CHICAGO - After 2,460 regular season games, an exhaustive journey that began last winter and ended in early spring, the annual ritual that basketball lovers all over the world look forward to this time of year has finally arrived - the NBA playoffs.
Here's my take of the opening round match-ups in the Western Conference.
No.1 Rockets vs. No.8 Timberwolves
The Rockets are pretty damn good. They topped the regular season with a 65-17 record. Their offense squirts 112.4 points a contest, No.2 overall. And they led the league in most 3-point shots made at 1,256 for a staggering 15.3 a game clip.
At age 32, with a checkered playoffs past, Chris Paul finally has a realistic chance at winning an NBA title. Rejuvenated after leaving the god-forsaken Clippers last summer, Paul is whipping 18.6 points and 7.9 dimes per while making 46 percent of his shots.
Then there's James Harden, the bearded cross-over wonder who is this season's likely MVP. Although he has his own playoffs ghosts to exorcise, just like CP3, Harden is having the time of his life with a 30.4 points and 8.8 assists per game average.
The Timberwolves are a feel-good story, a franchise that ended a 13-year postseason drought with a dramatic overtime win over the Denver Nuggets in the final day of the regular season. They are a solid offensive team with Jimmy Butler, Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins combining for 61.2 points per game.
But its their 17th-ranked defense, the one that allows 107.3 points a game, that will doom them.
Rockets in 5.
No.2 Warriors vs. No.7 Spurs
The poise, discipline, game-planning and championship mettle of coach Gregg Popovich will make the Spurs competitive throughout the series. But minus his best player and best defender - Kawhi Leonard - San Antonio can only do so much. As the saying goes, a good sauce cannot save a bad noodle.
Ravaged by injuries throughout a challenging season, Golden State somehow put together 58 wins while remaining the NBA's No.1 offensive team at 115.3 points per.
Even without Steph Curry and his 26.4 points per game, the Warriors have enough firepower in Kevin Durant (26.4 per), Klay Thompson (20 per) and Draymond Green (11 points and 7.6 rebounds per). The Warriors are 29-12 at the Oracle Arena while the Spurs were 14-27 on the road during the regular season. Go figure.
Norming 23.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per, LaMarcus Aldridge is playing out of his mind. But there's simply not enough consistent scoring help to carry the day. Manu Ginobili is 40, Tony Parker is 35, and the Spurs' young turks are not quite ready for prime time.
Warriors in 5.
No.3 Blazers vs. No. 6 Pelicans
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum combine for 48.3 points and 10 assists per game, making them one of the NBA's most potent backcourt tandems. According to Second Spectrum, they run a combined 5.1 miles a game.
So the question is: Can the Pelicans catch up?
I say no.
Anthony Davis (28.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per) has carried New Orleans on his back since DeMarcus Cousins blew out his Achilles last January. Jrue Holiday (19 ppg) has been steady at the point while Nikola Mirotic (14.6 ppg) has done his fair share.
But the Pelicans, whose defense is 29th in the NBA for allowing 110.4 points per, just don't have enough horses to outpace the Blazers.
Portland in 6.
No.4 Thunder vs No.5 Jazz
Donovan Mitchell is a stud who averages 20.5 points a game while breaking the rookie record for 3s made in a season with 187. Another reason why the Jazz are so dangerous is the fact that they have six other guys averaging in double figures in points.
Utah is also exceptionally well-coached by Quin Synder and their center, the 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert, who is known as The French Rejection, is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
After a slow start, the Jazz have been playing beautiful music of late, but their playoffs inexperience will make the notes sour.
However, Russell Westbrook is the man, averaging a historic triple-double (25.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 10.3 assists) for the second consecutive season. Paul George is a reliable sidekick while Carmelo Anthony has settled in as a third option.
Too much talent. Too much experience. Too much Thunder.
OKC in 6.
MITCHELL MISFIRE. Donovan Mitchell has scored a ton of points this season, 1,616 to be exact. But when it comes to his push for Rookie of the Year, the 21-year old is missing one big point.
Instead of furthering his cause by arguing that he is doing much more with way less talented teammates, Mitchell is throwing a shade at Ben Simmons for sitting out the first season of his NBA career with a fractured right foot.
Now, that's a bad rookie move, pun intended.
You see, in the eyes of the NBA, a player is a rookie until he plays his first game. That rule, which has been in place long before Mitchell entered the league, should not be held against Simmons. In fact, Blake Griffin, who won Rookie of the Year in 2011, was under similar circumstances.
Mitchell's apologists do have a point that Simmons benefited from a year's worth of practicing with NBA players, getting sage advice from topnotch coaches and the whole other menutia of NBA life - nutrition, travel, treatment, etc.
But at the end of the day, Ben Simmons needed to parlay that knowledge into performance. And he did, with flying colors, averaging 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.2 assists in 81 games.
I like Mitchell's hoodies, but I like Ben's nearly triple-double goodies on the floor way better.