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NBA playoff preview: Western Conference First Round

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(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers

The dynamic duo of Lebron James and Anthony Davis will face a red-hot Damian Lillard and a high-scoring Portland team. The Lakers won the season series 2-1. A 48-point performance from Lillard earned the Trailblazers their sole win. 

At 52-19, the Lakers sit atop the Western Conference, but one would be remiss not to mention their below-average form in the bubble. They opened with a two-point win in a thriller against the Clippers, but only managed a record of 3-5 overall. However, clinching the first seed in game three may have led to the Lakers playing at low intensity to avoid injury.

The Blazers earned their playoff spot with hard-fought victories, topped off by a 126-122 nail-biter against Memphis in the play-in game. Damian Lillard has been incredible, averaging 37.6 points and 9.6 assists per game in the bubble, including a three-game stretch where he scored 51, 61 and 42 points in three straight wins. His fantastic performances earned him Player of the Seeding Game honours. 

He has been supported scoring-wise by fellow guard CJ McCollum and forward Carmelo Anthony. The team is bolstered by the return of Jusuf Nurkić, who provides them with a solid inside presence averaging 17.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. The offense is firing on all cylinders, but Portland’s defense remains lackluster, ranking 27 in the league. 

Both teams can greatly exploit the other’s weaknesses. With Avery Bradley opting out, the Lakers lost their best perimeter defender, allowing Lillard to wreak havoc on that end. However, the Blazers lack a solid defensive wing to guard Lebron, who elevates his game during the post-season. 

Even if Lillard’s strong play continues, the combined star power of Lebron and Davis should allow the Lakers to win this series in six games. 

(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks

The monstrous defensive tandem of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George takes on a Mavericks team led by sensational sophomore Luka Dončić. The Clippers won the season series 3-0, with two 15-point victories. 

Expectations for the Clippers were high in October, due to the squad having two of the best two-way scoring wings in the league. Kawhi and George can both score with ease, averaging 27.1 and 21.5 points per game, respectively. 

Additionally, they provide lockdown defense on the other end, averaging 1.8 and 1.4 steals per game. The Clippers have more to offer than just star power, as their bench is led by two Sixth Man of the Year candidates in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Lastly, guard Patrick Beverly’s tendency to frustrate opponents defensively makes the Clippers a tough matchup for any team.

In his sophomore year, Luka Dončić has solidified himself as a top player in the league. His improvement from year one has been exponential, which is hard to fathom as he won Rookie of the Year last season. His 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game were enough to garner an All-Star nod and a Most Improved Player nomination. 

Dončić’s play, combined with Kristaps Porziņģis’s 20.4 points per game, has been instrumental in Dallas placing seventh. The Dallas offense is historically good, with the 115.9 offense rating being tied for all-time best. However, their defense fares far worse, ranked 18th. 

Despite Dallas’s high-powered offense, the Clippers are a nightmare matchup. With Kawhi and George stifling the point of attack, Dallas will have to be creative with their offensive schemes. Their historical offense may shift a game in their favour, but the Clippers defense will ensure this series ends in five games. 

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Utah Jazz

A battle of the giants, as seven-footer Nikola Jokić takes on Rudy Gobert, nicknamed the “Stifle Tower” for his towering defensive presence and French heritage. Denver won all three games in the season series, although every game was tightly contested. 

The Nuggets have been on a steady rise for the last few years, led by Jokić’s playmaking and Jamal Murray’s scoring. Jokić earned an All-Star nod for his season, averaging 19.9 points to go along with 9.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists, which is the highest in the league among big men. 

In the bubble, rookie Michael Porter Jr. has been a revelation, averaging 22 points over the seven games he played. His scoring adds a new dynamic to Denver, and may just be the missing piece. 

Donovan Mitchell leads the Jazz on offense, with Gobert deterring opponents on defense. Mitchell averaged 24.0 points per game for the Jazz, including a 35-point performance in the 2OT thriller against the Nuggets. Gobert is averaging 2.0 blocks per game and is in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, having won the award last season. 

The Jazz are missing a huge part of their offence in Bojan Bogdanović, who provided them with much needed spacing and 20.2 points per game. He is out for the season with a wrist injury. The Jazz hope to plug this hole in their offense with trade acquisition Jordan Clarkson, who had a 37-point outing against the Nuggets in January. 

The series appears to be a toss up, with Utah beating Denver in defensive rating by 1.1 points, whereas Denver tops Utah in offensive rating by 0.8 points. With Jokić and Gobert matching up quite evenly, the fate of the teams rests on Donovan Mitchell versus Jamal Murray. Much like the 2OT game, this series promises to be uncomfortably close, but the Nuggets, with Jokić, Murray and a better bench, should prevail in six games. 

(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder (OKC)

James Harden will play against his former teammate Chris Paul, whom the Rockets traded last summer for star point guard Russell Westbrook. Paul was traded due to injury concerns and a below average postseason performance, yet ironically it is Westbrook who will miss the start of the playoffs due to injury. The Thunder won the season series 2-1, but all games occurred before the Rockets February overhaul. 

The Rockets began the Harden and Westbrook experiment with a similar team composition to previous years, where they surrounded their guards with shooters and an explosive center in Clint Capela. The team struggled early on, with Capela clogging up the paint for Westbrook drives and Westbrook’s questionable shooting from three only increased the pressure on Harden during double teams. 

A change was clearly required, and GM Daryl Morey made a splash at the trade deadline. Houston went all in on “small ball”, dealing away Capela in exchange for Robert Covington, a defensive shooting wing. They opted for PJ Tucker at the centre position, pitting a 6’5” player against seven footers regularly found at the position. 

Astoundingly, the experiment has proven to be successful, with Harden and Westbrook having a myriad of space to operate. Harden averaged 34.3 points and won the scoring title, and Westbrook added 27.2 points per game, making them the highest-scoring duo ever. 

OKC was given a 0.2 per cent chance to make the playoffs. Chris Paul was not expected to make a large impact, but his fantastic stint as the team’s floor general earned him an All-Star spot, as he averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 assists per game. 

Sophomore Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, or SGA, has provided steady support with 19.0 points per game, and Sixth Man of the Year finalist Dennis Schroöder has been crucial off the bench. The three-guard lineup of Paul, SGA, and Schröder has been blistering, outscoring opponents by 28.6 points per 100 possessions. 

Westbrook’s absence provides a massive early advantage to the Thunder, as the Rockets lose an outstanding playmaker and the ability to rest Harden for an extended time. OKC’s defence can pressure Harden fearlessly, but the league-leading scorer will find ways to impact the game. OKC will capitalize early and hold on to their lead late in the series, besting the Rockets in seven games.

Uday Chhina

Photo: Creative Commons | RMTip21

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