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NBA Playoffs 2018 First Round Predictions: Western Conference

In years past, it has almost always been the Western Conference that has captivated intrigued audiences with their plethora of elite contenders and individual superstars. Although the competitive gap between the Eastern and Western Conference has shrunk noticeably this year, the west can still boast to have a few more prominent playoff teams that have a chance to go far in the postseason. While Golden State should still considered the best that the west has to offer until proven otherwise, teams such as Houston, Portland and Oklahoma City have made it known that they are not to be taken lightly in the playoffs this year.

As is pertains to the Western Conference winning Houston Rockets, this is a team that has serious aspirations of not only knocking down the once invincible giants in Golden State, but also has realistic ambitions of winning it all by the end of the playoffs. Possessing both a redenlentless scoring unit and a disciplined defensive mindset, it would appear that the Rockets have everything at their disposal to be highly successful in the postseason this year. Assuming Chris Paul can stay healthy and James Harden can show up when it matters the most, the Rockets may be able to become the new kings of the Western Conference sooner rather than later.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors

Considering all of the controversy that has surrounded the absence of the quiet assassin that is Kawhi Leonard, the perseverance and unshakeable confidence of the San Antonio Spurs has been especially commendable. Thanks to the charisma and intelligence of head coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have been able to rally mightily and get the most out of the athletes that they have available. Most notably, it has been the resurgence of LaMarcus Aldrdige (23.1 PPG, 8.5 RPG) that has kept this aging Spurs team afloat and his dynamic skill set will be vital in allowing his team to hang tough with the talent-laden Golden State Warriors.

While the absence of Stephen Curry in the first round of the playoffs will have an effect on how prolific this team will be from a scoring perspective, they still have Kevin Durant to lead the Warriors both offensively and defensively. In conjunction with the proficient shooting abilities of Klay Thompson and the vicious defensive presence of Draymond Green, the Warriors still have one of the most talented rosters in the NBA even without Curry. However, the Warriors will need to play unselfishly and intelligently lest they succumb to a Spurs team that will undoubtedly come out with a massive chip on their shoulder considering how they have been dispatched by Golden State in years past.

Although the Spurs should be pleased with how they have faired up to this point, it's hard to imagine this aging team having enough stamina to overcome the inexplicable absence of their superstar scorer against a much more talented Golden State team. Warriors in 5.

New Orleans Pelicans vs. Portland Trailblazers

When sensational big man DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending injury during the regular season, it seemed inevitable that the Pelicans winning ways would dissipate quickly in the immensely competitive Western Conference. However, this devastating loss only paved the way for Anthony Davis to take over as both a tenacious scorer (28.1 PPG) and as a fearless rebounder (11.1 RPG). Better still, the Pelicans saw their well-paid point guard in Jrue Holiday step up as both a confident scorer and as a cerebral ball facilitator that could consistently feed the prominent playmakers on his team. If the Pelicans can continue to maintain their dominance as a mid to close range shooting team (54 2P%), they could effectively wear down the high-octane athletes of the Trailblazers.

Although the Trailblazers may lack notable scorers outside of Damien Lillard and CJ McCollum (combined to average 48.3 PPG), they have been able to rely on individuals such as Jusuf Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu to fiercely attack the defensive boards (combined to average 12.8 DRPG). Perhaps a more overlooked aspect of this Trailblazers team is their impressive capabilities at the free throw line, which will be an especially important aspect from them to rely upon down the stretch of tight game affairs (80 FT%). As has been evident throughout the course of the regular season, the Trailblazers are at their best when they are dominating the glass with both McCollum and Lillard being the clutch shooters that are capable of creating separation from a scoring perspective against their respective opponents.

While the size of the Pelicans will provide a unique challenge for the prominent shooters of Portland to overcome, the Trailblazers exceptional efficiency on defense will be the deciding factor in what will be a hard-fought and physical series. Trailblazers in 7.

Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Although the loss of Gordon Hayward in the offseason looked like a crushing blow to the Jazz's chances of being competitive at the time, they somehow managed to hold their own this season as they wisely drafted one of the better two-way shooting guards in Donovan Mitchell. Averaging 20.5 Point per game while garnering 1.49 steals per game, Mitchell quickly transformed himself from a relatively unknown rookie into a well-composed playmaker that has been incredibly consistent in a multitude of ways during his first year in the NBA. Outside of Mitchell, the likes of Rodney Hood and Rudy Gobert have been strong contributors, with Hood being a clutch perimeter shooter and Gobert being a physical rebounder that is deadly when he is able to post up down underneath the basket.

Despite having three elite athlete in Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder having struggled to display any type of continuity on a game to game basis. However, even with their consistency issues, the Thunder's potential for success is extremely high when you consider that Westbrook alone is by far the best two-way point guard in the NBA and is backed up by one of the most versatile forwards in the league in Paul George. While Carmelo Anthony has regressed noticeably as a deadly isolation shooter, he can still garner rebounds relatively consistently and still has moments of being able to take over games from a scoring perspective. If all three of the aforementioned superstars can implement their elite skill sets simultaneously, they will have a great chance of not only making it to the Western Conference Finals, but could very well force their way into the NBA Finals when all is said and done.

While the scrappy defensive abilities of the Jazz are intriguing, it pales in comparison to what the Thunder have on their roster in terms of dynamic and proven playmakers that can change the tide of a given contest in a multitude of ways. Thunder in 6.

Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Houston Rockets

Needing an overtime victory over the Denver Nuggets to clinch the final spot in playoffs, the Timberwolves have to be feeling a glorious sense of euphoria of being able to finally make it to the postseason after having failed to do so over the last 13 seasons. With a healthy Jimmy Butler looking as dominant as ever on both offense and defense, the Timberwolves are in a prime position to show what they are made of under the bright lights. In conjunction with the instinctual and elite playmaking abilities of Karl-Anthony Towns and the underrated defensive contributions of Jeff Teague, the Timberwolves seemingly have everything that they need to make some noise in the playoffs.

However, they will have to overcome a Rockets team that is not only highly productive offensively, but also has quickly become one of the best defensive teams in the league this year. Led by the sharpshooting abilities of James Harden, the Rockets possess the impressive scoring output needed to overwhelm opponents that are unable to score 120 points or more on a regular basis. With a healthy Chris Paul, one of the better two-way point guards in the NBA, the Rockets have the necessary leadership and talent to go all the way to the NBA Finals. If center Clint Capela can continue to provide the Rockets with the defensive and dominant rebounding presence that he did during the regular season, Houston will everything that they need and then some to dispatch anyone that they may face in the playoffs,

While the Timberwolves are talented enough to steal a couple of games in this first round series, the Rockets simply have a better defense and are much better at finding ways to take and make three-point shots, something that will be too much for Minnesota to handle in a seven game series. Rockets in 6.