5 possible NBA Western Conference playoff 1st-round brackets, ranked

 sbnation.com  03/14/2019 15:20:55   Tom Ziller

With just over a dozen games left in the NBA regular season for most teams, the Western Conference playoff field is basically set. The Kings have a very outside shot at sliding in, but sit four games behind the Clippers in the loss column (counting the tiebreaker), and LA has already played 69 games. The odds for Sacramento are slim, and the odds for teams behind Sacramento — the Lakers and Wolves — are even more slim. So we likely have our eight teams.

None of these squads have locked up specific spots, but some can be narrowed into certain ranges. The Warriors and Nuggets will be the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, in some order. It’s pretty likely that the Thunder, Rockets, and Blazers will share the Nos. 3 through 5 seeds among themselves, though the streaking Spurs could blur these lines if they continue to not lose any more games. Otherwise, the Spurs, Jazz, and Clippers will likely share the Nos. 6 through 8 seeds.

Given the uncertainty of where teams will fall within those ranges, there are hundreds of potential West brackets. We’ll have to wait until the season’s dusk to find out what the match-ups will look like.

In the interim, let’s rank the top five possibilities for pure entertainment value, given the ranges outlined above. (Let’s also acknowledge off the top that this exercise would be much more fun with the Lakers and Kings involved.)

5. Regional Rivalries

Nuggets (1) vs. Jazz (8)
Warriors (2) vs. Clippers (7)
Blazers (3) vs. Spurs (6)
Rockets (4) vs. Thunder (5)

Three of the four first round match-ups here feature regional-ish rivalries: the Mountain West battle between Denver and Utah, the battle between the two best teams in California, and ... well, Houston and OKC are pretty far apart, but whatever. The Blazers-Spurs match-up isn’t too popular in this exercise, but some fun LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Damian Lillard juice could be nice, even if these two are being too nice to each other lately.

The key here is a first-round Nikola Jokic vs. Rudy Gobert battle, the potential for some Golden State vs. LA classics (in a Warriors sweep, probably) and the vaunted Rockets-Thunder series, which you’ll find is popular with this particular exercise.

4. Upset City

Warriors (1) vs. Jazz (8)
Nuggets (2) vs. Spurs (7)
Blazers (3) vs. Clippers (6)
Thunder (4) vs. Rockets (5)

This construction might give us our best chances at a series of upsets. The Jazz offer the best chance at a first round challenge of the Warriors because they have a stout defense and a center that can, in theory, contain DeMarcus Cousins. Wily Gregg Popovich and the smoking-hot Spurs will certainly give Denver heartburn given its overall lack of playoff experience beyond Paul Millsap. I don’t know if the Clippers can beat the Blazers, but are any bets off with Portland?

And again: Thunder vs. Rockets. GIMME GIMME GIMME.

3. Final Four Fantasy

Warriors (1) vs. Spurs (8)
Nuggets (2) vs. Jazz (7)
Rockets (3) vs. Clippers (6)
Thunder (4) vs. Blazers (5)

A big demerit with the likely standings is that there is no way to construct a second-round Rockets-Thunder match-up. Unless there is major tumult in the standings, this pairing can only happen in the first round or West Finals. What a bummer!

So this bracket is constructed to give us a really compelling West second round (Warriors-Thunder or Warriors-Blazers, plus Nuggets or Jazz vs. Rockets) and set up a potential Warriors-Rockets rematch in the West finals. With Chris Paul playing his tail off again and Golden State bored or mad or both, we could use a rematch. Just for kicks.

2. Golden Gauntlet

Nuggets (1) vs. Spurs (8)
Warriors (2) vs. Jazz (7)
Rockets (3) vs. Clippers (6)
Thunder (4) vs. Blazers (5)

This scenario gives the Warriors what I feel would be the toughest test going into the Finals: the Jazz in Round 1, likely the Rockets in Round 2, and potentially the Thunder in the West finals. The only thing better than Rockets vs. Thunder is ensuring that we have a shot at seeing the Warriors take on both in consecutive playoff series.

If it seems like I’m disrespecting the Nuggets and Blazers ... well, I am. Denver hasn’t been in the playoffs in years and we don’t know how the younger players will respond. We saw what happened to Portland last spring.

1. Grudge Time

Warriors (1) vs. Clippers (8)
Nuggets (2) vs. Spurs (7)
Thunder (3) vs. Jazz (6)
Blazers (4) vs. Rockets (5)

The Thunder are the West’s most interesting team going into the West playoffs. I want to see them against everyone. Can we clone the Thunder and make them the Nos. 5 through 8 seeds?

Thunder-Jazz is an obvious choice for a grudge match series based on what happened last spring and basically every time these teams play. Warriors-Clippers is a salt mine. Blazers-Rockets calls for Evan Turner to be mic’d up at all times and the potential Harden vs. Lillard duel has me drooling.

Then potentially Warriors-Rockets and Nuggets-Thunder or Nuggets-Jazz in the second round? YES.

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