NBA playoff bracket 2017: Picks, predictions for Western Conference first round

The NBA playoffs are finally here. Can any team in the West bracket actually challenge the Warriors, or will it only be a matter of time before Golden State returns to the NBA Finals?

No need to wait until the series start. Sporting News' Sean Deveneyis here to give his ironclad NBA playoff predictions—but don't blame him if he's wrong. (West picks are below, and East picks can be found here.)

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NBA playoffs 2017: Western Conference predictions

(1) Warriors vs. (8)Trail Blazers

The backstory

Including last year’s playoffs, the Warriors have beaten Portland in 10 of their last 11 games, and this series doesn’t figure to be much different — depending on the health of center Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers played especially well after they acquired Nurkic in February, going 14-5 in games that he started, and his presence could pose a problem for the interior of the Warriors defense. But Nurkic has been out with a fractured fibula in his right leg, and it’s unclear when, if at all, he will be available to play in this series. If he can’t, the Warriors’ offense should be too much to handle for Portland.

The key player

All eyes will be on Kevin Durant, as he makes his return from a kneeinjury and ramps up into playoff shape. He’s had a good deal of success against Portland this season, and in his last three games against the Blazers, he’s averaged 32.3 points. The Warriors adjusted nicely to Durant’s absence, with bench players taking on bigger roles and Draymond Green absorbing even more defensive responsibilities. But they’ll need him to be fully integrated to win a championship, and that process starts with this series.

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The big number

The Warriors have a net rating of plus-12.1, which is a measure of the difference between their offensive points per 100 possessions against their defensive points per 100 possessions. That is easily the best in the league, with the Spurs at No. 2 (plus-8.0). Not only that, but the Warriors’ net rating is higher than last year’s, which was 11.6.

The prediction

Having Nurkic on board could make things interesting for the Blazers, but even if he plays, he won’t be 100 percent and will have had more than two weeks off. It’s possible that Portland gets a game here, but not likely more than that. Warriors in 5.

MORE: Damian Lillard has already made a bold first-round prediction

(2) Spurs vs. (7) Grizzlies

The backstory

These are familiar postseason foes, as this series will mark the fourth time in the last seven playoffs that they’ll face each other. The Spurs won the last two, easily, but the sting of the 2011 first-round upset, in which Memphis was a No. 8 seed and the Spurs were No. 1, still lingers. Have no fear, San Antonians, the Spurs are entering this series on a much stronger footing, bringing a healthy, deep and well-rested roster up against a Grizzlies team that has stumbled to the finish line, losing 13 of 20 games late in the year. The season-ending injury to Chandler Parsons, who played only 34 games this year, put a pretty hard ceiling on the Grizzlies’ prospects, and simply earning a postseason spot at all is an accomplishment.

The key player

Danny Green has been in a post All-Star slump, and the Spurs would certainly like to see him break out of it for the sake of their playoff longevity. In 19 games since the All-Star break, Green has shot 33.6 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from the 3-point line. He was over 40 percent from the arc in the first half, and against a defense like that of the Grizzlies — which leads the league in fewest points in the paint allowed — Green’s ability to stretch the floor would be useful.

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The big number

The Spurs’ defensive rating this year was 100.9, the best in the league. Memphis’ offense? It was 18thin the NBA in efficiency, and limped to the finish averaging 97.3 points. The Grizzlies will be able to slow the pace against the Spurs and can make these into some ugly games. But they don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up.

The prediction

Memphis played above its talent level this year, and should be commended. But we won’t see any 2011 repeats here. Give it to the Spurs, 4-0.

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(3) Rockets vs. (6) Thunder

The backstory

This figures to be the highlight of the first round, the mano-a-mano battle between Russell Westbrook and James Harden, two of the league’s top MVP candidates. Westbrook has had some epic performances against the Rockets, averaging 36.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists, but Houston has won three of the four games. The Rockets and Harden have more depth and talent on hand, with ace 3-point shooters like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Patrick Beverley capable of spreading the floor. Oklahoma City has gotten a good season out of new guy Victor Oladipo, and the two-headed combo of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter still looms, but the Thunder have precious little else.

The key player

No one gets under the skin of Westbrook quite like Beverley, going back to the meniscus injury Westbrook suffered against Beverley and the Rockets in the 2013 playoffs. Beverley can frustrate Westbrook with his physicality, but he will have a fine line to walk in this series, seeking to push Westbrook’s buttons without getting too much attention from the refs or the league office. Beverley is still Public Enemy No. 1 in OKC, and he will have to maintain his cool while trying to control Westbrook’s thrashes toward the basket.

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The big number

48.9 is a pretty big number when it represents the number of points in the paint allowed by your team’s defense. That’s where Houston’s defense is, and it ranks worst in the league. That plays to a strength of the Thunder, who get 46.7 percent of their offense inside the paint, second in the NBA. The Rockets do a good job of defending the perimeter (34.2 percent allowed on 3s, third in the NBA), but their challenge will be keeping Westbrook and company out of the paint.

The prediction

The Thunder will put up a fight, and this will be an entertaining series. But there is just not enough firepower, and the Rockets take it. Houston in 6.

STEELE:NBA schedule can be fixed, just not by mad scientist Daryl Morey

(4) Clippersvs. (5) Jazz

The backstory

Crushing ineptitude and horrendous luck is the backstory for any Clippers postseason foray. The last three years have gone horribly wrong for Doc Rivers’ club, going back to the Chris Paul foul on Russell Westbrook at the end of Game 5 in the conference semis against OKC in 2014, through the blown 3-1 lead against the Rockets in 2015 and right on up to last year’s injury-riddledfirst-round flop against Portland. The Clippers come into the postseason a scarred team, and will face a tough, disciplined Jazz bunch capable of playing shutdown defense. With free agency looming for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, this could be the last go-round for the Clippers as we know them.

The key player

Gordon Hayward is going to get paid this summer, that is for certain. But it will be a lot easier for Utah to shell out in excess of $200 million for Hayward if he actually accomplishes something in the playoffs, where his resume is decidedly slim: four games, 7.3 points and a whopping 18.3 percent shooting, back in 2012. Hayward is an All-Star and has come a long way since then, but still, that showing was memorably abysmal. It might be asking a lot for the Jazz to pull out the series win against a seasoned team like the Clippers, even with their own shoddy recent history, but it would not be too much to ask Hayward to go out and play like an All-NBA player in this series.

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The big number

The Jazz allow 0.88 points per possession on pick-and-roll plays in which the ball handler shoots, which, for a defense as fearsome as Utah’s, isn’t particularly good. In fact, according to NBA.com stats, that is seventh-worst in the league. That’s a problem when facing Chris Paul and the Clippers, who score on 43.5 percent of their ball-handler pick-and-rolls, second in the NBA. If the Jazz can’t find a way to corral the pick-and-roll, they won’t have much chance against L.A.

The prediction

The Jazz play the slowest pace in the league, and though the Clippers are not exactly speed demons (17thin pace), it will be up to Utah to force their style onto this series. The bet here is that the Clippers’ experience will ultimately win out thanks to the home-court edge: Clippers in 7.

MORE: Eastern Conference first-round picks, predictions

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