The Western Conference regular season ended Wednesday after one of the tightest races in recent history. And there's every reason to think that things will remain competitive as we move into the postseason. Here's a quick look at the four Western Conference series in the first round of the NBA playoffs:
1. Houston Rockets (65-17) vs. 8. Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)
Regular season series: 4-0 Houston
It took an overtime win over Denver in the final game of the regular season, but the Timberwolves are in the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2004. Minnesota finally has the pieces to make the postseason with Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns combining for 43.2 points per game.
However, Minnesota's reward is a first-round matchup with the hottest team in the NBA. It's a foregone conclusion that James Harden will win the league MVP, but the addition of Chris Paul has really taken the Rockets to the next level. Houston swept Minnesota during the regular season, and odds are the Rockets will sweep them again in the first round.
2. Golden State Warriors (58-24) vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs (47-35)
Regular season series: 3-1 Golden State
This series comes down to two big questions. First, how much longer will Steph Curry be out for the Warriors? Second, can the Warriors win the series without him? Golden State is still a formidable opponent without Curry with the likes of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson leading the way. The Warriors have shown that they can win on the road against stiff competition even without Curry, but there's no question that the Warriors would feel better about the series if he was on the court.
One thing that should cheer up Golden State fans is the Spurs' horrendous road record. San Antonio is a red-hot 33-8 at home, but only 14-27 on the road. That is the worst road record of any team in the playoffs. Besides, the Spurs have a key injury of their own in All-Star Kawhi Leonard. At this point, we don't even know if he'll return to the court this season, much less by the impact player the Spurs need to advance. Golden State probably won't sweep the Spurs, but home-court advantage is almost enough to ensure its victory given San Antonio's road woes.
3. Portland Trail Blazers (49-33) vs. 6 New Orleans Pelicans (48-34)
Regular season series: Tied 2-2
Portland lost its last five road games against Western Conference opponents, including a loss to a horrible Memphis squad. Still, the Trail Blazers did just enough to hold on to home-court advantage by beating the Jazz at home. Damian Lillard is still as clutch as ever, and C.J. McCollum complements Lillard as a deadly behind-the-arc shooter as he's making 39.6 percent of his shots from deep. Still, it's been far from smooth sailing for the Trail Blazers, who've lost seven of their last 12 games.
New Orleans was on the verge of dropping out of the playoff picture altogether not long ago after losing four straight, including its last home game against Portland. However, the Pelicans were able to pick themselves back up and finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak, including wins over Golden State and San Antonio. And while Portland is fantastic in the backcourt, the Pelicans make their money in the frontcourt with Anthony Davis, who put in an MVP-candidate performance this season.
4 Oklahoma City Thunder (48-34) vs. 5 Utah Jazz (48-34)
Regular season series: 3-1 Oklahoma City
The opening game of this series will be the first time the Jazz and Thunder have faced off since Dec. 23. Remember that Utah's amazing turnaround to make the playoffs didn't start until Rudy Gobert returned from injury on Jan. 19th. Still, losing home-court advantage on the last game of the regular season hurts the Jazz against a tough draw like the Thunder. However, it should be remembered that Utah was well out of the playoff picture just four months ago before Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and the stubborn Jazz refused to let the season slip away. We can expect Utah to enter the playoffs with the same type of determination.
Still, beating the Thunder is no easy task. The trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony is enough to make any team worry. Westbrook, after all, has averaged a triple-double the past two seasons. And all three of those players are seasoned veterans while Utah's leading scorer is a rookie. Oklahoma City is beatable, but Utah has an uphill battle ahead as it will have to steal at least one road win to move on to Round 2.