The playoffs are here! Which teams will make it out of Round 1? Our panel breaks down each first-round series in the West and makes their picks for the eventual conference champ.
1. Warriors-Pelicans will be ...
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: An introduction. It's the first trip to the playoffs for half of this pod of Pelicans (pod is an accepted collective noun for a group of pelicans -- I looked it up) and Anthony Davis in particular. As good a prep as a must-win game against a motivated San Antonio Spurs team was on Wednesday, there's nothing like the intensity of a best-of-seven series with an opponent that's zeroed in on every play you run. It will also be a good re-introduction to meaningful games for the Warriors, who will win in six.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: A steppingstone. As their celebration on Wednesday night made clear, the Pelicans' next step in their development was just to make the playoffs. They'll play hard, certainly, but realistically will have a tough time matching up with the NBA's best team. Meanwhile, for Golden State, this brief series will be a step toward more difficult ones that lie ahead.
Ramona Shelburne, ESPN.com: Fun. If Golden State takes care of the ball, it should win in five games. The Warriors are just that good. The Pelicans can give them a hard time, but an upset will be tough. It's going to be great to watch Davis, who had a season for the ages, in the playoffs for the first time, though.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Delightfully refreshing. It'll be a pleasure to see Davis on the big stage and to see Team 67 Wins matched against a first-round foe that is far closer to whole than the battered Thunder would have been. Steph Curry versus Russell Westbrook would've naturally entertained us, but short-handed (and defensively challenged) OKC wouldn't have mustered much resistance against the Golden State machine. The Warriors shouldn't need more than five games to finish the Pels off, either, but there's more hope for something resembling a series this way.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Davis' personal invitation to the Splash Brothers' (already-in-progress) national coming-out party. In many ways, Davis was this season's overlooked MVP candidate. But the league's king in player efficiency rating will have the spotlight -- likely for only four games -- to show why he always belonged in the mix with Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James.
2. Rockets-Mavericks will be ...
Adande: Tex-Mex -- i.e., a regional cuisine that might not suit the tastes of the rest of the country. The Mavericks have slipped in the second half of the season and two of the biggest names in this series, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard, had seasons that ranked among their least productive. Regular-season MVP candidate James Harden needs to get back in a postseason groove; he has shot below 40 percent in each of his past three playoff series dating to 2012. He also hasn't won a playoff series since 2012, which he'll fix with a five-game Rockets victory.
Pelton: Competitive. The six-game gap between Dallas and Houston in the West standings overstates the difference between the two teams. The Rockets' point differential (plus-3.4) was only marginally better than the Mavericks' mark (plus-2.9). Add coach Rick Carlisle's playoff track record and I'll be surprised if this series doesn't go at least six games, though I'm still picking Houston.
Shelburne: Heated. These teams have battled for every free agent to come on the market since Dwight Howard chose the Rockets in 2012. They don't like each other. They don't pretend to like each other and it shows. If it's a short series, I like Houston. But if the Mavericks can extend it, which I think they will, I like their experience in six or seven versus the injury-riddled Rockets.
Stein: Deliciously spiky. I'm not sure how good the actual basketball will be given the Mavs' various issues -- Chandler Parsons' health, Monta Ellis' mood, defense, rebounding, etc. -- but these are two teams that don't have to expend an ounce of energy to manufacture true tension. Harden, Howard, Jason Terry and Daryl Morey on one side. Nowitzki, Parsons, Carlisle and Mark Cuban on the other. You have to favor Houston and you have to give Dallas a puncher's chance ... but most of all you just have to like the matchup for the sparks bound to fly with all those names in the same vicinity.
Wallace: A toss-up. This is perhaps the one series in the entire playoffs where seeding and home-court advantage mean the least. The Rockets' late-season push to get the No. 2 seed was nothing short of fantastic. Harden's offensive onslaught and Corey Brewer's relentless energy fueled the charge. But Carlisle and his defensive schemes are tailor-made for a series like this, when Dallas can lock in on one opponent. Still, the intensity on the court might pale in comparison to the front-office fireworks between Cuban and Morey.
3. Clippers-Spurs will be ...
Adande: An instant reckoning. Six months ago this seemed like a possible conference finals matchup. Instead, there's a credible threat to end the Spurs' reign of dominance, or to prompt a Clippers shakeup after one round of the playoffs. Home-court advantage and stellar seasons by Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan give the Clippers a shot, but what have we learned about premature reports of the Spurs' demise? Spurs in six.
Pelton: A bloodbath. There's a case that these are two of the NBA's three best teams. The Clippers and Spurs finished second and third in the league in point differential, respectively. The winner of this series will be the greatest threat to Golden State in the Western Conference. I'd pick the Clippers in any other first-round matchup, but because of the way things played out, I'm taking Spurs in seven.
Shelburne: Epic. This has the potential to be the best first-round series of the playoffs. It's also the Warriors' dream scenario, as one of the two teams that had a real shot to knock them off will go out in Round 1. I thought the Clippers could make a run this season, but the Spurs should exploit their lack of depth and win this one in six.
Stein: Incredibly harsh on the team that loses. I can't pick against the reigning champs after watching San Antonio's 21-4 finishing kick from Feb. 27 to the regular-season finish line, but don't forget that the Clips uncorked a 14-1 surge of their own into the postseason once they got Blake Griffin back. Mark this down as yet another win for the Warriors, because it means one of the two teams playing the best ball in the West outside of the Bay Area won't see Round 2.
Wallace: A slugfest. What's the reward the Clippers get for playing their best basketball of the season the past few weeks? A first-round date with the defending champions. That's a tough draw, but if Paul, Griffin and Jordan are desperate to take the next step toward title contention, it's essentially now or never. Yes, it's a very difficult draw, but the Clippers are out of excuses. The clash of contrasting styles should make this the most intriguing series in the first round.
4. Trail Blazers-Grizzlies will be ...
Adande: An infirmary. These teams finished the season without Wesley Matthews, Arron Afflalo, Nicolas Batum, Mike Conley and Tony Allen available, and we don't know when or if Batum, Conley and Allen will be back. It's not so much that one of these teams will advance, it's that one will put the other squad out of its misery. With Matthews unavailable, it will be the Grizzlies moving on in Game 5.
Pelton: Health-dependent. The two teams with the biggest injury question marks in the West ended up facing each other. Memphis hopes to get starting guards Conley and Allen back for the start of this series, while Afflalo, Batum, Chris Kaman and C.J. McCollum are all coming off injuries for Portland. The healthier team may win, and ultimately I think that will be the Grizzlies.
Shelburne: Painful. This looks like an awful matchup for Portland. The Blazers were 0-4 versus the Griz in the regular season and Memphis' physical style is even tougher to deal with in the playoffs. But the Grizzlies limped to the finish line this season as injuries mounted. I like Memphis in seven, but I think this one could surprise.
Stein: Just what the Grizz needed given how banged-up they are. Next to the Pelicans and the Warriors, Memphis was the West's next big winner on the final night of the regular season, dodging a first-round date with the Clippers or the Spurs to instead land a Portland team with its own long list of health issues. It won't be as lopsided as it was during the regular season, when Memphis swept all four meetings, but it's a matchup (thanks to home-court advantage) that should allow Marc Gasol and Co. to play their way into Round 2.
Wallace: Survival of the fittest. It only seems appropriate that the two most banged-up teams in the playoffs meet in the first round. Gasol is coming off a career-high 33-point performance in the season finale, but limps into the postseason on a bad wheel. The Grizzlies have also been without Conley and Allen for significant time. Meanwhile, the Blazers have been limited by one setback after another since losing Matthews shortly after the All-Star break. This series could be as painful to watch as it is to play.
5. The Western Conference champs will be ...
Adande: The Warriors. It took San Antonio tumbling to the sixth spot and facing a longer, tougher road to the conference finals to tilt me toward Golden State. But maybe the focus should have been on the Warriors all along after they quickly established themselves as the conference's top team and never really let up. That type of sustained excellence usually gets rewarded in the NBA playoffs.
Pelton: The Warriors. Golden State has to be thrilled about the way the West played out. The worst-case scenario could have seen the Warriors face the Clippers or Spurs in the second round, and the other in the conference finals. Instead, Golden State gets a wounded team (either Memphis or Portland) in the conference semifinals and at most either the Clippers or San Antonio.
Shelburne: The Warriors. They'll need to prove it against the Spurs, but there's just something about this Golden State team. Their reserves kicked the Nuggets' butt on the last night of the regular season, winning a game they didn't need to just to preserve the 39-2 mark at Oracle Arena. With the Clippers and Spurs playing each other in the first round, Golden State has the best draw possible to make a deep run.
Stein: The Warriors. The bracket couldn't have lined up much better for the Dubs. Only the inexperienced Pelicans and then the Memphis-Portland winner stand in Golden State's way en route to the conference finals ... and either the Spurs or the Clippers will be long gone by then. Too many things are working in the Warriors' favor, not the least of which is that amazing home-court advantage of theirs.
Wallace: The Warriors. The deck is stacked perfectly for Golden State to get to the conference finals relatively unscathed. The first round against the Pelicans sets up as a good sparring match, with the Pelicans playing right into the Warriors' preferred pace and style. And in the second round, Golden State gets either the laboring Blazers or lumbering Grizzlies. It won't be a cakewalk for the Warriors, but they should be ready and waiting for the sure-to-be battered team that survives the other, more brutal side of the West bracket.