No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 1 Golden State Warriors
These teams met in the West semifinals last year and Golden State won in five. And really that’s the only question here: Will the Blazers be able to get a game against the NBA’s best team? Portland has a terrific offensive backcourt of Damian Lillard (and Oakland native) and CJ McCollum, and those two may be able to go point-for-point with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. However, the Warriors are vastly superior everywhere else. They are also healthy with Kevin Durant back and better-rested than the 2016 postseason when the Warriors entered off chasing the record of 73 regular-season wins. Portland suffered a devastating injury late in the season in losing center Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers have been killed on the boards without him. It’s not clear if Nurkic, who suffered a broken leg, will be back for this series.
No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 2 San Antonio Spurs
These teams met in the first round of last year’s playoffs and the Spurs crushed the Grizzlies in four easy games. If there’s one concern for San Antonio this time, it’s at point guard. Tony Parker is clearly well past his prime and backup Patty Mills is just that: a decent backup. Here the Spurs face a very good point guard in Mike Conley, with potential dates against James Harden/Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry still to come in the West playoffs. The Grizzlies are well below .500 since the All-Star break. They did beat San Antonio twice this season but both were in Memphis. This should be the lowest-scoring first-round series as the Spurs led the NBA in defensive efficiency and the Grizzlies were Top 7.
No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 3 Houston Rockets
Or should we call this Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden? That individual matchup of the top two MVP candidates will get all the press, but it’s more likely they cancel each other out to a point and the other guys on each team determine this series. The Rockets are a three-point shooting dynamo, while Oklahoma City is a stellar rebounding team. Houston was 3-1 vs. OKC this season. The first three meetings were each decided by three points or fewer, while Houston took the most recent by 12. The Rockets averaged 115.0 ppg on 47.9% shooting while OKC averaged 111.3 ppg on 46.3% shooting. Harden averaged 20.5 points, 12.3 assists and 7.3 rebounds but shot only 34.3 percent from the floor. Westbrook averaged 36.3 points, 9.3 assists and 9.0 rebounds.
No. 5 Utah Jazz vs. No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers
Neither team was able to rest key guys on Wednesday as the tiebreaker for the No. 4 seed was still in play. The Clippers were 3-1 vs. the Jazz this season, but Wednesday was only the 14th time all year that Utah had all five starters healthy to play and the Jazz have just two losses when that’s the case. Utah big man Rudy Gobert became just the 12th player in NBA history to record 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 blocks in the same season. This could be the last hurrah for the Clippers as currently constituted as Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick will all become free agents. L.A. is rolling into the playoffs in playing some of its best basketball of the season, but the schedule has been rather weak of late. The Clips had their own injury problems this year. Griffin was sidelined for 18 games to recover from right knee surgery and Paul missed 14 after having surgery on his left thumb. Reserve guard Austin Rivers is out with a hamstring injury and could miss the entire first round.