With the play-in tournament finally over, the NBA Playoffs are finally here. What an end it was, with the Grizzlies stunning Steph and the Warriors to clinch the 8th seed after a gutsy OT win. Now that the Jazz have their opponent, the stage is set. Four exciting matchups await the Western conference, with the marquee series being the reigning champion Lakers taking on the Suns, a series that has been historically fun to watch.
(1) Jazz vs (8) Grizzlies
In a shock for fans around the world, Memphis showed the league that they are serious about the playoffs and clinched a spot after knocking off the Warriors in San Francisco. They are set to take on the most surprising team in the West, the first seeded Jazz. Mike Conley facing his former team should be a fun thing to see, and Utah will definitely appreciate his veteran expertise in these playoffs. It should be a rough matchup on the inside for Jonas Valanciunas and Memphis as reigning DPOY Rudy Gobert looks pretty in-form lately. Ja and Spida should make for an interesting clash as well.
The Jazz need to stick to their identity here in this matchup. They have a ton of pressure right now being the 1 seed and they have to prove to themselves as much as the league that they earned that spot. They sit at 4th in PPG and offensive rating while being 5th in 3 point percentage. They also are one of the better blocking teams averaging over 5 a game. Players like Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles give the Utah bench so much production night in and out and in a physical series, they need that. They have length inside as well and are top 5 in both offensive and defensive rebounding. Donovan Mitchell and Gobert are going to get most of the load, but the Jazz have players that can shine if need be. I have the sneaking suspicion that Bojan Bogdanovic is going to be the X Factor here…
Memphis has all the momentum in the world right now, and they need it. We know how great they are on the inside and we know how great they are passing the ball. Dillon Brooks is proving to be a premier defender and making his case for first team All-Defense. He is going to have to continue that from against the Jazz and the entire Grizzlies team have to step up too. They just proved they can shoot the 3 if need be, outshooting Steph and the Warriors. They have the best assist to turnover ratio in the league so they need to move the ball well and hit open shots when they come. Another big thing is that Ja proved he can step up when the lights are the brightest, dropping 35 for Memphis. They lack tremendous star power and they need everyone from their starters to role players to buy into a message.
Utah ultimately should win this series, but it won’t be as easy as people think. It should go to at least a game 6 but the offensive firepower and bench production the Jazz have will be the difference maker here. Memphis will prove they are a piece away from being legit, but for now it won’t be enough.
(2) Suns vs (7) Lakers
Easily the most intriguing matchup in the West, the Lakers take on a Phoenix team who look completely different since the arrival of Chris Paul. It marks the first time long-time friends LeBron James and Chris Paul meet in the postseason, and also marks the 13th playoff series between the Lakers and Suns. All-time, the Lakers have won 8 series compared to the 4 won by Phoenix, with the last series being a 4-2 win by LA in 2010, the last time the Suns were even in the playoffs.
Phoenix is lucky to start the series at home in front of their fans, who finally have a good team to cheer for. LA will be a pest on defense, but the Suns rank second in field goal percentage at 49% on the year (6th in 3 point percentage), and rank 7th in PPG at 115.3. What Phoenix lacks in defense, they have to make up in offense. They are second in assists and free throw percentages and can shoot lights out if need be. They need to set the tempo early and not let LA get into a defensive rhythm throughout the series if they want to go through to the next round and continue their incredible season.
The Lakers have all the momentum in the world right now after a nail-biter finish at Staples Center. In a game that they started sloppy in the first half, they forced over 15 turnovers in the second half to close the gap and beat Golden State. The Lakers may be 1-2 in the regular season against the Suns, but their last game against Phoenix was won by a 42 point outing by AD who led LA without LeBron or Kuzma playing. The Lakers need to shift their focus on the interior where Phoenix lacks strength and allowed over 55 points in their last 3 games (bottom 5 in the league). Trying to stop the team play of Phoenix may be hard, but LA has to force the Suns into bad shots which is something they aren’t accustomed to.
In the end, I do believe a healthy LA team takes this series in 6, like the last time these teams met in the postseason. I understand the Suns are playing high level basketball and are not gonna let up easily, but to think a healthy Laker team loses this series is insane. We know the Lakers aren’t 100% healthy despite what they are leading us to believe, but if they lock in defensively and utilize the mismatch in the paint, I don’t see that star power and bench losing this series.
(3) Nuggets vs (6) Blazers
This series is yet another matchup highlighted by two outstanding basketball players. Nikola Jokic and his Nuggets take on Damian Lillard and the Blazers in what should be a close series throughout. The biggest worry for Denver is the absence of Jamal Murray, and the uncertainty of who can fill in for his scoring and playmaking. For Portland, it’s their lack of defense and wing defenders. It should be a phonebooth fight game in and out, and I think the result will be surprising.
In order for Denver to win, they need to help Jokic out BIG TIME. They shoot the ball well sitting at 4th in team shooting percentages and 8th in three point percentage. They also can get everyone involved with their passing as they sit 6th in assists averaging over 26 a game. The issue here is that Jokic makes up so much of the Nuggets facilitation and in a series where he will be targeted and closely defended, someone needs to step up. In terms of scoring. That option is easily Michael Porter Jr who is averaging 19 in just his second season of actual play, but in terms of playmaking that is something Denver has to adapt to. Portland ranks second to last in defensive efficiency, so that defense HAS to be exploited early on.
Portland is in a weird spot here. Their defense is absolutely horrible, and easily their biggest problem throughout the season. Portland allows over 114 ppg which is 23rd in the league and the second worst among playoff teams. Yet their offense is just so good on all levels. If they want to win this series, they have to bump their defensive production and focus on their offense. They are second in offensive rating, 5th in ppg, 3rd in free throws, and 6th in 3 point percentage. They also are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league, where they rank 3rd on the entire season. If it’s a shootout, Portland has the weapons to let it rain. Dame and CJ are going to get most of the workload, but players like Powell, Nurkic, and Melo can easily be the difference makers in this series.
This series is a lot closer than presumed. I do see this going to 7 games where Portland snatches the series thanks to their team just being healthier. Denver is going to fight all the way through and Jokic is sure to have an incredible series. This game truly can go either way and I won’t be shocked if the Nuggets move on. For now though, I see Portland pulling the upset thanks to their insane offensive production which masks their defensive flaws.
(4) Clippers vs (5) Mavericks
The Clippers meet Luka Doncic and the Mavs yet again in the first round of the playoffs. In the bubble last season, a depleted Dallas team made it a tough series for LA but ultimately lost the series in 6 games despite playing without Porzingis since game 1 of that series. This year, the only player in doubt for the series for Dallas is C Maxi Kleber, but the rest of the team is ready to go. LA is coming off a weird end to their season which saw them lose to the 2 lowest seeds in the West. If anyone has momentum right now it’s Dallas, and they need that.
The Clippers have been a solid team all year. They are 4th in opponents points per game and 8th in defensive rating despite not being top 10 in steals, boards, or defensive rebounding. Their offense has also been super productive as they are the best 3 point shooting team at 41% this season. They also have the best free throw shooting team and rank 5th in overall field goal percentage. We know Kawhi Leonard lives for this kind of series and he should be the most productive Clipper on the court. Dallas ranks 21st in defensive rating so the Clips have to exploit that. LA needs to just focus on their shooting and try and not let Doncic start getting into a groove because when he’s on, so are the Mavs.
Dallas has to do a lot to move on to the next round. On one hand, we know that Paul George tends to underperform in the playoffs despite the season he’s had. We all don’t know what the chemistry in that Clippers locker room is like because last year as soon as the season ended, the entire league saw how much of a mess they were. They currently sit at 9th in offensive rating, but they need players aside Porzingis and Luka to step up. Jalen Brunson is easily this teams X factor because of how reliable he’s been off the bench. It’s going to take a team effort for Dallas but thankfully for them, their chemistry seems really solid.
I see this game going to 6 where LA takes home the win. In the end, despite the memes they get around this time and the uncertainty of their chemistry, no way that star power and bench depth loses to Dallas. The Mavericks won’t go down easily and they showed that last year, but I see the result being exactly the same. Luka will have a great series that reminds everyone how special he is, but it won’t be enough and that’s just because the Clippers are such a mismatch up and down the board.