After an enthralling first round of playoff action and a few surprises, the second round of games for the Western Conference is finally here. We know with the Lakers OUT, there will be a new team crowned as Western Conference champions, but who?
(1) Utah Jazz vs (4) Los Angeles Clippers
Probably the least hyped-up series between the two Western ones, Utah and LA should be a fun one if both teams stick to what got them in their seeds. From the start of the playoffs, Utah never really got any love from anyone aside from maybe their fans. They went down in the series after a gutsy win by Memphis, but after that loss, they won 4 straight to seal the series. The Clippers have a lot to prove after almost being bounced by Luka Doncic and the Mavs. They looked out of it during some games, and then showed up for others and when it mattered most. It should be a lot closer of a series than many may speculate, but it is a hard one to choose from.
Utah has a lot to prove here. As I mentioned before, a lot of people have heavily criticized the Jazz, and not a lot have them winning this series despite the lackluster performance from the Clippers. They had an excellent series as a team, where they rebounded the ball extremely well against one of the premier rebounding teams in the league. In fact, they are the second-best rebounding team left in the playoffs, trailing only Milwaukee. They averaged 123 points a game thanks to great scoring from their guys. Spida Mitchell averaged just over 28 points a game along with around 5 assists. The 6th Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson did his thing and averaged around 28 points off the bench. Bogdanovic also chipped in 18 points a game on 49% shooting. Mike Conley and Gobert also pitched in with 17 points a game each. We know this team can score, and they have the players to put up numbers. They need to step up on defense and extend their defenders to the perimeter because the Clippers are the best 3 point shooting team in terms of percentage on the season. Utah has to play gritty and not allow Kawhi or Paul George to get hot. They need to continue to dominate the boards and the paint and have one of the second guys step up. Last series I guessed Bogdanovic, this series I am leaning towards a nice series by Conley.
The Clippers have everything to lose in this series, and that makes them dangerous. A series loss here can mean the end of the Kawhi era in LA, and it could also prove Doc Rivers was never the problem. When they needed someone to step up, Kawhi proved why he is one of the best players on the planet. Leonard was in his BAG this series, averaging 32 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2 steals, a block, all on over 60% shooting (42% from 3). He is easily the biggest factor in the series for LA, but if he doesn’t have someone to help him they are in trouble. The Clippers need to go for rebounds this game, especially offensive ones. They rank 3rd to last among playoff teams in offensive rebounds, and against the best rebounding team in the league, second-chance points can easily be the biggest difference-maker. Defensively speaking, they cannot let Utah get their way on offense. They rank second in the playoffs in FG% as well as 4th in 3-point percentage, which is why they are second in total PPG this postseason. LA has to lock in defensively because as much as the Jazz are overlooked, they can definitely, and will definitely, make you pay for any lack of coverage on defense.
The biggest question on this series is the Clippers and their chemistry. It seems every series these guys play, they aren’t all in it together. Watching them play the Mavs showed how difficult it was for them to communicate and trust one another. You’d think adding leaders like Rondo would mean the locker room would be more united, and that may just be the only thing holding the Clippers back. If they can put their egos aside and prove they have chemistry, it is their series to lose. For Utah, the pressure of being the 1 seed is definitely a real thing. They have home court advantage, but are playing the 3rd best road team in the league. It may very well be another 7-game series, and I am eager to see if the Jazz have enough cool heads to stun the Clippers.
Prediction: Jazz win 4-2
(2) Phoenix Suns vs (3) Denver Nuggets
Perhaps the most entertaining matchup of the two, the Suns and Nuggets face off for a shot at a WCF spot. Phoenix got here after an inspiring series against the defending champion Lakers, where the Suns simply outplayed LA. Hot-shooting from Devin Booker, a solid series from Deandre Ayton, and a great ending for CP3 and company left fans wanting more. The MVP favorite Nikola Jokic and his Nuggets played a solid, scrappy, and high scoring series against Damian Lillard and his Blazers. With Jamal Murray out, Denver needed people to step up, and it seemed each game they had a different Robin to Jokic’s Batman. This series is definitely going to be fun to watch and should be a lot closer than the last one these teams played.
Phoenix is easily the hottest team entering this matchup. Both teams won to get here, of course, but the Suns dethroned the Lakers with a young team and an injured Chris Paul for most of it. When they needed a guard to step up for Paul, Cameron Payne was up to bat. He averaged over 12 points, shooting just over 42% from 3. Players like Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder brought that tenacity on defense, but it’s going to take a group effort to stop Jokic and the Nuggets. All season, the Suns have been top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and proved that to be true after an amazing effort on both sides of the floor in their 6-game series. Devin Booker HAS to continue his white-hot playoff performance to give the Suns a boost early on here. Booker averaged 29 points, 6 boards, 5 assists, on 48% shooting and 42% from 3. He’s clearly the difference-maker for Phoenix in his first-ever postseason. It just looks like he was born for this moment and if that run continues, it will look very favorable for the Suns. Phoenix needs to let Book cook, and they also need to stop Jokic. He averaged well over 30 points, and he also had help. Aside from Jokic, 4 other players averaged double-digit points per game. The Suns need to play better defense and try to make it a shooting series. If they do that and continue their ridiculous shooting from the last couple of games, it might be over before it starts.
Denver showed exactly what they are made of in their series against Portland. When they needed someone to come in and help Jokic with the absence of Murray, they got it EACH game. Jokic had his way, averaging 33 points, 10 boards, and over 4 assists to go with 52% shooting. We know what he is capable of, but now we know what the rest of Denver is capable of. Michael Porter Jr scored over 18 points on 53% shooting and he had a huge first quarter in game 6 versus Portland. MPJ scored 22 points (most in the first quarter in the last 25 years) and hit SIX 3s, which ties the record for most in any quarter in the postseason ALL TIME. Monte Morris also did his thing off the bench, averaging 15 points on 44% shooting. Aaron Gordon and Austin Rivers are also the last two, double-digit scorers for Denver in that series. To stop Phoenix, the Nuggets need to stop them from getting hot. In the last two games against LA, the Suns started off explosive, hitting high percentage shots before jumping out to 20-30 point leads. Defensively, the Nuggets need to be superior and offensively they need to continue from their Portland series. It will be a tough matchup, especially if it becomes a shootout, but the Nuggets have the keys to win.
Phoenix v Denver will definitely be a tough series and it is clear to see why. Phoenix definitely has the home court advantage, especially with the amount of fans allowed in the arena. Denver has the MVP season from Nikola Jokic as well as impressive performances from the next guys up. I can easily see this series going to 7 with crazy finishes for most of the games. In the end, however, I see Phoenix pulling this one out barring any injuries. Chris Paul is going to get in his bag while DBook is already in his. Denver will put up a fight and I won’t be surprised if they shock everyone, but it is Phoenix’s series to lose.
Prediction: Suns win 4-3