won’t be as easy as some in the Bay would like.
Prognosis: Too many weapons for San Antonio to counter with veteran experience. Scrappy Warriors win in six.
Portland Trail Blazers vs. New Orleans Pelicans
I’m going to start here with a hypothetical. If the Pelicans can pull out this series, it will be because Anthony Davis is a guy that just poses too many problems for opposing defenders. The Brow does a lot well, but most importantly, the Pelicans score more points in the paint than anyone and have the second highest shooting percentage in the league. The Pelicans will be a tough out, and the Blazer’s Damian Lillard will need to be at the top of his game to keep pace, because Nurkic simply can’t contain Anthony Davis. Period. Bank that. I think we’ll see some high scoring games here and perhaps a not-so- surprising upset in the first round.
Prognosis: Rough week for Josef Nurkic, Pelicans in six.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz
Same record, very different situations. The Thunder come in on the back of perennial MVP candidate and sartorial punchline Russell Westbrook, while the Jazz have been an unforeseen revelation this year. Many thought it was back to the drawing board after Jazz All-Star Gordon Hayward jumped ship to Boston during the offseason, but the Jazz have taken two giant steps forward in his absence, mostly because of rookie phenom Donovan Mitchell. The first year shooting guard is averaging over twenty points per game and has been exactly the spark that the Jazz have needed in Hayward’s absence. Perhaps the chemistry is better without him, but I think it’s more likely the result of a young team developing cohesion and experience. On the other side of the ball, the Thunder are a bit of a mess, despite the triple-double heroics of Westbrook. Carmelo Anthony and Paul George are both strange fits for this Thunder team, which is first, last, and always, Westbrook’s team. Following the season finale, Anthony sniped at his teammate for “stealing rebounds” to pad his stats. While Anthony isn’t the top tier scorer he once was, it’s good to see he’s not lost any of his skill at breaking down his teammates and making his team worse.
Prognosis: Westbrook is a hero, but hero-ball won’t win. Jazz in six.
Image source: USA Today