NBA Western Conference Playoffs Round 1: Intriguing matchups abound

The Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard drives past the Dallas Mavericks' Jalen Brunson (13) and Luka Doncic, right, during the first half of a pre-season game in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Monday will mark the NBA playoffs’ return, the start of what promises to be a near two-month high after COVID-19 plundered our day-to-day lives and threatened the season as a whole back in March. It will will be a moment where we’ll see stars turn the unimaginable into highlight-reel moments.

To kick things off, the Western Conference features some first-round matchups more interesting and competitive than you might normally find. Here’s a closer look at each series.

(1) Lakers vs. (8) Blazers

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis, right, dribbles past Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum. (Craig Mitchelldyer/AP)

Capturing Damian Lillard‘s post-restart magic with mere numbers or words is akin to photographing the moon — an outline will appear, a rendering of what is irrefutably the rock orbiting earth, and it will come up short at conveying how it feels to sit there looking at the sky in real-time.

Over his nine games in Orlando so far — each of them carrying the must-win weight of a Game 7 — Lillard scored 40-plus points more often than he scored fewer than 30, including back-to-back-to-back performances of 51, 61 and 42, respectively. The sheer volume of offensive production was staggering, and made all the more impressive by the surgical efficiency that produced it, as Lillard flirted with 50-40-90 shooting splits during the Portland Trail Blazers‘ defiant sprint to the post-season.

“‘What you about to see me do, you ain’t never seen in your life,'” Nassir Little, a rookie on the Trail Blazers, recalled Lillard saying seven months ago. “‘We making these playoffs.'”

Any prediction from seven months ago — from the pre-COVID-19 era — coming to be borders on a miracle, and while the heights of the Trail Blazers’ ceiling and the depths of its floor will be shaped by Lillard, he did not pull off the unthinkable alone.

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Jusuf Nurkic returned after nearly a year of rehabbing a broken leg and didn’t miss a step, capping a string of consistent two-way performances with an inspired 22-point, 21-rebound, six-assist explosion in Portland’s play-in game — the same day he learned his grandmother died from COVID-19-related complications. CJ McCollum, playing through a non-displaced fracture in his back, averaged over 20 points per game. Carmelo Anthony, defier of Father Time, connected on 46.9 per cent of his three-point attempts.

All this took place as the Los Angeles Lakers stumbled through the bubble. The Lakers went 3-5 in the seeding round, posting the 12th-best defence and 20th-best offence as they fell backwards into securing the No. 1 seed in the conference. With no Avery Bradley, who opted out of the restart, some combination of Alex Caruso, Danny Green or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will likely be tasked with the initial coverage of Lillard — which is to say, Lillard’s supernova could very well continue.

If there’s a single remedy for Los Angeles’ offensive woes, though, exploiting Portland’s defence to create favourable match-ups for LeBron James — like attacking Anthony or McCollum on switches — is as close to surefire as they come. Nurkic has been great. Anthony Davis is objectively better at playing basketball. McCollum’s health, with only one day of rest between ever-more intense games, is an unsolvable problem and depth options for Portland are limited at best.

Add in the reality that part of Lillard’s magic — mesmerizing as it is — lies in prying Portland back from unreasonable deficits as the clock ticks closer to zero, and any temptation to conclude the Lakers’ lackadaisical restart and the Trail Blazers’ fever-pitch performances will yield a first-round upset should be fought against.

Eventually a team falls behind four times too many.

Prediction: Lakers in five.

(2) Clippers vs. (7) Mavericks

Kawhi-Leonard-Los-Angeles-Clippers
Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) sprints forward to the basket as Dallas Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10) defends in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The Dallas Mavericks averaged 125 points per game in the restart and own, statistically, the greatest offence in NBA history. The Los Angeles Clippers, featuring two all-world level wing players, may be the single best-equipped team in the Western Conference to stifle them.

Luka Doncic is a singular talent, one who — as a 21-year-old — averaged a 32-point triple-double throughout the Mavericks’ seeding games and from Game 1 of Round 1, that talent will be tested by one reigning Finals MVP and another four-time all-defensive player. The Clippers have the unique luxury of, on any given possession, being able to throw Kawhi Leonard or Paul George at Doncic. If that doesn’t do the trick, the ever-frustrating Patrick Beverley is right there, too.

The first three meetings between these teams went to the Clippers, despite Doncic still averaging 29 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in each — although those numbers come with an unsightly five turnovers as well. If the focus is limiting the Dallas-phenom, then the spotlight shifts to what Kristaps Porzingis can do.

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The first two games he played against the Clippers this year, he scored a total of 25 points on just over 27 per cent shooting from the floor. In the one and only post-pandemic match-up they’ve had, Porzingis dropped 30 points on 47.4 per cent shooting — right in line with his overall bubble averages. Dallas still lost when he delivered a stat line like that, but anything less will likely leave the Mavericks without even an avenue to a winning formula.

Los Angeles’ off-season gamble was simple: Leonard and George with complimentary pieces are enough to erase anything else. Since the restart, they’ve both connected on over 48 per cent of their long-range shots. For Leonard, that’s contributed to what would be a career-best 28.8 points per game — if sustained over a full season — and for George it’s helped yield a four-point increase on his per-game scoring totals.

Assuming Leonard’s leg and George’s shoulder hold up, the Mavericks’ most conceivable path to Round 2 is paved by simultaneous, transcendent performances from Doncic and Porzingis. Maybe that happens at least once. Banking on it happening four times in seven games wades into unreasonable territory — even in a year where the unthinkable has often found a way to occur.

Prediction: Clippers in five.

(3) Nuggets vs. (6) Jazz

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) drives around Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Nikola Jokic may one day be remembered as the greatest passing big-man of all-time. In the bubble, a new, lethal scoring threat for him to pass to on the Denver Nuggets emerged: Michael Porter Jr.

After missing all of last season with a back injury, Porter Jr. averaged a forgettable 7.5 points and 4.1 rebounds while shooting 42 per cent from three on just over two attempts per game pre-restart. Since the NBA returned those numbers soared to 22 points and 8.6 rebounds, all while maintaining the three-point efficiency on triple the attempts.

That may prove essential, as the Utah Jazz have as close to a foil for Jokic as can exist with Rudy Gobert — at least, they did before this season. Jokic flirted with averaging a 29-point triple-double against Gobert and the Jazz this season through one-of-a-kind post-moves and maximizing defensive switches, en route to a perfect 3-0 record for Denver.

But as much as Gobert’s defence on Jokic will help shape the series, Utah’s offensive execution may decide it. The Jazz only found one combination of players who clicked in the bubble, but those five outscored opponents by 30 points in 84 minutes of action, buoyed by resurgent play from Mike Conley and a massive up-tick in three-point attempts — averaging 42.1 during the restart, up from 34.4 in ‘The Before Times.’

The Nuggets allowed the second-most corner three-point attempts in the league this year; the Jazz hunt corner threes. It’s reductive to say that if Utah makes its shots they’ll book a ticket to Round 2. But it’s a factor that could swing any given game, or force Denver into an uncomfortable mid-series gameplan re-calibration.

Prediction: Nuggets in seven.

(4) Rockets vs. (5) Thunder

Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket as Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Houston. (Eric Christian Smith/AP)

Chris Paul versus the team that decided they couldn’t win with him; James Harden versus the organization that deemed him the least valuable of three future MVPs; Russell Westbrook versus the team that raised him from athletic rookie to polarizing triple-double machine.

Pick your point of view, the plot for the slow-burn story leading to this series has been in the works for at least a season, when the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Paul.

Conventional wisdom assumed the Thunder were entering a rebuild. Except that didn’t happen — they excelled. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took a quantum leap and entered the Most Improved Player discussion, Paul suffered no debilitating injuries and guided Oklahoma City through narrow wins with a surgeon’s steadiness, leading the NBA in clutch-scoring.

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Part of how Paul carved opposing defences all year was forcing switches through screens until he found a favourable big-man match-up to dominate. For Houston, a team that switches on defence without hesitation, that would prove problematic — if the Rockets still played with even a nominal big-man on their roster. But they don’t, opting instead to run an ultra-small lineup. On paper that could open the door for Steven Adams to eviscerate them on the offensive glass and tilt the court in the Thunder’s favour — if his relative lack of speed isn’t exploited on the defensive end.

The availability of Westbrook in this series looms over the Rockets, too. When he’ll make his playoff debut with Houston is unknown due to a strained right quad. Houston’s offence figures to suffer from his absence — when he’s not settling for long-range shots he’s still, at age 31, too athletic for most players to be comfortable guarding — as will its ability to slow down Dennis Schroeder, another Most Improved candidate on the Thunder this year.

Still, Houston’s success will be dictated by Harden more than any other single player on this team. Since the restart, he’s averaged an obscene 35.3 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.7 assists on 53.6 per cent shooting. The Thunder do not have a single player able to consistently shut him down — there aren’t many players on earth who can, period — despite allowing the third-fewest points per game among teams in Orlando, and will have to limit the non-Harden Rockets’ effectiveness to buy time for Paul to operate in the late-game.

Prediction: Thunder in seven.

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