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2016 NBA playoffs: Picks, best series and more for Western matchups

What's the most intriguing matchup in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs? Who is the biggest X-factor? Who will win? SI.com previews the action.

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If you’re looking for potential upsets in the first round, you’re better off turning your attention to the East. Out West, the playoff bracket is loaded with championship contenders who will enter their first–round matchups as heavy favorites.

In fact, the three most lopsided first-round series—as judged by the regular-season point differential split between the two teams—are all in the West. Even the conference’s most balanced series on paper, the No. 4 Clippers vs. the No. 5 Blazers, is more lopsided than three of the East’s four series.

While the West playoffs will have the league’s two most dominant teams (Warriors and Spurs), the presumptive 2016 MVP (Stephen Curry) and four other strong candidates (Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and the top two Defensive Player of the Year nominees (Leonard and Draymond Green), the intensity and competitiveness likely won’t pick up until the second round. In the meantime, the next two weeks should offer a nice taste of what’s to come, as the conference’s titans tune up against unusually middling fare. 

• MORE NBA: East playoff preview | Rankings: Most fun first-round series?

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Most intriguing series: (4) Clippers–(5) Blazers

There’s a little something for everyone in this series, which is arguably more balanced than the 9-win difference (53 vs. 44) between the two teams’ records indicates. Since Christmas, when Clippers forward Blake Griffin was lost to a leg injury, L.A. compiled a 36-16 record while Portland went 33-18.  And while the Clippers won the season series 3-1, they needed a J.J. Redick buzzer beater to avoid going to overtime at home last month.  

Love offense? L.A. and Portland both rank in the top seven in offensive efficiency, they both rank in the top eight in three-pointers, and they’re both led by dynamic All-NBA point guards in Chris Paul and Damian Lillard.

Love drama? Coaches Doc Rivers and Terry Stotts have been engaged in minor feuds all season long, bickering over minutia like improperly filled out lineup cards and bench celebrations.

Love gamesmanship? Stotts will enter the series knowing that his frontcourt personnel are facing an uphill battle against DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. Portland may look to work around its roster limitations by playing Hack-a-Shaq on Jordan and looking to use small ball, spread-oriented looks to create mismatches against L.A.’s traditional bigs.

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Love pressure narratives? The “Can’t get over the hump” Clippers will bear all of the pressure against the “Not even supposed to be here” Blazers. After four consecutive playoff trips with no trips to the conference finals to show for it, L.A. entered the season with both title hopes and the knowledge that another disappointing exit could lead to major changes to its core. Portland, meanwhile, retooled on the fly with a young and largely unproven roster after losing four starters from last year’s squad. They’re playing with house money and led by two guards, Lillard and CJ McCollum, who would love nothing better than to steal some national attention by playing spoiler. 

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Thanks, but no thanks: (2) Spurs–(7) Grizzlies

Remarkably, the Warriors set an alltime NBA record for most wins (73), and yet they won’t enter the first-round with the most lopsided matchup. That designation goes to San Antonio, who nipped at Golden State’s heels all year and finished with a +10.6 point differential, a top-10 all-time mark and just a fraction behind the defending champs. The Spurs boast the league’s best defense—thanks to Leonard and Tim Duncan—and a No. 3 offense that leans on Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and others.

Compounding the inequity: a rash of injuries has decimated the Grizzlies, giving this match-up a “legends versus no-namers” vibe. Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and midseason acquisition Mario Chalmers will all miss the playoffs, leaving coach Dave Joerger to make do with the likes of Jordan Farmar, Lance Stephenson and a bunch of non-household names like Xavier Munford, Jarell Martin and JaMychal Green. The Grizzlies not only enter the postseason with the worst point differential (-2.2) of the 16 playoff teams, that mark has slipped to -4.7 since the All-Star break, which ranks No. 25 league-wide.

• MORE NBA: Top 10 game-winners of the 2015–16 NBA season

The head–to–head matchup provides zero cause for optimism for the Grizzlies, as the Spurs swept the season series 4-0 and won by an average of 12.5 points. In their last postseason match-up, San Antonio swept Memphis 4-0 in the 2013 Western Conference finals. All signs point to this being a quick, tidy and thorough butt-whooping.

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What to watch: Series by series

No. 1 Warriors vs. No. 8 Rockets: Any signs of a let-up?

After completing its historic season, Golden State didn’t get the benefit of an extra day to recover from the chase. Instead, the Warriors will open their series against the Rockets on Saturday with an early 3:30 p.m. ET start. Although these two teams met in the 2015 Western Conference finals, with Golden State prevailing in five games, this isn’t a conventional rematch.

Houston has struggled with its defensive effort and focus all season, leaving it especially vulnerable to Golden State’s signature explosions. It’s possible that the only team that can beat Golden State in this series is itself. Perhaps the Rockets will be able to avoid a sweep and extend the series if the defending champs get loose with the ball or struggle to muster full energy after months of chasing the 1996 Bulls.

• MORE NBA: Grades for all 30 teams | SI's season awards | Playoff schedule

No. 2 Spurs vs. No. 7 Grizzlies: How does LaMarcus Aldridge look?

Aldridge has played at an All–NBA and All–Star level in his first season with the Spurs, but he does face some questions heading into the postseason.

First, he sustained a dislocated finger on his shooting hand during a loss to the Warriors last week. Will he be affected by the injury during what should be his best shot at a deep postseason run during his 10–year career?

Second, Aldridge struggled mightily against the Grizzlies during the 2015 playoffs, shooting just 33% from the field as his Blazers lost in the first round in five games. Historically, Zach Randolph, Memphis’s physical power forward and a former teammate of Aldridge’s in Portland, has succeeded in making Aldridge uncomfortable and limiting his effectiveness. The good news for Aldridge: San Antonio should be able to easily win the series, even if he loses his individual match-up. 

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