NBA Western Conference Playoffs Round 1: Can Suns hold off Lakers?

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James looks to pass versus the Phoenix Suns. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The NBA play-in tournaments are done, and the playoffs are here. But how will things play out now that the bracket’s set?

Here’s a closer look at each of the four Western Conference match-ups, with a pick for who’ll win each one.

(1) Utah Jazz vs. (8) Memphis Grizzlies

George Frey/AP

Let’s put a fine point on this: The Jazz were the NBA’s best regular-season team with a record of 52-20. They had a home record of 31-5. They employ the likely defensive player of the year in Rudy Gobert, the possible coach of the year in Quin Snyder, and two of the three finalists for sixth man of the year in Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles. They’ve also got Donovan Mitchell, who, though he may not be up for an award, is a threat to go for 40 every night.

Mitchell missed the final month of the season, but should be back for Sunday’s opener.

Meanwhile, the Grizzlies gutted out two must-win games against the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors to reach the playoffs. Second-year guard Ja Morant put up an incredible performance going head to head with Steph Curry Friday to will Memphis into the playoffs, and he leads what might be the league’s scrappiest team.

That said, the Grizzlies finished the season 38-34, good for ninth in the West, and in a normal year wouldn’t even have made it out of the regular season.

What’s more, in the three games these two teams faced each other this season, Utah won all three of them by an average of about eight points.

The other thing? Utah has been hanging out at home all week. The Grizzlies, as mentioned above, essentially played two Game 7s in two cities in three nights, and then had to hop on a plane to Utah.

And let’s go back to Gobert for a quick second. He’s going to earn the defensive player of the year award, because, according to FiveThirtyEight, he played well enough this season to win a defensive player of any year award. He dominated in all the advanced defensive metrics. And he more than passes the eye test every time he takes the floor, altering shots at the rim and deterring players from even thinking about taking them.

This season, Grizzlies centre (and former Toronto Raptor) Jonas Valanciunas averaged 17.1 points on 59.2 per cent shooting. In three games against the Jazz, he didn’t hit 17 once, and shot 43.9 per cent from the field. Gobert does that, and is very likely to do that in this series.

Prediction: Jazz in five.

(2) Phoenix Suns vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Man, what a bummer for Chris Paul. He was dealt in a big off-season trade in which a lot of people were talking more about his cap hit than his otherworldly basketball ability, helped turn a .466 win percentage Suns team into a .708 win percentage team and earn the No. 2 seed in an ever-brutal West, and got rewarded by facing … a totally healthy Los Angeles Lakers team that just so happens to be defending NBA champions.

I mean, who would you rather play — LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers, or the two teams who edged them out on tiebreaks in the standings with identical 42-30 records, the Trail Blazers and the Mavericks?

It’s hardly an insult to say you’d choose a non-LeBron option.

The Suns have been one of the best stories of the 2020–21 campaign. They finished the season with the sixth-best defensive rating and the seventh-best offensive rating in the NBA, one of just four teams to finish top 10 in both along with the Jazz, L.A. Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve got a balanced offensive attack that includes Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, and it all starts with Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time.

Paul played extremely well this season, and has played extremely well in the post-season throughout his career with averages of 20.9 points, 8.3 assists and 2.1 steals — but his teams haven’t been able to get over the hump. He managed to make the conference finals once in 2018, when he was with the Rockets, but that’s where the run ended. And his Hornets, Clippers and Thunder teams never got past the second round.

And in all that time (he’s played 109 playoff games), he’s never had to face LeBron (260 playoff games, just for reference).

As mentioned above, the Lakers finished the season just 42-30, a full nine games back of the Suns’ 51-21, but the caveats are well known. From my own Western Conference play-in preview:

[blockquote]On March 19, the defending NBA champs were 28-13 and sitting pretty in second in the West, seemingly cruising to a second-straight high seed in the NBA playoffs. Then, on March 20, James sprained his ankle and missed the team’s next 20 games, a period in which the team tumbled down the standings. Making matters worse, Anthony Davis also managed to suit up for just 36 games, leaving the team woefully undermanned during the aforementioned tumble.[/blockquote]

But now the Lakers have their full roster, and they’ve won six straight, including their come-from-behind play-in win over the Warriors on Wednesday.

They also boast the league’s best defensive rating, despite all that time missing their two stars.

Long story short: This is not the kind of middling team you expect to find in the seven-seed. This is a great team with a middling record due to injury, and who, let’s not forget, had just a 71-day off-season after putting the bow on their 2020 NBA championship on Oct. 11.

Not-fun fact for the Lakers: No seven-seed has ever made it to the NBA finals, let alone won them. But five seven-seeds have gotten out of the first round. And, based largely on the Lakers’ ceiling and pedigree (really not trying to knock the Suns here), this feels like a good chance to make it six.

Prediction: Lakers in six.

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Portland Trail Blazers

Steve Dykes/AP

Transport yourself, if you will, to an alternate timeline where Jamal Murray didn’t tear his left ACL on April 12. (Aside: It’s nice here, isn’t it?) Now think of this Nuggets-Blazers matchup. If it’s still me picking games in this alternate universe, I’m taking the Nuggets with home-court advantage in five or six, clapping the dust off my hands and moving on to Clippers-Mavs.

But now? With no Murray? This one’s a lot tougher to call.

It’s a contrast of strengths. The Blazers have the obvious advantage in the backcourt with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum facing off against Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets boast perhaps the biggest individual mismatch in the game in 2020–21 in likely MVP Nikola Jokic, who played all 72 games and maintained his insanely high level of play even after Murray went out and teams were able to key in on him even more. They also have a rising-star forward in Michael Porter Jr., who shone in his first season as a regular starter with averages of 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds.

Looking at the season series isn’t all the instructive here. The Nuggets won Feb. 23 with Murray in the lineup, the two played to a virtual stalemate in April after Murray’s injury with Denver eking out a one-point victory, and then the Blazers blew the doors off the Nuggets in a final-night-of-the-season game that was a “must win” for them and a “who cares?” for their opponents. Denver didn’t even bring its starters back for the second half.

The Blazers enter the playoffs on a super-hot streak, with 10 wins in their final 12 games, but it’s not like the Nuggets were dogging it — they won 13 of their last 18, and did it despite resting players not named Jokic down the stretch. Even Campazzo got a night off.

For me, this comes down to one question: Who has the better chance of slowing down the other team’s stars? And I think the answer to that is the Blazers. Jusuf Nurkic is a decent enough foil for Jokic (though the latter did go off for 21 points in the 17 minutes he played in the regular-season finale), and former Raptor Norman Powell and Robert Covington can help make things difficult for Porter and former Orlando Magic(ian?) Aaron Gordon. But Denver has zero answer for Lillard and McCollum.

I feel like this is going the distance, and I feel like Portland takes it.

Prediction: Blazers in seven.

(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Dallas Mavericks

Ashley Landis/AP

Second verse, same as the first?

These two teams met in the first round of the 2020 bubble playoffs, with the Clippers taking a 4–2 series victory before bowing out earlier than expected to the Nuggets.

But a lot has changed since then. Out for the Clippers are head coach Doc Rivers (76ers), as well as Montrezl Harrell (Lakers), Lou Williams (Hawks) and Jamychal Green (Nuggets). In are Tyronn Lue, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum and Rajon Rondo. That said, the core of the team is still the same in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Leonard relatively quietly put up another banner year with 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game, and, after a difficult time on and off the court in the bubble last year, George nearly matched him with 23.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists of his own. (Kinda spooky, right? Their two best swingmen are separated in the big three stats by 1.5 points, 0.1 rebounds, and 0.0 assists? Of course they are.)

On the other side of this matchup, Luka Doncic enjoyed another stellar season that included going for 42+ points three times in a five-game stretch back in February. On the season, he averaged 27.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.6 assists, numbers that pale in comparison only to the ones he put up last year (28.8/9.4/8.8). He didn’t make the list of MVP finalists (losing out to Jokic, Curry and Joel Embiid), but he’s a top-five candidate without a doubt.

His main sidekick, Kristaps Porzingis, posted 20.1 points per game in 43 games, and enters the post-season healthy, which is key for the Mavs. In last year’s series, he played well over three games before injuring his knee and missing the final three.

It’s particularly important Porzingis stay healthy because there’s a depth disparity between these two teams. While the Clippers can lean on the talent and championship-level playoff experience of the likes of Ibaka and Rondo (who each won a ring the last two seasons), the Mavs are counting on a cast of solid role players who can’t say the same.

As for the season series, the Mavs won two of three games, but that includes a Dec. 27 game that Leonard missed and the Mavs won by 51 that has “freak occurrence” written all over it. The Mavs finished 8-2 in the final 10 as the fought for playoff position and tried to avoid the play-in, and the Clippers finished 4-6 as their position was never in doubt.

Despite that last paragraph, this still feels like the Clippers’ series to lose. They’ve got top-end talent to match Doncic and championship experience. Meanwhile, Mavs bench boss Rick Carlisle is a great coach and has a fantastic franchise player to lean on, but it just feels like he has less depth and therefore fewer counter moves at his disposal.

Prediction: Clippers in six.


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