ON THE NBA/Picking the first-round winners and more, incuding this year's league champion

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder open the NBA playoffs against James Harden and the Houston Rockets.WESTERN CONFERENCE



SEASON SERIES: Warriors 4-0

No team has the star power of Golden State, with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Warriors led the NBA during the regular season in an array of categories, including scoring, point differential, offensive efficiency, field-goal percentage, opponents' field-goal percentage, assists, steals and opponents' turnovers. Whew! Their only weakness is on the boards — last in offensive rebounds, 23rd in rebound percentage.

The Warriors have ruled in 11 of the last 13 matchups, including the five-game Western Conference semifinal series last spring. Durant has had a feast against Portland this season, shooting .600 from the field while averaging 29.3 points and 7.8 rebounds.

The Blazers finished the regular season with a flourish, winning 17 of their last 23 games.

Portland's hopes could go from none to slim if center Jusuf Nurkic can play. The bet here is that he does, and that the Blazers make it a competitive series.

The pick: Warriors in six.



This matchup is a good thing for the Spurs, who lost four of their last five games in the regular season. Memphis absolutely staggers into the postseason, having lost nine of its last 12, including setbacks to New Orleans, Sacramento, Detroit, Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Grizzlies finished only two games ahead of the Blazers.

Memphis has a playoff-tested group, the nucleus featuring center Marc Gasol, guards Michael Conley and Tony Allen and reserve power forward Zach Randolph. They've been together for several seasons, and perhaps they can rise to the occasion.

More likely, however, is that San Antonio, with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way, will establish its superiority and win the series rather handily.

The pick: Spurs in five.


SEASON SERIES: Rockets 3-1

This may be the most popular first-round series thanks to a duel between the two leading candidates to claim this year's Most Valuable Player Award — Houston's James Harden and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook.

Houston has enjoyed a renaissance this season under first-year coach Mike D'Antoni, who has injected energy into the Rockets' offense and connected well with Harden. The Rockets were hit with some injuries through the latter part of the regular season, but they'll have their full rotation available to open the playoffs.

This series also will feature a battle of "bigs," with Houston's rising Clint Capela and Nene taking on Oklahoma City's formidable pair of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. Adams is the tough guy and defender, while Kanter is the rebounder and scorer off the bench.

Defense comes at a premium in the playoffs, and the Rockets are so-so at best at that end. But they should have enough to get by the Thunder, albeit barely.

The pick: Rockets in seven.


SEASON SERIES: Clippers 3-1

The Clippers enter the playoffs on a roll, having won seven in a row and 11 of their last 13 outings of the regular season. They may be without key reserve Austin Rivers, however. The backup shooting guard and son of coach Doc Rivers missed the last six games with a hamstring injury.

The Clippers have a veteran and versatile starting five, though, with three All-Stars — point guard Chris Paul, power forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan.

This series features a matchup between perhaps the two premier defensive post men in the game — Jordan and Utah center Rudy Gobert.

The Jazz have been dealing with injuries down the stretch of the season to several rotation players, including point guard George Hill, shooting guard Rodney Hood and power forward Derrick Favors. All are expected to be available for the playoffs, but it won't quite be enough.

The pick: Clippers in seven.





Boston surprised everyone by becoming the top seed in the East. The addition of center Al Horford has helped the Celtics field a starting five that is strong at both ends. Point guard Isaiah Thomas finished as the No. 2 scorer in the league at 29.1 points per game. The Bulls will match him up with either veteran Rajon Rondo, who has been bothered by a wrist injury, or up-and-comer Jerian Grant.

Chicago climbed into the playoffs by winning seven of its last nine games. The Celtics finished the regular season hot, too, going 9-3 in their final 12 games. Now they look to get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign.

The pick: Celtics in six.


SEASON SERIES: Cavaliers 3-1

Cleveland stumbled down the stretch of the regular season, losing its last four and finishing 4-7 over the final 11 games, but there is little reason to believe the defending NBA champions are in trouble, at least in the first round.

The Big Three — LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — are healthy and ready to go. Center Tristan Thompson, who missed four late-season games due to a sore thumb, is back. The bench goes 11 deep, with midseason acquisitions Deron Williams, Derrick Williams and Kyle Korver adding punch to the reserve corps.

Nate McMillan's Pacers finished the season 5-0 after losing four straight before that. Paul George has been sensational of late, averaging 33 points in April to help Indiana secure a postseason berth. Even with George at his best, the Pacers are in over their heads against the Cavs.

The pick: Cavaliers in five.


SEASON SERIES: Raptors 2-1

Toronto is hot at the right time, having won 12 of its final 14 games. Guard DeMar DeRozan has been on fire, having scored 35 points or more six times in his last dozen games. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry give the Raptors as good a backcourt as there is in the league, and the midseason addition of power forward Serge Ibaka has provided toughness at both ends of the court.

Milwaukee has played well the last six weeks, going 16-7 over that period. The Bucks' hopes rest largely on the shoulders of 6-11 point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, at 22 already one of the premier players in the league. The "Greek Freak" averages 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists.

But the Raptors' playoff experience a year ago — reaching the Eastern Conference finals, where they fell to Cleveland in six games — should be valuable. And they've won 12 of the last 13 meetings with the Bucks.

The pick: Raptors in six.


SEASON SERIES: Wizards 3-1

Washington has been up and down over the past month, closing the season 8-8 heading into the final game at Miami. But the Wizards have proved themselves as one of the top teams in the East, rivaling Toronto for the best backcourt in the conference with John Wall and Bradley Beals. The Washington guard duo combine to average nearly 44 points per game, and Wall is among the top assists men in the league.

Atlanta survived a seven-game losing streak in March and goes into the playoffs having won four of the last five. The Hawks rank fifth in the league in opponents' field-goal percentage, with veteran center Dwight Howard protecting the rim. Their sub-par offense, however, will be a problem in this series.

The pick: Wizards in four.


    Warriors over Clippers in five; Spurs over Rockets in seven; Wizards over Celtics in six; Cavaliers over Raptors in seven.


    Warriors over Spurs in five; Wizards over Cavaliers in seven.


    Warriors over Wizards in five.

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