Now that the Los Angeles Clippers have dispatched the Dallas Mavericks in seven games, the first round of the NBA playoffs is in the books. And thanks to the Phoenix Suns, the Western Conference will officially have a non-Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors representative for the first time since 2014.
Long story short: If it wasn’t already clear this is a unique season, it should very much be now.
Here’s a closer look at the two Western Conference semi-finals match-ups, with a pick for who’ll win each one.
(1) Utah Jazz vs. (4) Los Angeles Clippers
AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo
It’s really hard to control your own narrative. Exhibit A on this front: the Los Angeles Clippers. They play in one of the NBA’s most impressive markets; they finished the regular season with the NBA’s second-best net rating; they employ two of the NBA’s best two-way players in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who both had strong seasons and were entering the playoffs healthy.
And yet nobody was talking about any of that ahead of the first round. Instead, all the talk was about how they’d tried to dodge a first-round match-up with the Lakers. Then, after they fell behind the Mavericks 3–2 in said first round, it was about how they were cooked heading into an off-season where Leonard can opt out.
So where are we now? Well, the Clippers won the final two games of the series in dramatic fashion, with Leonard looking every bit the player who’s twice won NBA Finals MVP. In those two win-or-go-home games, he averaged 36.5 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals, on 70 per cent (!) shooting from the field, 50 per cent from three (!!) and 100 per cent from the line (!!!). He also turned the ball over a total of just four times.
Better basketball is basically impossible to play.
Now the Clippers stand as a legitimately underrated team. Despite their struggles keeping Luka Doncic in check and the three losses they racked up against him, on paper they’re better than their 2019–20 selves who were title favourites before inexplicably flaming out versus the Nuggets in the second round. So why aren’t they title favourites now?
Well, let’s start with their second-round opponents. Remember above where I said the Clippers had the league’s second-best net rating? Well, the Utah Jazz had the best one, finishing third in defensive rating (giving up 107.5 points per 100 possessions) and fourth in offensive rating (scoring 116.5 points per 100).
After shaking off the rust of their off week and dropping Game 1 of their first-round series to the Memphis Grizzlies, they steamrolled to four straight wins with an average margin of victory of 11.3 points. That four-game run also coincided with the return of lead guard and main offensive threat Donovan Mitchell, who missed 17 games in all with a sprained ankle. Mitchell averaged 28.5 points on 46 per cent shooting in his four games versus Memphis.
The Jazz, of course, also feature the NBA’s best defensive player in Rudy Gobert. In Round 1, Gobert refused to let Grizzlies bigs Jonas Valanciunas and Jaren Jackson Jr. go off, and added 17.4 points, 13 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in just over 32 minutes per game.
In countering the NBA’s regular-season juggernaut, the Clippers will inevitably go small as they did in trying to stop Doncic last round. The goal will be to take Gobert away from the rim on the defensive end by making him guard on the perimeter, and hinder Jazz pick-and-rolls by switching everything when they’re on offence.
In the regular season, not a whole lot worked for L.A. in the match-up. Utah won two of three, with their only loss coming thanks in part to a vintage 19-point bench performance from Lou Williams, who is no longer with the team.
It’s hard to overlook the Clippers while Leonard is playing this well, and there’s no doubt in my mind this will be a tight series. But this Jazz team has been locked in from Day 1 of the season, they’ve got their star offensive focal point back, and their defensive anchor is rolling. Even if Leonard goes off in another series-deciding game, Utah has the ability to limit the Clippers’ other contributors, and get buckets of their own.
Prediction: Jazz in seven.
(2) Phoenix Suns vs. (3) Denver Nuggets
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri
No, as mentioned at the top of this story, neither of these teams has ever won an NBA title. But neither of them is making a surprise appearance here.
As a franchise, Phoenix has been stellar since the return to play in the bubble last year, where they went undefeated but missed the playoffs by a hair. Then they got Chris Paul in the off-season, and he brought a new level of leadership and veteran smarts to a team with a strong young core of Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges.
They finished the regular season with the league’s second-best record at 51-21, and bench boss Monty Williams has already won one end-of-season coaching award with another potentially on the way.
In the first round, Booker went off for nearly 30 points per game, pouring in 47 in the close-out Game 6. And Ayton had a coming-out party through four games (averaging 19.8 points and 13.5 rebounds) before finally slowing down in the Suns’ final two relatively easy wins.
But the 4–2 first-round win wasn’t as easy as it seems on its face. After Paul suffered a shoulder contusion in Game 1 that limited his impact, the Lakers went up 2–1 and were going punch for punch with Phoenix in a huge Game 4 before star and second-best player Anthony Davis went down with a groin strain just before the half. From that point, it was all Suns. They won, but there is a big “What if...?” here.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, made it even further than this as recently as last summer. And this year, they actually have a similar story to the Lakers, the team that bounced them in 2020 — only with all the words jumbled up.
To wit: They lost their star and second-best player in Jamal Murray down the stretch of the regular season ... only somehow, magically, they haven’t missed the beat many expected them to. They finished the regular season strong and managed to contain Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Co. enough to win in six games.
They accomplished the feat by leaning on the NBA’s sure-fire 2020–21 MVP, Nikola Jokic, who averaged 33 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. He shot 53.4 per cent from the field and 43.1 per cent from three, and he’s the big man you least want to put on the line down the stretch because he was good for 85.4 per cent from there in Round 1 as well.
He’s been too smart, too crafty, and too good a passer to slow down with double teams, and he’s been getting a good amount of help from burgeoning No. 2 Michael Porter Jr. The 22-year-old forward went for 25 or more three times in six games against Portland, including back-to-back 26-point efforts to help close out the series.
In the regular season, Denver won two of the three games these two played, with both victories coming in overtime in a January back-to-back. So ... not a whole lot to learn there.
Getting down to it: The Suns are healthier the Nuggets, own a major backcourt mismatch, and, perhaps most importantly, are a much better defensive team than the Blazers. Whereas the Suns had the sixth-best defensive rating in the NBA this season, the Trail Blazers were all the way down at the bottom of the ladder at 29th.
While I don’t think there’s a true answer for Jokic right now, and he’s good enough to steal two or even three games, I don’t see he and Porter getting four against a deep, balanced Suns team with home-court advantage.
Prediction: Suns in seven.