The NBA Playoffs are set to begin this week, and although most matchups can be pretty predictable - especially in the first round - there's never a year where everything goes exactly according to plan. Will this year be any different?
There are a couple factors in play when looking at what teams should be most on alert heading into the NBA's first round. For starters, the obvious, there's little parity between the top seeds and the teams that snuck into the playoffs. (Not that that's anything new from year's past.) The No. 1 seed Boston Celtics won 12 more games than No. 8 Chicago, and the No. 1 seed Golden State Warriors won 26 more games than No. 8 Portland.
When you get to the lower-seeded matchups, however, it's much easier to fathom that a few No. 3 or No. 4 seeds may not see the light of day past the first round. But who should be most on high alert?
Let's look through the four opening round playoff matchups in the Western Conference and rank the higher-seeded teams' upset alert factor out of 10.
No. 1 Golden State Warriors v. No. 8 Portland Trailblazers
Golden State has owned Portland this year more than probably any other teams facing each other in this year's first round. But man, how awesome would it be if Portland was able to pull off this upset? They're one of the hottest teams in the entire league entering the playoffs, and the entire state of Oregon is behind them in their push to avenge their loss to the Warriors in last year's Western Conference Semifinals.
There is no doubting that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are going to continue to be great, but the X-factor for Portland is going to be if guys like Maurice Harkless and their frontcourt can pose a challenge for Golden State's smaller lineups. Chances are Portland can get hot enough to steal a game at home, but Golden State is Golden State, and smart money has Portland channeling their inner Dennis Green once this is over. Upset Alert: 1/10
No. 2 San Antonio Spurs v. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies
This is such a solid matchup for basketball fans. Both teams have cores that have played together for years now and the clubs split their four regular season games against each other. Neither team is entering the playoffs on a hot streak by any means, but things heat up pretty quickly for teams like San Antonio and Memphis who seemingly meet in the playoffs every other year.
San Antonio is a deep enough team to do some serious damage in these playoffs, but that doesn't mean that Memphis won't have a serious chance at making a scare if they can handle Kawhi Leonard. But with Tony Allen likely out for the first round, that difficult task looks a lot more impossible. Upset Alert: 3/10
No. 3 Houston Rockets v. No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder
While many are rooting for Russell Westbrook to go supernova and power the Thunder through the playoffs, they're likely not deep enough - or even just good enough - to handle their first test. The turnaround of the Rockets this season was so complete that it's hard to imagine them not being a contender for the next few years as well, and at the core of that is former Westbrook teammate James Harden.
Houston will win this series with their array of weapons off the bench and with Harden's ability to create plays for himself and others. Is there any upset potential? Of course, simply due to the fact that Houston will have no answer for Westbrook when he pushes the tempo and carries the offense. OKC won't have a leg to stand on whenever Russ has to catch his breath though, and therefore will be even less of a threat than people think. Upset Alert: 5/10
No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers v. No. 5 Utah Jazz
While it's fun to think of the Utah Jazz as a team that's finally arrived as a threat in the Western Conference, the timing and matchup for them just don't look too positive. Sure, overall this is one of the more evenly-matched series in the first round, but the Clippers are hot - entering the playoffs having won 11 of 13, and having won three out of their four matchups over Utah in the regular season.
To make matters worse for the Jazz, George Hill and other key players have been battling injuries late in the season, prohibiting the Jazz from entering the postseason near full strength. On their side is Gordon Hayward, who's shown flashes this season of progressing towards superstar status...but he's simply not there yet. Upset Alert: 6/10