A very early playoff preview: Western Conference First Round Edition

All-Star Weekend is officially behind us, and teams are seeing the end in sight. Fans want to know who could we potentially see matched up in the western conference playoffs? Find out here.

The NBA regular season is coming to an end. All-Star weekend is over, and players can see the finish line. We, the fans, have learned a lot through the first part of the season, including finding out about some young and potential future superstars such as Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons and Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell who have been taking the league by storm. We have gotten to see some familiar faces in new places, like Paul George and Carmelo Anthony teaming up with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and Chris Paul teaming up with James Harden in Houston.

There have also been a lot of new, and sometimes out of the ordinary storylines to dominate headlines this year, such as the ongoing players vs. referees feud. While these storylines keep the fans intrigued in the otherwise long and boring regular season, everyone knows what the regular season represents, and that is for us the fans and the players and coaches to give us a look at who could be contenders come the most important time of the year, the NBA Playoffs.

NBA playoff time is one of the most exciting times in all of sports, because of the high competition, and seeing the 16 best teams compete in a number of best-of-seven series. While in most years the gripe of fans is usually about how the first round is boring and otherwise having predictable outcomes, this year's playoffs are sure to change that perspective as we could potentially see some of the most fun and exciting series in this year's playoffs, in the first round. While a lot of the outcomes will not change, as everyone will expect to see the top four seeds take care of business, the road for the top four will not be as easy as it has been in years past.

As the standings are today (Feb. 26, 2018), and for sake of argument, we are going to use the current standings as the reference for the information, we would have the No. 1 seed Houston Rockets taking on the No. 8 seed Denver Nuggets in the first round.

As for the other matchups, those are surely going to be more exciting than the 1 vs. 8 matchup, because the No. 2 seed Golden State Warriors will have to go up against the seventh-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, and we know how intense all those games tend to get.

At the No. 3 seed, the San Antonio Spurs will most likely be looking to take on the No. 6 seeded New Orleans Pelicans, and rounding out the first round matchups will be the No. 4 seed Minnesota Timberwolves facing off against the No. 5 seeded Portland Trail Blazers. While everyone in the sports world will most likely all have similar predictions to the outcome of these series, they sure are bound to be exciting.

In this article, we will be using a number of regular and advanced stats to further look into how interesting these matchups could be. Pace (which is calculated by the average number of possessions by a team in a single game), Offensive rating (how many points a team scores per 100 possessions), defensive rating (how many points a team allows per 100 possessions), and the average margin of victory.

No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 8 Denver Nuggets

Houston's Chris Paul being guarded by Denver's Jamal Murray. Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images
Houston's Chris Paul being guarded by Denver's Jamal Murray. Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images

Houston Rockets season averages: 114.3 points (2nd), 21.8 assists, 43.6 rebounds per game.

  • - Houston plays at a pace of 98.1 which is good enough for 10th in the NBA. (Average NBA pace is 94.)
  • - Offensive rating - 116.0 (1st in NBA)
  • - Defensive rating - 107.0 (10th)
  • - Average margin of victory - 8.81 points (1st)
  • - Remaining strength of schedule - (10th in NBA, 7th in West)
  • - Key role players: Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, Ryan Anderson
  • - Record against Nuggets: (3-0)
  • - Opponent Point Per Game average: 105.5 (11th)
  • - Attendance: 15th in NBA
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Denver Nuggets season averages: 108.2 points (8th), 24.6 assists, 44.4 rebounds per game.

  • - Denver plays at a pace of 96.7 which is 16th in the NBA.
  • - Offensive rating - 111.3 (6th)
  • - Defensive rating - 110.3 (24th)
  • - Average margin of victory - 0.97 (13th)
  • - Remaining strength of schedule - (16th NBA, 10th in West)
  • - Key role players: Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray
  • - Record against Houston: (0-3)
  • - Opponent point per game average: 107.2 (20th)
  • - Attendance: 12th in NBA

Star Comparison:

  • James Harden (Rockets): 52 Games played, 31.5 points, 8.9 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 4.3 turnovers per game, shooting 44 percent from the field, 38 percent from deep, and 86 percent from the free throw line.
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  • Chris Paul (Rockets): 41 Games played, 19.2 points, 8.2 assists, 5.8 rebounds, 2.3 turnovers, 1.8 steals per game, shooting 46 percent from the field, 38 percent from deep, and 90 percent from the free throw line.
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  • Nikola Jokic (Nuggets): 53 Games played, 17.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, six assists, 0.8 blocks per game, shooting 48 percent from the field, 36 percent from deep and, 84 percent from the free throw line.
  • Series Preview: 

  • Judging by the way Houston is playing to this point in the regular season, it is safe to say they will have the undoubted advantage in this series, with the two best players always being on their team. Houston is well coached, with a very efficient system, and since they've added Chris Paul they are top 10 in defensive rating.
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  • Denver is a mix of young, and veteran players, led by their center, Nikola Jokic. Denver plays off of Jokic ability to score and assist the ball. Denver also utilized guard combo, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris, to give them a reliable source of shooting along with former all-star Paul Millsap who can always give you a bucket when needed. Expect a very high pace with a lot of threes from both teams in this series. 
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Prediction: Houston defeats Denver, (4-1)

No. 2 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 7 Oklahoma City Thunder

Golden State Warriors season averages: 116.1 points (1st), 30.6 assists, 44.3 rebounds per game.

  • - Golden State plays at a pace of 100.2 which is 2nd in the NBA
  • - Offensive rating - 115.4 (2nd)
  • - Defensive rating - 107.0 (9th)
  • - Average margin of victory - 8.48 (2nd)
  • - Remaining strength of schedule - (28th NBA, 15th in West)
  • - Key role players: Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Jordan Bell
  • - Record against OKC: (1-2)
  • - Opponent point per game average: 107.6 (21st)
  • - Attendance: 2nd in NBA
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Oklahoma City Thunder season averages: 106.2 points (14th), 21.2 assists, 44.9 rebounds per game.

  • - Oklahoma City plays at a pace of 96.1 which is 22nd in the NBA
  • - Offensive rating - 109.8 (10th)
  • - Defensive rating - 106.9 (8th)
  • - Average margin of victory - 2.82 (7th)
  • - Remaining strength of schedule - (9th NBA, 6th in West)
  • - Key Role Players: Steven Adams, Carmelo Anthony
  • - Record against GSW: (1-2)
  • - Opponent point per game average: 103.4 (6th)
  • - Attendance: 17th

Star Comparison:

  • Stephen Curry (Warriors): 26.8 points, 6.5 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 3.1 turnovers per game, shooting 49 percent from the field, 42 percent from deep, and 91 percent from the free throw line.
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  • Kevin Durant (Warriors): 26.0 points, 5.5 assists, 6.7 rebounds, 3.1 turnovers per game, shooting 52 percent from the field, 42 percent from deep, and 88 percent from the free throw line.
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  • Klay Thompson (Warriors): 19.8 points, 2.5 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.7 turnovers per game, shooting 49 percent from the field, 44 percent from deep, and 83 percent from the free throw line.
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  • Draymond Green (Warriors): 11.4 points, 7.9 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.8 turnovers per game, shooting 45 percent from the field, 30 percent from deep, and 76 percent from the free throw line.
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  • Russell Westbrook (Thunder): 25.1 points, 10.4 assists, 9.5 rebounds, 4.6 turnovers per game, shooting 43 percent from the field, 29 percent from deep, and 73 percent from the free throw line.
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  • Paul George (Thunder): 22.3 points, 3.2 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 2.6 turnovers, 2.2 steals per game (1st NBA), shooting 44 percent from the field, 44 percent from deep and, 81 percent from the free throw line.

Series Preview:

A lot of huge names and star power in this first round matchup, this could potentially be one of the most fun and exciting first-round series we have ever seen. Everyone by now knows the Russell Westbrook/Kevin Durant story, about how Durant chose to leave Westbrook and join Golden State. It seems like every time these teams meet, it is old school, smash-mouth, physical trash-talking basketball. By now everyone has come to expect a Russell and KD argument.

But besides the drama, this series will be a good one because of the history and high competitiveness. Golden State will do what they always do, which is execute beautiful ball movement with excellent shooting and pace. Oklahoma City relies on its stellar defense, playing passing lanes, and getting transition baskets. It will come down to one thing if the game is close who do you trust more to bring you home, Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook? We will hopefully get to find out. Also, Andre Roberson's injury plays a huge role in the outcome of this series, as he was their best perimeter defender. With him on the court, they would have Russell matched up with Steph, Dre against Klay, and Paul George on Durant. With Roberson out, what will OKC do to solve their Klay problem?

Prediction: Golden State over Oklahoma City, 4-2

This would be an exciting playoff matchup. Photo: Nate Billings/The Oklahoman
This would be an exciting playoff matchup.
Photo: Nate Billings/The Oklahoman

No. 3 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans

San Antonio Spurs season averages: 102.0 points (26th), 22.8 assists, 44.2 rebounds per game.

  • - San Antonio plays at a pace of 94.7 which is 29th in the NBA
  • - Offensive rating - 107.7 (15th)
  • - Defensive rating - 104.4 (2nd)
  • - Average margin of victory - 3.20 (5th)
  • - Remaining strength of schedule - (2nd NBA, 1st in West)
  • - Key role players: Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, Danny Green
  • - Record against Pelicans: (0-1)
  • - Opponent point per game average: 98.8 (1st)
  • - Attendance: 22nd
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New Orleans Pelicans season averages: 112.0 points (4th), 26.4 assists, 43.9 rebounds per game.

  • - New Orleans plays at a pace of 100.2 which is 2nd in the NBA
  • - Offensive rating - 109.6 (11th)
  • - Defensive rating - 109.2 (18th)
  • - Average margin of victory - 0.35 (16th)
  • - Remaining strength of schedule - (7th NBA, 4th in West)
  • - Key Role Players: Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo
  • - Record against Spurs: (1-0)
  • - Opponent point per game average: 111.6 (29th) 
  • - Attendance: 29th

Injuries:

  • Kawhi Leonard (Spurs) - Unknown Quad injury, uncertain timetable for return, is eyeing possible return in March, if he doesn't resume play in the month of March, Popovich will most likely sit him out for all the playoffs as well.
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  • Demarcus Cousins (Pelicans) - Ruptured Achilles, out for the season.

Star Comparison:

  • LaMarcus Aldridge (Spurs): 22.8 points, 2.1 assists, 8.3 rebounds, 1.5 turnovers per game, shooting 50 percent from the field, 32 percent from deep and, 83 percent from the free throw line.
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  • Anthony Davis (New Orleans): 28.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.1 turnovers per game, shooting 53 percent from the field, 34 percent from deep, and 81 percent from the free throw line.

Series Preview:

Two teams with very similar styles of play. Both teams have star big men who they like to run their offense through. LaMarcus Aldridge for San Antonio has become the undoubted number one option for Gregg Popovich during Kawhi Leonard's absence and has put them in the No. 3 spot in the current playoff standings. Popovich likes to run a lot of different sets for Aldridge starting at either the low or high post. He is a very effective turn around jump shooter from the post, with a great spot-up or pick-and-pop mid-range shot, who also has good enough range to stretch whoever is guarding him to the three point line.

For New Orleans, the injury to Cousins is a huge setback. He is arguably the best big man in the league and if he isn't the best then he is undoubtedly a top 3 big man. With his absence, New Orleans will have to revert to their 2015-16 form in which they made the playoffs as an eight seed, which is to basically give Anthony Davis the ball and everyone spot up and play off him. San Antonio looks to slow the game down, and play a half court, grind-it-out system whereas New Orleans is young and looks to run a lot more because of Anthony Davis' effectiveness in the open court. Very similar styles which will lead to a very interesting series for the most part. Neither team has high home court attendance so it will not be as much of a factor in this series, along with the fact that for the past 20 years, the Spurs have played better on the road than at home.

Prediction: San Antonio over the Pelicans, 4-1

No. 4 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers

Minnesota Timberwolves season averages: 109.9 points (6th), 22.8 assists, 41.9 rebounds per game.

  • - Minnesota plays at a pace of 95.8 which is 23rd in the NBA
  • - Offensive rating - 114.1 (3rd)
  • - Defensive rating - 110.9 (26th)
  • - Average margin of victory - 3.08 (6th)
  • - Remaining strength of schedule - (11th NBA, 8th in West)
  • - Key role players: Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins
  • - Record against Trail Blazers: (2-1) 
  • - Opponent point per game average: 106.9 (18th)
  • - Attendance: 16th
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Portland Trail Blazers season averages: 105.1 (18th), 19.1 assists, 44.9 rebounds per game.

  • - Portland plays at pace of 96.5 which is 19th in the NBA
  • - Offensive rating - 108.4 (13th)
  • - Defensive rating - 106.7 (7th)
  • - Average margin of victory -1.62 (10th)
  • - Remaining strength of schedule - (4th NBA, 2nd in West)
  • - Key Role Players: Evan Turner, Jusif Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu
  • - Record against Timberwolves: (1-2)
  • - Opponent point per game average: 103.5 (7th)
  • - Attendance: 9th

Injuries:

  • Timberwolves' Jimmy Butler (torn meniscus) underwent successful surgery and is eyeing a return within 4-to-6 weeks.

Star Comparison:

  • Jimmy Butler (Timberwolves): 22.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, five assists, 1.8 turnovers per game, shooting 47 percent from the field, 35 percent from deep, and 86 percent from the free throw line.
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  • Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves): 20.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.0 turnovers per game, shooting 44 percent from the field, 32 percent from deep, and 63 percent from the free throw line.
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  • Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers): 26.3 points, 6.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 turnovers per game, shooting 44 percent from the field, 36 percent from deep, and 91 percent from the free throw line.
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  • C.J. McCollum (Trail Blazers): 21.6 points per game, 3.1 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.9 turnovers per game, shooting 44 percent from the field, 41 percent from deep, and 86 percent from free throw line.

Series Preview:

Unlike the New Orleans vs. San Antonio series where both teams play similar styles, this 4 vs. 5 matchup could not be any more polar opposite. Minnesota is a well-coached team, coached by NBA veteran coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibs during his days as the Boston Celtics assistant coach, and Chicago Bulls head coach has been known as a very defensive minded coach.

His team, the Timberwolves, however, are one of the worst defenses in the NBA but they do have one of the best offenses in the league, led by two superstars in Jimmy Butler (who should return by the first round) and Karl-Anthony Towns. Minnesota relies on their two stars to create for all the others around them, with legendary sixth man Jamal Crawford leading the bench unit, the starting line up is filled out by athletic wing Andrew Wiggins, veterans Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague.

Portland, however, plays very different. They're are the worst team in the league, by statistics standards in sharing the ball, averaging a league-worst 19.1 assists per game. Portland is led by electric guards in the backcourt, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The Trail Blazers rely on the leadership and deadly scoring ability of Lillard, and the knockdown dead-eye shooting of McCollum, to lead their "flow" style system. Head coach Terry Stots is an underrated coach who has proven that even with sub-par talent, he can coach a team into the playoffs.

Look for this series to have a lot of close games, and a lot of interesting matchups at the guard positions. Portland has a great home court advantage, but will need to prove they can win a Game 7 on the road if they want to move on to the second round of the playoffs.

Predicition: Minnesota over Portland, 4-3.