National Basketball Association playoffs 2019: Western Conference first-round previews, predictions

Tuesday, 16 Apr, 2019

With LeBron James sitting out the playoffs for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, the NBA has a problem on its hands: Which team are they going to showcase to a national audience to prevent folks from spending their weekends watching The Masters? I went to Oklahoma City for eight years. If the Pacers had homecourt, I may be able to talk myself into it, but they finished the season 29-12 at home, 19-22 on the road.

"This is what we have been waiting for and we know what is at stake", Thompson said.

The Western Conference looks like it's the go-to for compelling series once again.

They came through a testing opening-round series with the Sacramento Kings and a seven-game Conference Finals series with the Portland Trail Blazers before overcoming the Pacers in six games in the Finals, O'Neal racking up 41 points in the close-out game and adding Finals MVP to his league MVP award. Their major struggle comes against the pick and roll. The Rockets shoot threes at an unprecedented rate, while Utah is the best in the league at limiting 3-point attempts. There's one series that could end quickly, but even that one could be compelling. D'Angelo was deemed a distraction to the locker room by the Los Angeles Lakers, due to a Snap Chat video he took of former teammate Nick Young, confessing infidelity.

Even though he's garnered a lot of hatred and criticism for joining one of the best teams in the league - and creating a powerhouse franchise in the NBA - Durant doesn't look at it as an easy decision. Since the calendar flipped, the Jazz have been the best defensive team in the league.

Key matchup: Harden vs. Donovan Mitchell.

Harden averaged a stunning 36.1 points in the regular season - 5.7 more than when he won the accolade a year ago and the most since Michael Jordan tallied 37.1 in 1986-87. Again, I am going to take the higher seed. Still, this is a team that can make noise with scoring threat Bojan Bogdanovic. The Rockets will likely win that series in five games.

On the other hand, Harden's record-breaking season has many National Basketball Association viewers convinced that he deserves to eclipse Antetokounmpo's rise to stardom. The best teams, like Golden State and Houston, take their foot off the gas to preserve themselves for the playoffs. Steven Adams can absolutely dominate teams inside and on the glass, while Enes Kanter struggles to guard him. If he stays healthy, Houston has a chance to not only win this series, but also possibly upset the Warriors. The bad news for the Blazers is that C.J. McCollum is dealing with a knee injury that might slow him down a bit.

Season series: Thunder, 4-0. He knew what he was getting himself into when he signed with the best team in basketball. San Antonio isn't as efficient defensively as Denver - the Spurs are No. 20 - but the offense is barely ahead of the Nuggets in possessions per game at 101.7. Also, you can't discount the experience of Coach Pop. It will be interesting to see which of them step up under pressure and lead their team to the NBA Finals. If the Spurs win this series, he will be a big reason. The x-factor in this series will be DeMar DeRozan. The Sixers have made the playoffs 49 times in their 70-year history and have won the Eastern Conference nine times. The German star was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 2007 and the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player in 2011.

This isn't just another playoff appearance for the Bucks, who haven't had home court advantage since the 2001 playoffs when they lost to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference finals.

Thanks for reading, and I can't wait to see how the playoffs unfold.