NBA playoff predictions: 1 big question about each Western Conference series

The NBA playoffs are finally here, and they arrive with what appears to be a wide open race in the Western Conference. Yes, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are back again, but they enter the postseason as a No. 7 seed after needing to qualify through the play-in tournament. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have battled injuries all year, and there are several teams who think they have what it takes to dethrone the Lakers as conference champs.

The Los Angeles Clippers are back in the playoffs after blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets inside the bubble during last year’s playoffs. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George lead a team that will be one of the favorites to win it all, but they again have to go through Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks to start their playoff run.

The most enticing series of the first round might be Denver vs. the Portland Trail Blazers. These two teams played an instant classic seven-game series in 2019, and you know presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic and Blazers star Damian Lillard are ready to put on a show.

Now that the playoffs are finally here, we asked the SB Nation NBA communities to preview their team’s matchup by asking one big question about each series. The communities also gave their predictions on who will win the series, as did staffers Sabreena Merchant, Sydney Umeri, and Ricky O’Donnell.

No. 1 Jazz vs. No. 8 Grizzlies: Predictions and preview

  • Jazz 52-20 vs. Grizzlies 38-34
  • Offensive efficiency: Jazz 116.5 (4th) | Grizzlies 111.7 (15th)
  • Defensive efficiency: Jazz 107.5 (3rd) | Grizzlies 110.5 (7th)
  • Net rating: Jazz +9 (1st) | Grizzlies +1.2 (14th)
  • Season series: Jazz won 3-0. The Jazz swept the season series, but two of their wins were decided by four points or less.

Who is the most important player for your team in this series and why?

James Hansen of SLC Dunk: For Utah the most important player is Rudy Gobert. Gobert was the reason Utah had the #1 record in the league during the regular season and the Jazz need that dominance to carry over into the playoffs. Gobert’s ability to patrol the paint while also guarding his man will be the thing that gives the Jazz a chance to win every game. The narrative that Gobert gets played off the floor in the playoffs will be put to bed pretty quickly if Gobert does in the playoffs what he did all season.

Parker Fleming of Grizzly Bear Blues:

Ahead of the series, our Grizzlies community wrote:

Ja Morant rose to the occasion like no other, going toe-to-toe with a MVP finalist — one of the 10-15 greatest players of all time. As the national media clamors about Morant’s shooting, he made them when he count, drilling a career-best 5 three-pointer’s. No matter who was in front of him, he managed to find his way into the paint to get off that floater. He also locked in defensively (5 steals) by getting into passing lanes and staying aggressive on both ends of the floor.

The Grizzlies have a future superstar that is built for these moments, and he’s only going to continue adding to his legacy.

  • Prediction from Ricky O’Donnell: Jazz in 4.

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

No. 2 Suns vs. No. 7 Lakers: Predictions and preview

  • Suns 51-21 vs. Lakers 42-30
  • Offensive efficiency: Suns 116.3 (7th) | Lakers 109.8 (24th)
  • Defensive efficiency: Suns 110.4 (6th) | Lakers 106.8 (1st)
  • Net rating: Suns +5.9 (3rd) | Lakers +2.9 (8th)
  • Season series: Suns 2-1. Phoenix won the first two matchups, and the Lakers won in May.

The Lakers are the heavy favorites to win the series despite being a No. 7 seed going up against a No. 2 seed in Phoenix. What worries you most about the opposition going into this series?

Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen and Roll: If I was coaching the Lakers — which I’m not, so please stop tweeting me your suggestions for the center rotation — I would definitely be most afraid of Devin Booker as far as threats from the Suns go. Los Angeles should have enough big men to limit Deandre Ayton, and their corps of guards should be able to make life hell on Chris Paul over the course of a series, even if they obviously won’t stop him.

But while Booker isn’t huge at 6’6, he most reasonably approximates the type of big wings the Lakers have most frequently struggled with this season, and they don’t necessarily have a perfect matchup for him. Wesley Matthews and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are both good options, but I’d be much more confident in Alex Caruso, Dennis Schröder and Caldwell-Pope slowing the smaller Paul than I am of the Lakers making things quite as hellaciously difficult on Booker. The offensive end and the Lakers’ health concern me most in this series, but if we’re picking Suns threats, Booker is the one I’d most fear. I’m confident they can win this series relatively handily if healthy because of their matchup advantages in AD and LeBron, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Booker has one or two big games.

Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun: Well obviously what worries me are Anthony Davis and LeBron James, two of the top five players in the NBA when they are healthy. Even playing a little slow on Wednesday, Bron posted a triple double and drained a half-blind 34 footer to seal the win. So that’s a worry. A big worry. And two weeks ago, without Bron there, Anthony Davis dropped 42 points on the Suns in regular season game. Given his performance in the Bubble last year, you’ve got to worry that AD is the best 7-foot jump shooter in the playoffs. Other worries include the Lakers’ top-rated defense making up for their non-Bron-non-AD offensive struggles. The Suns will have to execute like madmen and limit turnovers (which they are good at) to overcome the Lakers defensive pressure. I do think every game is going to come down to: (1) the 3P shooting will decide the first 47 minutes and (2) if it’s close, it’s all about who makes the hero shots and who misses.

  • Silver Screen and Roll: Lakers in 5
  • Bright Side of the Sun: Suns in 7.
  • Sydney Umeri: Lakers in 6.
  • Ricky O’Donnell: Lakers in 6.

Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

No. 3 Nuggets vs. No. 6 Trail Blazers: Predictions and preview

  • Nuggets (53-29, expected: 55-27) vs. Trail Blazers (50-32, expected: 51-31)
  • Offensive efficiency: Nuggets 107.7 (4th) | Trail Blazers 104.7 (10th)
  • Defensive efficiency: Nuggets 104.4 (20th) | Trail Blazers 101.5 (11th)
  • Net rating: Nuggets 104.4 (20th) | Trail Blazers 101.5 (11th)
  • Season series: Cavaliers 3-1. Chicago beat Cleveland 113-98 on Feb. 13, but the Cavaliers bested them in the other three meetings.

These two teams played a classic seven-game series in 2019. There are tons of storylines on both sides. What will be the swing factor in this series?

David Deckard of Blazer’s Edge: Obviously any discussion of Portland versus Denver starts with superstars and styles. Nikola Jokic is the presumptive MVP, the most unique player on the floor. He can stand in the middle of Portland’s defense, commanding the floor. If the Blazers single-cover him, he’ll score. If they double, he’ll pass. The Blazers are decent defensively when they can hem opposing players into defined spaces and swarm them. Jokic provides a natural counter, making them move their feet…a serious weakness.

Lillard provides a different kind of threat. He might as well be an Olympics-level skier, the way he gets downhill whenever the Blazers need a bucket. You cannot stop him from getting into the lane and either picking up the foul or a layup. That ability has freed him up for his preferred shot: the three. He has range to the moon and nerves of steel. Like a boss battle in a poorly-designed video game, opponents see Portland’s hit point bar nearing zero and think they have the game won, only to watch Lillard take on superhero form, pour in 17 points in the quarter, and lead his side to victory. They can’t stop anything he does, let alone everything he does.

If those two superstars end up cancelling each other out, the series will probably come down to whether Portland’s three-point shooters can counter Denver’s ability to create mismatches. Michael Porter, Jr. is a 6’10 small forward. The Blazers field 6’4 Normal Powell at that position. Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter play significant minutes even though their defense is so sus, it might as well be wearing a “Imposter” name tag. If the Blazers can’t pour in points, they either have to get their Denver counterparts in foul trouble or hope the Nuggets have an off shooting night.

Ryan Blackburn of Denver Stiffs: Health on the perimeter is the most concerning factor for the Denver Nuggets entering this series. It’s no secret that the Portland Trail Blazers have plenty of firepower, and while the Nuggets have big strengths up front with Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr., the guard position has become something of a rotating M.A.S.H. unit. Jamal Murray is out for the season which cannot go understated. Monte Morris is back but still dealing with the effects of a hamstring strain. Will Barton is still working his way back from a similar injury. PJ Dozier, maybe Denver’s best defensive guard, may not be back for this series.

The Nuggets are going to have an ordeal surviving without their normal guard firepower. They will likely be starting Facundo Campazzo, an older rookie, and Austin Rivers, who they signed on April 20th. They also brought in Shaquille Harrison, an excellent defensive guard and complete non-shooting threat offensively. That, along with the returning Monte Morris, is the extent of Denver’s guard rotation.

Let’s see if Nikola Jokić can work some much needed magic.

  • Denver Stiffs: Nuggets in 7
  • Sabreena Merchant: Nuggets in 7.
  • Sydney Umeri: Nuggets in 6.
  • Ricky O’Donnell: Nuggets in 6.

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

No. 4 Clippers vs. No. 5 Mavericks: Predictions and preview

  • Clippers (53-29, expected: 55-27) vs. Mavericks (50-32, expected: 51-31)
  • Offensive efficiency: Clippers 107.7 (4th) | Mavericks 104.7 (10th)
  • Defensive efficiency: Clippers 104.4 (20th) | Mavericks 101.5 (11th)
  • Net rating:
  • Season series: Cavaliers 3-1. Chicago beat Cleveland 113-98 on Feb. 13, but the Cavaliers bested them in the other three meetings.

The Clippers won this series in six games last year. Do you think the outcome will be any different this year based on what you’ve seen during the season?

Sabreena Merchant of ClipsNation: This series barely went six last year thanks to Luka Dončić’s heroics. This year, despite the two teams ranking closer in seeding, the Clippers are better by point differential, the Mavericks are worse, and L.A. has an axe to grind after the humiliation suffered in the bubble last year. The Clippers should win in five. The key will be Kawhi Leonard and Paul George playing like the all-NBA players they are and forcing Dallas to play whack-a-mole to figure out a way to defend the two of them together. George struggled in the bubble, but he’s in a much better mental space now and coming off a dynamite regular season.

The Clippers are simply too talented for the Mavericks. They have the edge at every position in the starting lineup except for point guard, and all five of those players can defend Dončić in a pinch, giving the Clippers the ability to run a variety of different coverages and keep the third-year wunderkind off balance. They also have a deep experienced bench, including two former champions in Rajon Rondo and Serge Ibaka, and a jack-of-all-trades in Nic Batum, all of whom are new to the Clippers and don’t carry the burden of this franchise’s history. They chose this matchup, and they’re going to show why.

Kirk Henderson of Mavs Moneyball: Largely no. At this point, Dallas fans quite understandably hang on to the game four superhuman performance from Luka Doncic resulting in the overtime stepback game winner. They look at the series outcome and say “we took two games from them!” That’s true on paper, as a win is a win. But they really only felt in control of the other victory. The Clippers dominated the rest of the series, piling up double digit leads with relative ease. There are some differences, of course. This time around, Dallas has a bit more depth with Jalen Brunson and Dwight Powell playing. But just as the Mavericks are healthier, Los Angeles seems to be getting healthy at the right time too.

Scoring won’t be a problem for the Mavericks this series. It’s the defense that should be of concern. Mainly because the Clipper offense is quietly dominant, with a fleet of guys shooting the ball *really* well. The Dallas defense, though, is a problem; after an off season that attempted to correct some of their defensive struggles (mainly through a Seth Curry for Josh Richardson swap), the Maverick defense has been worse for large chunks of the 2020-21 season. The root cause for that lies primarily at the feet of Kristaps Porzingis who tore his meniscus in the bubble playoffs and came back slow to start this season. Frankly, he looks like a shell of himself on defense, barring a short stint in March where he showed promise. There’s a lot of thought and hope that he’s been dogging it in May following an ankle injury, just so he wouldn’t get hurt before the playoffs. But any astute observer would note that defense is as much about timing and rhythm as skill and athleticism and Porzingis hasn’t looked right for a while and just about any metric would back that up. If he looks like even a passable defensive player, the Mavericks might have a chance. Otherwise this might be the same song as last year, just a different verse.

  • Clippers Nation: Clippers in 5.
  • Ricky O’Donnell: Clippers in 5.
  • Sydney Umeri: Clippers in 6.

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