5-on-5: Bold predictions for the wild West playoff race

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Blazers' 'tightening grip' on 3-seed (2:46)

Rachel Nichols calls Damian Lillard and the Blazers "resilient," especially after their response against the Lakers on Monday. (2:46)

Only four games separate the Nos. 3 and 10 spots in the Western Conference standings.

Who's the biggest threat to the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors? Will the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder or Minnesota Timberwolves miss the playoffs?

Our NBA experts predict how it will all shake out.


1. Which teams should the Rockets and Warriors most want to avoid in Round 1?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Relative to the West's sub-elites in recent years, I'm not sure there's a particularly bad matchup for either team, but of the eight teams in question: the Utah Jazz. They have the personnel and scheme to turn ballet into a tractor pull. If the Spurs were whole, they'd be the obvious choice. If Jimmy Butler were healthy, a Wolves team potentially maturing into its own might be the answer. We're told the Thunder have the star power to thrive in the playoffs, but since Andre Roberson's injury, they're the only one of the West contenders with a negative net rating, and they've looked terrible in the process.

Jackie MacMullan, ESPN.com: Does anyone want any part of the New Orleans Pelicans right now? Anthony Davis has muscled himself into the MVP conversation with video game numbers, including a cluster of believable 3-pointers -- not the gawky erector set kind that big men usually launch. Jrue Holiday has sported a 3.67 assist-to-turnover ratio and 25 points and 8.6 assists per game during the team's nine-game winning streak, and New Orleans is 20-14 on the road. Golden State and Houston should avoid the Pels at all costs -- and likely will (if Davis stays healthy) since they have shot up to the No. 4 seed.

André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: Golden State wants to avoid Oklahoma City in the first round. The Thunder have always been built more for the playoffs than the regular season. Plus, Russell Westbrook has no fear, massive motivation and complete belief against the Warriors. That's not really a battle the champs want in the first round.

The Rockets want to avoid the Spurs, especially if Kawhi Leonard returns. The Rockets are extremely difficult to play, but Gregg Popovich has the genius to game plan against them and the experience facing Mike D'Antoni teams in the postseason. And if Kawhi returns at full speed, the Spurs would suddenly have championship-level upside.

Andrew Han, ESPN.com: A week ago the answer would've been the Thunder. But with a potential Kawhi Leonard return, the Spurs would reunite their Rubik's Cube system with possibly the most feared two-way player in the league today. San Antonio's edge over Oklahoma City as the biggest barrier of the bottom belles is pretty simple: experience. The OK3 might catch fire for a series, but Pop & Co. won't beat themselves; the Dubs and Rox will have to beat them.

Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Despite several stretches of struggles throughout the season, you have to believe the Thunder are still the least-desirable matchup for anyone in the conference. In a playoff series, when play tends to bog down into more one-on-one action, OKC still poses a major threat through sheer star power.


2. What first-round matchup do you most want to see?

MacMullan: Even though Blake Griffin is not walking through that door, and even though in retrospect most of the details from Tunnel Gate were wildly exaggerated or just flat-out incorrect, the tension is real between Chris Paul and his former team. So give me Rockets-Clippers. How will Doc Rivers scheme to keep Paul's streak of failing to advance past the second round alive? What's the over/under on technical fouls that somehow involve Austin Rivers? There are seven players in this Rockets-Clippers rivalry that, at one point, played for the other team. That's a delicious, combustible recipe for drama, providing LA can slip into that eighth playoff spot. Pass the popcorn.

Snellings: Wolves-Pelicans. These are both young, exciting teams built around exceptional big-man/shooting-guard combinations that have explosive firepower. I would love to see Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis battle over a seven-game playoffs series.

Arnovitz: The Trail Blazers and Warriors played an incredibly entertaining conference semifinals series in 2016, and a rematch would be fun. Damian Lillard's stage presence, CJ McCollum's shotmaking, Jusuf Nurkic's combustible energy and all those pretty perimeter sets make for good April basketball.

Elhassan: Honestly? Any two Northwest Division teams. I don't care if it's Blazers-Wolves or Thunder-Nuggets or even if the Jazz manage to sneak in and play -- the most competitive division in basketball is extremely evenly matched, and everyone shows up with their own version of true star power!

Han: Chirping and peak pettiness is what keeps first-round matches interesting, so Rockets vs. Clippers would be the series for me. Blake Griffin's unceremonious departure steals some of the star power, but the Riverses with their "nothing to lose" attitude squaring off against a "This is why I left" Chris Paul seems ripe for drama.

3. Are the Thunder, Spurs or Wolves most likely to miss the playoffs?

Elhassan: As shocking as it might seem, the Spurs face the greatest risk. Beyond their recent struggles, they have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA (according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index), and the uncertainty of the Kawhi Leonard situation gives them no respite. For the first time in the full-season Gregg Popovich era, San Antonio might be taking a trip to the lottery dais.

Han: With Jimmy Butler recovering from a torn meniscus, the Timberwolves seem the most susceptible to falling out of the playoffs. Minnesota has to divert its game flow through Andrew Wiggins and Towns without reverting to some of its earlier bad habits under the uncertain cloud of Butler's return. And asking young players to make quick adjustments in shaky times has always been a difficult task.

Snellings: The Wolves. Their chances are the most fragile, and Jimmy Butler's extended absence came at the worst time. The Thunder are grinding but have every belief that they'll make the postseason. The Spurs are grizzled veterans led by Pop, and they're used to playing without Kawhi. This Timberwolves group has never made the playoffs, and Butler's absence is fresh enough that they haven't adapted.

MacMullan: My gut says none of the above. It seems inconceivable that San Antonio can hang on if Kawhi Leonard continues to don his all-black funeral street clothes ensemble on the bench. (Try a little color, man! It might make you feel better.) But bet against the Spurs at your own peril. How the Thunder find themselves fighting for their playoff lives remains inconceivable -- there's that word again -- to me. Another word that comes to mind: unacceptable. The Wolves were young and vulnerable defensively with Jimmy Butler; now that Butler (whose one-on-one defensive metrics were elite) is injured, their stock is plummeting. But Butler is a gamer and he will return just in time to salvage the Wolves' season.

Arnovitz: Betting against San Antonio has been a losing strategy historically, but the Spurs have a brutal schedule ahead that includes two dates each against Houston and Golden State, with only two of their remaining 18 games against the dregs. The unknown variable in this calculation is, of course, the pending return of Kawhi Leonard. If he comes back near full strength, the Spurs could get a boost and fend off the Wolves, whose remaining schedule, albeit easier, is no ball pit.


4. What in the West will be most intriguing the last five weeks?

Han: It's time to be all-in on tank race 2018. The bottom four West teams are all competitive, but Phoenix and (especially) Memphis are next level in the chase for pingpong balls. The Suns have a minus-8.7 point differential? The Grizzlies are on a losing streak (15 games) almost equal to the Rockets' win streak? Catch the tank fever!

Arnovitz: Watching the Rockets continue to refine their defense, build familiarity offensively as they further integrate Joe Johnson and brim with confidence. We won't know until later this spring whether the Rockets are the legitimate equals of the Warriors, but the more you watch the ease with which they find shots and the proficiency with which they defend, the harder it is to conclude they're much of an underdog.

Elhassan: Seeding is irrelevant beyond the top two seeds. The big storyline will be who gets the final rose, to borrow "The Bachelor" parlance. In the final week alone, we get Portland vs. Denver, New Orleans vs. LA Clippers, Golden State vs. Utah, Denver vs. Minnesota, San Antonio vs. New Orleans and Utah vs. Portland. The playoffs come early this year!

Snellings: The playoff race, and especially the final Nos. 3-10 order. The gap between missing the playoffs and earning home-court advantage is so slim. The West is completely wide open, and should be incredibly intriguing to watch play out.

MacMullan: Here's what I love about NBA players: They are so competitive they do crazy things to "one up" each other. (Like the time Horace Grant bought a new house with a big pool, and Orlando teammate Shaquille O'Neal went home, knocked down his gatehouse and spent thousands to build a bigger pool than Horace's.) With that in mind, is there any doubt that it matters a whole bunch to both the Warriors and the Rockets who winds up with the best record and the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs? Steve Kerr has been adeptly resting his stars at the expense of a W here and there, but that game is over. It's a fight to the finish, and it will be a delightful exercise.


5. What's your bold prediction for the West playoff race?

Elhassan: Isn't any prediction out West bold? Kawhi Leonard will return to save the Spurs from impending doom.

MacMullan: The only truly bold prediction in the West would be to forecast an upset that eliminates either Golden State or Houston from the conference finals. But who really believes that will happen? Not me. I do think the Thunder are teetering on the edge of a makeover as their truly bizarre season continues to tangle itself in knots. My prediction is OKC will move on from Billy Donovan and Paul George, and we will criticize them for the failed experiment, knowing full well we would have done the same thing.

Snellings: The Spurs will end up with the No. 3 seed and the Thunder will slot in at No. 4. My secondary prediction: The Lakers will end up sneaking into the race at the very end, finishing within at most three games of the final playoff slot.

Han: The West playoffs won't be decided until the outcome of the 10:30 p.m. ET Clippers-Lakers game on April 11, the last day (and game) of the regular season.

Arnovitz: The Warriors and Rockets will play Game 1 in the third weekend in May, each undefeated through the first two rounds.