The first round of the Western Conference Playoffs lived up to the hype, delivering great performances from stars along with two suspenseful series that went the full seven-game distance. The second round promises to be just as entertaining, with star studded matchups headlining both series.
(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (4) Houston Rockets
After a disappointing Game 1 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers regained their mojo by winning four straight games, with blowout victories in games two and four. The Rockets narrowly escaped a seven-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, with James Harden’s last-minute block being the deciding factor. Houston won the season series 2-1 against the Lakers, but lineup changes and injuries during those games render them less useful for making predictions.
The Lakers superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis was magnificent in round one. James averaged a triple double, scoring 27.4 points along with 10.2 rebounds and 10.2 assists per game. Davis was equally good, adding 29.8 points, 4.2 assists and 9.4 rebounds per game, including a 43-point outburst in the series clinching Game 5.
The same consistency is not a given for the Lakers role players. In Game 1, the team shot a dreadful 15.6 per cent from three-point range, making only five out of 32 shots. Danny Green is supposed to be the Lakers’ sharpshooter, but shot 25 per cent or less from three in three out of the five games. As a team, the Lakers shot 34.3 per cent, which ranked thirteenth out of 16 teams in the first round.
This lack of three-point shooting allows Houston’s defense to pack the paint on defense. However, the Lakers ranked third in two-point field goal percentage this season. Their dominance in the paint with bigs such as Javale McGee, Dwight Howard and Davis will be key against the small Rockets lineup which boasts a 6’5” PJ Tucker at the center position.
Defense is a vital part of the Lakers identity, as they ranked third in the league defensively during the season. However, the Rockets pose an interesting predicament due to their playstyle. Houston uses “small ball”, a system where the floor is spaced out with four shooters and James Harden or Russell Westbrook penetrating to the basket. This system allows the Rockets to either get a layup or force help defense, which leaves their shooters open in the corner.
If the Lakers continue employing two bigs on the floor, they sacrifice quickness on defense but may discourage drives by the ball handler. However, if they play into Houston’s strategy and only play Anthony Davis as the sole big, they will field quicker defenders but will risk more drives and potentially foul trouble for their best scorer.
Harden averaged 29.7 points against Oklahoma City Thunder, but Luguentz Dort’s defense was a key factor in limiting him from his regular season output of 34.3 points per game. Harden himself stated that “offensively, [he] played like sh*t” after Game 7 where he scored just 17 points. These struggles should subside in the second round, as the Lakers do not field a defender with the combination of size and quickness like Dort.
The x-factor in this series will be Westbrook. He returned from injury in Game 5 against the OKC, but struggled shooting-wise and has been playing on a minutes restriction. Regardless, his playmaking is crucial for the Rockets when Harden sits. In two games against the Lakers this season, Westbrook averaged 38.0 points and 6.0 assists. If he can replicate that level of play, the Laker defense will be under constant pressure.
Houston is the team with the highest ceiling and subsequently the lowest floor. “Moreyball”, a philosophy invented by Rockets GM Daryl Morey, optimizes the game by emphasizing close-range layups or three-point shots, but eliminates mid-range shots completely. This stubborn overreliance on three-point shots can lead to bad shooting nights being unsalvageable.
The Lakers have a clear team hierarchy, with James and Davis being the undisputed leaders. If both players are firing on all cylinders offensively, the Lakers are tough to defeat. Harden’s scoring coupled with inconsistent three-point shooting by the Lakers will lead to some losses. However, the Lakers ability to punish the Rockets’ size and their less variant offense should help them win the series in six games.
(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (3) Denver Nuggets
The Clippers defeated the Dallas Mavericks in six games, in a series where sophomore Luka Dončić established himself as a superstar. The Nuggets beat the Utah Jazz 80-78 in a tightly contested Game 7, becoming the twelfth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit. The season series between the Clippers and Nuggets was won 2-1 by the Clippers, including a 29-point blowout in February.
Reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard continued his remarkable post-season play against the Mavericks, averaging 32.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Kawhi is methodical on offense, dissecting defenses with his mid-range jumpshot. In the 10-to-14-foot range from the basket, he shot a ludicrous 83.3 per cent against Dallas. His ability to shoot threes, finish at the rim and score in the mid-range makes him an absolute force on offense.
The same cannot be said for Kawhi’s star teammate Paul George. George was rough for most of the series, scoring 15 or fewer points in four out of six games, including a woeful nine-point performance in Game 4, which was decided by a buzzer-beater from Dončić. George did have a standout Game 5 where he scored 35 points, but his inconsistency so far leaves much to be desired.
After falling down 3-1 to the Utah Jazz, the Nuggets’ chances of advancing were slim at best. However, a scintillating three-game stretch from Jamal Murray opened the door to the unlikely comeback. He averaged 47.3 points from games four to six, including a 50-point performance to secure a Game 7. Murray has always shown glimpses of greatness. However, maintaining this scorching form against a strong Clipper perimeter defence will be a challenge.
The Nuggets have one of the most unique players in the league in Nikola Jokić. As a “point-center”, his playmaking and passing ability as a big man is unmatched. He averaged 7.0 assists per game in the regular season, and was the only center in the top fifty. He can also score at a high rate, and averaged 26.3 points a game against two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
With the Clippers being thin at the center position, Jokić’s offensive performances will have a large impact on the series. However, the Nuggets defense ranked fourteenth in the first round and is the worst remaining defense in the playoffs. Utah guard Donovan Mitchell exploited Jokić’s poor pick-and-roll defense with ease, scoring 36.3 points per game. Denver struggled against a Utah offense that was ninth during the season, so the Clippers second-ranked offense poses serious problems.
Denver’s offense is in good hands with Jokić and Murray both having a hot hand in the first round. However, their defensive issues will be hard to ignore against a Clippers team that boasts more firepower than the Utah Jazz. Kawhi’s consistent dominance on both ends should allow the Clippers to win this series in six games.
Graphic: Anh Phan | Design Editor