Los Angeles Lakers
The key: Non-superstars step up
Lebron James can make almost any team a title contender. When you give him Anthony Davis and a whole cast of talented and experienced veterans, that team becomes a title favorite. Lebron and AD can only do so much though. The rest of the team needs to continue to contribute. Danny Green hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, though he’s still been solid, and Kyle Kuzma has been too inconsistent, but the rest of the roster has been more than pulling its weight. This cannot change in the playoffs. Especially without Avery Bradley and a few weeks without Rondo, the Lakers need contributions from all around. The late season additions of Dion Waiters and JR Smith might suddenly be relied on more than anticipated, while bench players such as Alex Caruso and Quinn Cook might be playing a lot more minutes than they did during the regular season. Lebron and AD will put the Lakers in every position to succeed, but it will be up to the role players to deliver a title.
Los Angeles Clippers
The key: Don’t get cute
Title favorites going into the season, the Clippers need to get it done now. Marcus Morris and Montrezl Harrell will be free agents after this season. Lou Williams will be next season, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George the year after that. Considering this short window and that the Clippers sold their future for the next decade to get George and Morris, anything less than a championship would be a failure. Luckily, they are built to win right now. One of the best duos in the league, some of the best depth in the league, a great head coach, and some of the best defense in the league almost always ends with a deep playoff run. They should know, however, that there are two other teams that have all these characteristics as well, so by no means are the Clippers a shoo-in for the championship. Getting complacent, or “cute” (such as going to a strip club during a pandemic and missing two games), would be the worst thing for them. The Clippers have everything they need, but they should know that nothing in the NBA is guaranteed.
The key: Don’t get lazy
The Nuggets are one of the NBA’s best teams and they have a real shot of making the finals. This is reflected by their quality wins over the league’s best teams, including the Bucks, Lakers, Clippers, Celtics, Raptors, Heat, 76ers, and others. Despite the championship potential, this Denver team has a tendency to get lazy against teams they are expected to beat. They have lost to the Hawks, Kings, Wizards, Cavaliers (twice), Warriors, Pistons, and other non-playoff teams. Whether they came into the game underestimating their opponents or simply not executing, it can’t happen during the playoffs. It will be hard enough beating the Clippers and Lakers in the next rounds. The last thing Denver needs is to find themselves in a game 7 against a team they were supposed to beat in 5. The Nuggets have the potential to win the West if they are completely locked in on what they need to accomplish.
The key: Efficiency
The Rockets are at their best when they are efficient shooters. Both James Harden and Russell Westbrook know that they won’t win if they both go 8/30 from the field with 35 points each. They also know if they take good shots, get their teammates involved, don’t force anything, and continue to be a matchup nightmare, they can win the West. Not that the results have shown this, but the Harden/Westbrook duo could be the best backcourt we have ever seen. They are each capable of going on insane stretches of games, they just need to be able to translate those personal stretches into team success. The Rockets are one of the few teams in the league who can beat any team in a 7 game series thanks to their killer backcourt. It will be no easy task, but they need to play to each other’s strengths, not try to carry the team themselves, and hope they don’t have to play the giant Nuggets in the playoffs. Even if they do, it has been proven extremely difficult to stop an efficient James Harden and Russell Westbroook.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The key: Utilize the depth
No one expected the Thunder to be in the postseason, let alone be a top five seed in the West. After trading superstars Russell Westbrook and Paul George, almost everyone labeled them as a rebuilding team without postseason hopes. However, Coach of the Year Billy Donovan and the Thunder have proved that it’s possible to rebuild and contend at the same time. In addition to Chris Paul continuing to fend off Father Time to have a career year, what got OKC into this position was their surprising depth. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has established himself as one of the best young players in the league. Luguentz Dort has blossomed into a fantastic defender. They have made the starting five, which also includes Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, who have each had great seasons, into a great first unit. The second unit has 6th Man of the Year candidate Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel. Underrated players who have shown out at various times this season include Darious Bazley, Himidou Diallo, and Terrance Ferguson. With them and former top shooting guard Andre Roberson joining the team for the bubble and playoffs, few teams in the league can match the overall depth that the Thunder have, and it will be a huge strength in the playoffs.
The key: Win matchups defensively
The Jazz are lucky that they have the best defensive center in the league and the Nuggets’ best player is a center. Not that this has mattered much this season. Denver is 3-0 against Utah this year and Nikola Jokic has scored 28, 30, and 30 points on Utah in those games. Utah’s championship hopes took a huge hit when second leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic had hand surgery during the NBA hiatus and won’t be returning this season. Mike Conley leaving the bubble for the birth of his son doesn’t help the Jazz’s chances either. What does help them, however, is the potential individual matchups. Of all the players that can hope to contain Jokic, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert has a better chance of doing so than most. The Jazz are tied for the 12th best defensive rating in the league with Gobert’s excellent defense and Mitchell’s and Ingles’ solid defense. Hoping to lockdown the opponent’s best player and letting Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson carry the load offensively, similar to what the Miami Heat do, is Utah’s best bet at upsetting the Nuggets and shocking the rest of the league in the playoffs.
The key: Close out games
The Mavericks seem to be that team that wouldn’t be surprising to see in the finals but also wouldn’t be surprising to see be eliminated in the first round. Luka Doncic alone will keep Dallas in every game, even against the Clippers, and Kristaps Porzingis and the rest of the supporting cast might help Doncic out every so often. But playing competitive basketball and losing by only 3 points to a top team in the league every game won’t cut it during the playoffs. The Mavericks need to figure out how to win games when they’re not blowing the other team out. The Los Angeles Clippers are not a team that will be blown out in the playoffs. Luka Doncic has not been nearly as efficient in crunch time as the Mavs hoped he would be, but he’ll have to make clutch shots against Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers in order to win the series. Dallas has the pure talent to beat LA, but they’ll need to make shots and get stops when it matters.
The key: Keep it going
The two things that are giving the Trailblazers life, other than Damian Lillard, are their momentum and their health. Had Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins been healthy all year, or even most of the year, Portland would probably be a top 4-5 seed right now. But in a way, the injuries have helped them in the sense that they were forced to become a better team to fight for the 8 seed. And now that they have that 8 seed, the Trailblazers have more momentum than any (remaining) team in the league. On top of that, they get their injured big men back. They’ve been playing great basketball no matter who their opponent is because they’ve had tunnel vision to get to the playoffs by any means necessary. Lillard and company need to keep this exact same energy and shift their focus to winning it all. Beating the 1st seed Los Angeles Lakers is unlikely, but this Portland team is one of the best 8 seeds in recent memory. The Trailblazers have the mentality and now the health to make history.